Released in 1971, director Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude has a decidedly late ‘60s feel. This is a film about life, love, disillusionment and death, replete with a hopeful Cat Stevens soundtrack. If you were to look up “off beat cinema” in the dictionary, there might well be a picture of Harold and Maude.
As the film opens, Harold Chasen (Bud Cort), a 20-ish young man, is carefully walking through the study, making a little nametag, lighting a candle, and then hanging himself. His not-very-startled mother (Vivian Pickles) responds by asking him if he thinks it’s funny. A tiny smile from the apparent suicide victim indicates that yes, he does…very much so. With that scene, we begin a journey through the life experience.
Obsessed with death, Harold tools around in a hearse, and frequents funerals of people he doesn’t know. While his upper crust mother has decided it’s time for him to get married or join the military, Harold has no interest in either vocation. One day, at a funeral, Harold meets Maude Chardin (Ruth Gordon), a seventy nine-year-old woman who loves life and believes in “trying something new every day.” She is like no senior citizen Harold has ever met. She lives life by her own rules and says what she wants to say. When she needs a ride, she steals someone’s vehicle. Almost instantly, the two form a bond that finds them attracted to one another.
Their unusual relationship doesn’t unfold like those seen in countless romantic comedies—though there is a humorous scene of intimacy with the couple blowing bubbles in bed—instead, there’s appears to be a deeply spiritual connection; one that transcends age and societal conventions. These two bring real joy to each other, and it soon becomes clear that they make the perfect couple.
While black humor is a big part of Harold and Maude, screenwriter Colin Higgins manages to interject a bit if social commentary, concerning Vietnam and other issues of the day. In perhaps the most important shot of the film, the camera lingers on Maude’s forearm for two seconds, and cuts away—what appears to be a concentration camp tattoo in full view. In that moment, Maude’s need to live life to the fullest becomes easier to understand. For Harold, a young man stuck under the thumb of his suffocating mother, Maude helps him to realize that he must shed the pessimism of his generation and create his own sense of purpose.
Baby-faced Bud Cort (22 at the time of filming), and veteran actress/screenwriter Ruth Gordon are both perfectly cast. Their acting style has a looseness that makes the movie work. Vivian Pickles is hilarious as Harold’s mother; utterly clueless as to her son’s needs. Pickles droll reactions to Harold’s antics are priceless, and add to the films darkly comedic tone.
Having won an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night (1967), Harold and Maude was only Hal Ashby’s second directorial effort. Even so, he already had a distinctive style—symmetrical compositions highlight his sight gags (see the perfectly-framed pre-Watergate portrait of Nixon in Harold’s uncle’s office), and his pokerfaced humor keeps the film from collapsing under the weight of its darker undertones.
The Criterion Collection’s DVD is a new digital restoration with an optional remastered stereo soundtrack. English subtitles are available. The following special features are included:
- Commentary: Recorded for Criterion in 2011, Nick Dawson, author of Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, and producer Charles B. Mulvehill discuss various obstacles that had to be dealt with during filming, and several key scenes in the movie. There’s also a lot of information shared about the casting process. Fans of Harold and Maude will find this and interesting and informative listen.
- Hal Ashby (13:17) in this collection of audio excerpts from a January 11, 1972, American Film Institute master seminar, director Hal Ashby discusses his career in Hollywood, how he was hired for Harold and Maude, the relationship between the main protagonists, the controversy surrounding the film, and more.
- Colin Higgins (13:09) in this collection of audio excerpts from a January 10, 1979, American Film Institute master seminar, writer and producer Colin Higgins recalls the creation of Harold and Maude and discusses a few scenes from the film.
- Yusuf/Cat Stevens (11:05) In this video interview recorded for Criterion in 2011, the singer/songwriter discusses his contribution to Harold and Maude and the affect it had on his life.
- Booklet: a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz; a 1971 New York Times profile of star Ruth Gordon; and two excerpted interviews, one from 1997 with star Bud Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo and one from 2001 with executive producer Mildred Lewis.