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Harold and Maude (1971)

by on 2011/02/16

I first saw this movie in university. A friend I wasn’t too certain of told me that Harold and Maude was her favourite film. After I saw it, I decided (conclusively) she was cool.

This film became like a kind of short-hand for me. If someone mentioned Harold and Maude favourably, I knew they were my kind of person. I used The Far Side cartoons in the same way.

This movie also resulted in a brief dalliance with Cat Stevens. You know, his music.

But blissed-out, folk flower power wasn’t me. Soon after, I discovered The Smiths and the Pixies from some graffiti on a vandalized university building, and Cat Stevens and I could no longer be friends. Musically.

Before I watched it, I was warned this film was edgy, controversial and extremely alternative. My first viewing was exhilarating. I was 18 at the time. For me, it was the darkest of dark comedies.

In brief, Harold and Maude is about suicide, the agony of human relationships, and the joy of life. It centres on an affair between an elderly woman and a young man.

Meet Harold: He’s bloodlessly pale, quiet and depressive. Hobbies include attending funerals, watching building demolitions and committing suicide. He’s young.

Meet Maude: She bright, brash and manic. Hobbies include attending funerals, driving stolen cars dangerously and kidnapping trees. She’s old. Really old.

The movie starts with the elaborate preparations for a suicide in an elaborate room. Poor little rich boy, Harold (Bud Cort) hangs himself. His narcissistic, self-absorbed, striving mother (Vivian Pickles) glances over at his dangling body, settles down on the settee and calmly cancels an appointment while Harold rasps, shudders and gags.

This continues. He “slashes” his throat all over his mother’s powder room. He drowns himself in her pool while she’s doing laps. And so on.

Each time, it is all about her. “I can’t stand much more of this,” she shrills.

After about 15 suicide attempts, his mother announces, “I think it is time for you to get married.”

While his mother plays matchmaker, Harold enjoys crashing funerals and of course, killing himself. At one funeral, alone on his pew, he is hailed by an elderly woman. Repeatedly. Loudly.

Then the woman, Maude (Ruth Gordon) winks at Harold. Not a funeral wink. It is a full-blown burlesque, Mae West-style wink. She ups the ante, offers him some candy and a ride in her car, a stolen baby blue VW. The minister’s car, in fact.

Maude is figuratively exploding with crazed zeal,  girlish enthusiasm and delighted laughter. Doing a bit of reading about the movie, critics have called Maude the archetypal manic pixie dream girl, the stock character used by repressed male script writers to bring a repressed male character out of his shell. She was compared to Zooey Deschanel’s character in 500 Days of Summer.

There are points of comparison. She’s a fascinating individual with a capital I. Her world is filled with beauty. She’s an artist. She uninhibited. She says lovely things.

“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. Go team, go! Give me an L. Give me an I. Give me a V. Give me an E. L-I-V-E. LIVE! Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.”

I don’t think I used enough exclamation marks just then to describe the way Maude talks. Every word she utters has an exclamation mark. She dances. She sings.

It is all rather lovely. So why didn’t I enjoy Harold and Maude this week as much as I did back in university?

Perhaps it all seemed so very ham-handed to me now. Maude is life. Harold is death. Harold is despair. Maude is joy. I was whacked over the head so much my head actually hurt.

Then there’s the whole look-how-naughty-we-are, when other characters deal (or fail to deal) with the lovers’ relationship. It bothered me this go-round. It made me weary.

Every single star in my rating goes to the irrepressible Ruth Gordon who single-handedly carries the whole movie. She could have performed with a canned ham as her leading man and still have been just as relentlessly charming.

* * *

91 minutes

PG-13 for sexuality, some violent imagery, and drug use

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