Blog Directory CineVerse: A 50-year love affair with Harold and Maude

A 50-year love affair with Harold and Maude

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Fifty years following its theatrical debut, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude has earned a place of appreciation among multiple generations, including younger viewers far removed from the countercultural ideals of the late 1960s. After parsing through this picture last week (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion), our CineVerse crew construed the following:

What makes Harold and Maude stand out to you?

  • It’s a film with interesting tonal shifts, one that spans multiple genres and sub-genres, including comedy, tragedy, romance, satire, buddy picture, and political film.
  • Three elements are key to making the picture work:
    • The spot-on casting of Ruth Gordon (who was around 73 at this time) as Maude and the boyish-faced Bud Cort (22 at the time of filming) as Harold
    • The songs by Cat Stevens that seem to perfectly comment on and musically sync with the story and its characters
    • The curious and somewhat offbeat directing choices of Hal Ashby, who blends emotional realism with exaggerated scenes of cartoonish comedy.
  • Interestingly, many things are unexplained, such as exactly why Harold obsesses about death and enjoys startling his mother with fabricated suicides (quite likely for attention he’s not getting) and why Maude espouses strong humanistic and life-affirming qualities while at the same time chooses to kill herself, has a penchant for taking risks behind the wheel, and attends the funerals of strangers. It’s also easy to miss the extremely brief shot of the concentration camp tattoo stamped on her arm; she explains several of her fascinating past experiences, yet avoids talking about this.
  • The film was rejected in its original theatrical run, receiving mostly negative reviews by critics and bombing at the box office. Many considered the movie’s love story between Maude and Harold to be shocking, even for 1971.
    • But it found its voice in subsequent years as a midnight movie and a darling of the college campus film circuit. Criterion Collection essayist Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the film “is timeless in part because it never quite belonged to its own time.”
    • Today, Harold and Maude is considered a cult classic admired by multiple generations, ranking number 45 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest movies of all time, selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, earning an 84% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and benefiting from the Criterion Collection treatment.
  • Although Harold and Maude strikes a chord with anti-establishment, antiwar viewers of its generation, instead of being a confrontational political statement of a film, the movie expresses a more humanistic stance.
    • Seitz notes that “it establishes that generational in class and gender divisions are real, but it finds them curious rather than menacing. It treats each character, including the authority figures who oppose the title couple, as an eccentric who has no idea how weird and special he or she is.”
    • Brian Eggert, blogger with Deep Focus Review, apparently agreed, writing: “Harold and Maude resists becoming an adversarial political statement or dialectical argument designed to reignite a movement. Its strength resides in a philosophy rooted in self-exploration through personal fulfillment, bodily acceptance and exploration, artistic creation, and spontaneity, endearingly represented through its eccentric humor and a love affair for the ages.”

Themes central to this film

  • Individuality, liberty, and nonconformity. Maude tries to teach Harold that the problem with human beings is everyone trying to act and look like everyone else and our willingness to surrender personal freedoms. Maude tells him: “I feel that much of the world's sorrow comes from people who are this (pointing to a single daisy) yet allow themselves be treated as that (referring to a field of daisies).”
  • Live life to the fullest, regardless of your age. “A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They're just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt even. But play as well as you can,” Maude says.
  • The circle of life. Death should be considered a natural part of life that shouldn’t be feared. Throughout most of the film, Harold delights in fearlessly faking suicides and expressing an obsession with death; but when he is confronted with the impending death of a loved one, he feels pain, anguish, anger, and fright. After Maude passes away, Harold stages one last suicide attempt – this time apparently for himself and not his mother; he has chosen to accept the inevitability of organic death and will assumedly abandon his morbid preoccupation with premature death and self-destruction, choosing instead to adopt a carpe diem lifestyle.

Other works that spring to mind after watching Harold and Maude

  • The Graduate, which is an earlier counterculture film also featuring a soundtrack by a single pop artist (Simon and Garfunkel)
  • Easy Rider
  • Films with a morbid sense of humor and dark comedy directed by Tim Burton, especially starring Johnny Depp
  • Movies directed by Wes Anderson, particularly Rushmore
  • Fight Club
  • Films depicting a romance between opposites or eccentric couples, like Trust, Benny & Joon, and Lars and the Real Girl

Other movies directed by Hal Ashby

  • The Last Detail
  • Shampoo
  • Coming Home
  • Being There

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