Harold and Maude: Life and How to Live It

Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, about the love between a suicidal young man of about twenty and an almost eighty-year-old widow, is timeless in part because it never quite belonged to its own time. Conceived in the late 1960s, at the height of the counterculture, it was released in 1971, when the political narrative of peaceful rebels versus the jackbooted establishment had lost what little mainstream appeal it had briefly enjoyed. In the popular imagination, the March on Washington and the Summer of Love had been displaced by Woodstock, Altamont, Kent State, and a string of assassinations and riots. Richard Nixon had ridden into office in 1968 on a wave of law-and-order sentiment and was about to cakewalk into a second term (and unprecedented shame). The counterculture was in retreat. As Peter Fonda’s record producer tells his young girlfriend in 1999’s The Limey, the sixties were “really . . . just ’66 and early ’67. That’s all it was.”

But the movement’s ideals lived on, in a disguised and ultimately more daring form, in Harold and Maude, which took values that had been expressed by youthful rebels and dropouts in the late 1960s—peace, love, understanding, distrust of authority, a determination to march to the beat of a different drummer—and put them in the mouth of an old woman embroiled in one of the oddest and most original love stories ever filmed. The movie’s apoplectic authority figures, dotty old-money types, poetic interludes, and trance-inducing folk-rock soundtrack (by Cat Stevens) may seem typical of earlier hippie flicks. But its two central premises—that an elderly woman could embody the most unguarded, delicate variety of Summer of Love openness and that she and a much younger man should be able to fall in love and get married without being judged, much less stopped—are anything but. Harold and Maude was shocking by the standards of 1971 Hollywood movies, even the ones that styled themselves as adventurous or hip. But it is so ideologically and emotionally consistent, and weaves such a gentle spell, that we can accept the central romance as a metaphor for beleaguered political and social sentiments even as we get to know Harold (Bud Cort) and Maude (Ruth Gordon) as individuals and root for their happiness. It’s a romance, a tragedy, a satire, a paean to eccentricity, a philosophical statement, and a “trip” film whose music montages seem to roll in like waves. Its mix of elements felt strange and new at the time, and still does, even though the film’s characters, tone, and soundtrack have been referenced and plundered by many modern directors, including Wes Anderson, who used two Stevens songs in Rushmore; P. T. Anderson, whose first four features are filled with Ashby-like innocents stumbling through cruel worlds; and David Fincher, whose Fight Club features a misfit couple flirting at self-help groups that they don’t even belong to, as Harold and Maude do at strangers’ funerals.

Ashby was a former editor and one of the staunchest exemplars of countercultural values ever to work in Hollywood. He debuted with 1970’s The Landlord, starring Beau Bridges as a white preppy who buys a brownstone in then black Park Slope, Brooklyn, alienates his stuck-up family, and learns what really matters in life: love, honesty, and spontaneity. He followed it with an impressive string of pictures that rank among the decade’s best, including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). The films vary widely in subject matter, style, and tone. But they all share a fascination with naive outsiders who are part of a larger system or machine, even if they don’t realize it, and who inspire others, accidentally or on purpose.

In all these movies, but especially in Harold and Maude, Ashby displays an extraordinary sensitivity to the spectrum of human experience. Both The Landlord and Harold and Maude are built around disaffected young men who act out against lives of stifling privilege and ossified values, but the latter film is simpler and more direct, and less tied to ripped-from-the-headlines issues. Building on the innovations of the landmark releases The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), Harold and Maude explores outsider mentalities through fragmented cutting, using those music montages to embellish its themes and create a feeling of emotional suspension. But Harold and Maude is ultimately a richer, deeper movie, less measured and a lot more meandering, and also warmer, weirder, and tougher to reduce to catchphrases. It doesn’t position rebels against the establishment, or any group against any other group. It just wants people to be themselves and to be appreciated instead of judged—and to spread bliss by reaching out.

The movie contains no equivalent of the materialist gargoyles who harass Ben in the opening party sequence of The Graduate or of the hateful rednecks who slaughter the heroes of Easy Rider. There’s no Us versus Them dynamic in Higgins’s script or Ashby’s direction, just a crazy quilt of experience. That every major character save Harold and Maude seems content to exist within a little subjective square, butting up against others’ without merging, makes the film more sneakily radical than others in a countercultural vein. It isn’t a political statement but a humanist one. It establishes that generational and 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. Harold’s uncle Victor (Charles Tyner) is a tight-sphinctered war veteran, but he seems more comical than frightening, a one-armed superpatriot who wishes they still made men like Nathan Hale. Harold’s therapist and priest are trapped in their own delusions of wisdom: the shrink thinks Harold’s determination to marry Maude is symptomatic of a mental disorder, while the priest describes their “commingling of flesh” as borderline necrophilia that makes him sick. Harold’s mom, played by Vivian Pickles as the sort of goofy prig that the Marx Brothers loved to torment, writes off Harold’s death wish as a youthful affectation and tries to hook him up with suitable lady friends. She seems oblivious to the fact that she herself is an odd duck—the kind of woman who swims to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 while wearing a feathered bathing cap.

Harold and Maude itself is as peculiar as any of its characters. Ashby and Higgins—a soon-to-be much-in-demand screenwriter who would dirty up classic Hollywood elements for the seventies in Silver Streak (1976), Foul Play (1978), and 9 to 5 (1980)—take their sweet time, delaying Harold and Maude’s first conversation for sixteen minutes and waiting until two-thirds of the way through the picture to let Harold reveal his suicide fetish to Maude. And they relish repeating jokes and situations: Harold faking suicide attempts, irritating or horrifying his mom; Harold and Maude chatting at funerals, driving around the city, enjoying kooky or poignant idylls, and swapping confessions. John Alonzo’s cinematography turns the Bay Area of the early 1970s into a foggy blue, vaguely British mind space. The scene with Harold and Maude in the woods has a fairy-tale aura; it seems to have been etched in steam, like the redwood forest sequence in Vertigo. Like Maude, a sprightly widow who latches onto the morose rich kid Harold and helps him understand why life is worth living, the film moves to its own rhythm, chases its own obsessions, and seems serenely untroubled by what anyone thinks of it. “If you wanna be me, be me!” Maude sings, banging out one of Stevens’s songs on a piano. “And if you wanna be you, be you!”

Indeed, Harold and Maude often feels less like a movie than a dream you’ve stumbled into. Its allure resides in Ashby’s direction and the lingering close-ups of the stars. Bud Cort absorbs his surroundings like a pasty sponge, while Ruth Gordon radiates energy; he’s a trampled flower, and she’s the sun willing him to rise. The film is highly stylized, at times brazenly artificial, but their bond feels real. Gordon, an actress and playwright, had had her first film role as an extra in the aptly named 1915 silent picture The Whirl of Life; had cowritten the Academy Award–nominated Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952) with her husband Garson Kanin; and had won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing the cheerful yet sinister neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Harold and Maude made her a superstar character actress on the level of Thelma Ritter. She went on to play geriatric life forces in My Bodyguard (1980), both of Clint Eastwood’s orangutan comedies, and a slew of other films and TV programs, and died in 1987 a national treasure. When the news broke, I bet a lot of people instantly thought of Harold and Maude’s closing shot, an image that, like Maude, Gordon, and the film itself, is so strange and beautiful that you give up trying to interpret it and just accept it.

The film’s storytelling strategy is built around the slow reveal. Both Higgins’s script and Ashby’s staging give us the outlines of characters and situations, then gradually fill in the details. The opening credit sequence announces what we’re in for: the camera follows a well-dressed young man, Harold, around an elegant room in a mansion as he prepares to hang himself, concentrating on his hands and feet, preserving his anonymity until the final stretch of the song he’s playing, whereupon this previously abstract figure acquires a face and an identity, becoming a person instead of a case study. Throughout, the film’s daring use of the zoom lens is an objective correlative for Maude’s philosophy. The old lady pushes Harold to see himself as part of a much larger continuum—to recognize his uniqueness, his worth as a human being, but without letting his head get so big that he gets lost in it. Maude’s moony rhapsodies have meaning and purpose. She’s passing on what she’s learned: that the appreciation of one another’s specialness leads to a realization of commonality; that we’re all made of the same stuff; that we’re all in this together. “The earth is my body,” Maude exclaims, planting a tree, “but my head is in the stars!”

This kind of sentiment may sound corny on the page, but Harold and Maude visualizes it with such delicacy that it becomes sensible, then sublime. This is especially true in the cemetery sequence that we don’t realize is a cemetery sequence until its penultimate shot. Maude asks Harold what kind of flower he’d like to be, and when Harold gives a noncommittal reply because “they’re all alike,” Maude says they’re not. “Some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals,” she tells him. “All kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this,” she says, pointing to a daisy, “yet allow themselves to be treated like this,” indicating a mass of flowers. Then the movie cuts to a wide shot of the couple amid dozens of gravestones. After a moment, the shot zooms out even farther, revealing thousands of graves: white specks in a sea of green. Harold and Maude have vanished within the frame. They’re gone, but we remember them.

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