A young man preoccupied with death shuns the materialistic life being forced on him by his overbearing mother and enters into a love affair with an elderly lady whose lust for life has him re-evaluating his morbid tendencies.
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If you ask folk on the street who Hal Ashby was, most would probably shrug their shoulders and keep walking. Sad, considering he was the most prolific film director of the 1970’s. However, if you asked the same people if they’d heard of Harold and Maude, the response would be quite different. The late director’s second film starring Bud Cort as the pale, death obsessed Harold and Ruth Gordon as the old rascal Maude, is undeniably his most celebrated work - penned by first-time writer Colin Higgins, who was working as a pool cleaner when the script was picked up.
A true screwball comedy/drama was the result and, like most of Ashby’s films, took great pride in giving the finger to authority – in this case, in the form of Harold’s prissy mother, [especially] the military and the police. Unfortunately for Ashby, the viewing public and critics didn’t take to the film at the time, with A.D. Murphy musing in Variety that it was “about as funny as a burning orphanage.” Given the reviews, and the fact that the film’s budget was a pittance at $1.2 million, Paramount simply cut their losses and the film closed in a week.“You couldn’t drag people in,” recalls producer Charles Mulvehill. “The idea of a twenty-year-old boy with an eighty-year-old woman just made people want to vomit.
If you asked people what it was about, ultimately what it became was a boy fucking his grandmother.” They say time is a healer, which was certainly the case for Harold and Maude, and despite the film’s commercial and critical failure when it opened inChristmas of 1971, it has come to be regarded as a cult-classic, just as Ashby has come to be regarded as a master director – the actor’s director.
We first meet Harold Chasen as he prepares to hang himself in one of the grand rooms of his mother’s mansion in the San Francisco Bay area. You would be forgiven for finding this to be a quite solemn moment were it not for his mother’s reaction whenshe walks in to find him hanging there – one of total indifference. It seems Harold delights in killing himself on a regular basis, a coping mechanism to help him escape the mundane and material path his mother, played by Vivian Pickles, is intent on pushing him down.
Having had no success in ruffling his mother’s feathers, Harold goes a step further and mocks up another suicide, where he squirts fake blood all over her mirrored dressing room for her to find him lying in the midst of. This is the last straw for Mrs. Chasen, who sends him to a psychiatrist in the hope that it will sort him out. This move proves useless and only serves to make Harold more determined to act out. He soon buys a hearse, which he takes to attend the funerals of strangers, and it is here that he first meets Maude – watching in awe as she steals the priest’s car and speeds off to the sound of squealing tyres.
However, Harold’s mother is still hell-bent on straightening him out and begins setting him up on blind dates, which he brings to very abrupt endings by pretending to kill himself in front of his would be suitors – the first time by setting himself on firein the garden. These scenes are intermingled with his dates with Maude, where the unlikely couple come to truly love each other – resembling Bonnie and Clyde, causing mayhem without the murder. In fact, Maude’s passion for life is best expressed whenshe enlists Harold to help steal a dying tree from a city street and replant it in a forest; evading a motorcycle cop, played by Tom Skerritt, in one of the film’s funniest scenes.
The pair continue to laugh in the face of authority when Harold’s mother decides she has had enough of his antics and sends him to his uncle Victor (a one-armed military general) so that he may enlist him in the army. The uncle Victor character is another poke at the Vietnam War from Ashby, which was high on his list of hates next to studio bosses, and suggests that the armed forces are a bunch of mindlessly-patriotic fools. Harold escapes the clutches of his uncle by pretending to kill Maude in front of him, leading the general to conclude that Harold is far too enamoured with death, even for a soldier.
Finally happy in his life with Maude, Harold is shattered when she takes her own life on her eightieth birthday, leaving him to live his own in the manner that he should as a twenty-year-old, but now with a true sense of what life has to offer. The final scene sees Harold walking away playing the banjo that Maude gave him having dropped his E-type Jaguar (converted into a hearse) over a cliff.
Harold and Maude proves that content is king and the film is the star, not the actors, as neither leads were big names when it was made – which may have had something to do with its frosty reception at the time of its release. It broaches a touchy subject well and gives many a laugh along the way, wearing its status as a cult-classic with elegant boisterousness. This film has stood the test of time and would be a justified addition to any movie collection.