Harold and Maude (1971)

Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charles Tyner, Ellen Geer, Eric Christmas, G. Wood, Judy Engles, Shari Summers

Directed by Hal Ashby

Expectations: Kinda low. I remember liking it a lot, but I’m not excited to watch it again.


I was supposed to start writing this review about an hour ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to start. Most movies I have no problem finding something to write about, but rarely there comes a movie where I’m just dumbfounded as to what to say about it. I’m unsure that this will be a review of any worth, but I’ll do my best. It’s not that I didn’t like Harold and Maude; I enjoyed it a lot (although less so than the first time I saw it roughly 12 years ago), and maybe that’s as good a place to start as any.

I think the main reason I enjoyed it less this time was that I wasn’t as able to connect with the main character, Harold. He’s a rich, bored teenager who amuses himself by staging fake but elaborate suicide attempts for his mother to find. This fascination with death is one that Harold and I share, and while I never play acted setting myself on fire or seppuku, I know the feeling. I was a teen myself the first time I saw this, and my dark sense of humor and my lack of direction made Harold an instant surrogate for me. But now, years later, while I still harbor many of the same thoughts, I don’t feel quite so dislocated and directionless, and therefore I find the film harder to connect with.

But with that said, the main theme of living life to its fullest still resonates rather well with me. When Harold meets Maude, he is infected by her wild love of life and her unique take on it all. Instead of being dragged down by her impending 80th birthday, she’s excited and living life exactly as she’d like to. In one poignant scene, Harold relates his wish to somersault in the grass but he feels like it would be stupid. Maude replies, “Harold, everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You can’t let the world judge you too much.” As someone who is constantly second-guessing themselves, feeling stupid and worrying about how others view me, this is a moment I will try to keep fresh in my mind.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is a “blink and you’ll miss it” reference to Maude’s past. In one quick shot, we’re shown something that’s never referenced or talked about, but if you know what it means, it says volumes about Maude. All of a sudden, Maude’s grand talk about living life to its fullest rings truer than ever and we understand a bit of why she is the way she is. And it’s masterfully done with only a single shot. Conversely, you could also say that it’s too easy a pull, going directly for a moment in history that will resonate the quickest with audiences. Whatever side of the coin you land on, it’s a great moment to discuss and ponder.

Harold and Maude is also really well-shot, and it manages the great feat of looking nearly timeless. It feels ahead of its time, and while many of its elements are firmly rooted in the 1970s, they never make the film feel dated like they might in a different film. The only thing that really sticks out are the Cat Stevens songs. They fit the film well, and at times even help the film to transcend its era in ways that a traditional score would not. I’ve just never been a Cat Stevens fan, so it was all a little too much for me. But I realize that that’s completely my issue, and if the songs were all Neil Young, I’m sure I’d say all kinds of gushing things about how the songs were great and timeless, and blah, blah, blah, but I adore Neil Young so that kind of praise would only go so far. Such is pop music.

I also really enjoyed Harold’s mother’s attempts to make Harold the man she thought he ought to be. Harold is something of a brooder, leaning towards the artistic or intellectual type of guy. We’re never told what his aspirations are, or even if he has any, but I think it’s fair to assume that he wouldn’t have done manual labor. But his mother’s idea of a man is one-dimensional and physical, so in her attempts to make him snap out of his suicidal reverie, she sets up blind dates to get him interested in girls, buys him a phallic sports car and does her best to get him to enlist in the military. Harold’s attempts at suicide are calls for attention, but his mother seems only capable of providing exactly the wrong attention.

There was only one scene that didn’t ring true, and it comes right at the end. It’s the hospital scene, and given the nature of the characters and the story up to this point, I have a hard time believing that it would’ve gone down like that. I think Maude wouldn’t have been such a pushover to go with Harold in that moment, and the film seems begging for a different scene here. What we get is more romanticized and “movie-like”, which is perhaps the most 1971 thing about the whole movie. It’s sad, though, as Maude is a great character and I wish this scene was more true to her spirit.

Well, I had a lot of reservations that I wouldn’t be able to string any coherent words together about this movie — and maybe I didn’t — but I honestly think it turned out pretty good. I’m glad I soldiered on, in the spirit of Maude, and dared to look like a fool. Harold and Maude is one of the most unusual romantic comedies you’ll ever see, and it’s one I’d definitely recommend.

Harold and Maude was a Reader’s Choice selection from Karl of Xsmarkthespot.

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