“And if you want live high, live high;
And if you want to live low, live low;
Cuz there’s a million ways to go, you know that there are.”
—Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”
“Dinner at eight, Harold. And do try and be a little more vivacious.”
—Mrs. Chasen (Harold’s mother)
“I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this, yet allow themselves to be treated as that.”
For a double date night, we caught a screening of Harold and Maude at Chicago Tribune film critic Mark Caro’s series, “Is It Still Funny?” I was astonished to learn that this film was a box office bomb. Indeed, many respected critics, Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby among them, were not impressed when it originally came out (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/harold-and-maude-1972 ) (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=990CE7DF1138EF34BC4951DFB467838A669EDE ). Maybe its morbid overtones and absurdist deadpan black humor put people off. Maybe, like some of the authority figures in the film, the idea of the title characters “doing it” grossed them out. Maybe they couldn’t see beyond the obvious to get the point of the whole thing. Whatever it was, they clearly missed the beauty here. I don’t know, but Harold and Maude is one of my all-time favorites.
Young Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is obsessed with death, probably because he’s not particularly invested in his own privileged life. He stages elaborate and often gruesome suicides to distress his wealthy, prim, socialite mother (Vivian Pickles). He drives a hearse. He hangs out in cemeteries. He crashes random funerals. One day, Harold crosses paths with Maude (Ruth Gordon), a crazy old lady he saw scarfing down an apple and sneezing loudly at a burial just a few days earlier. She approaches him in church during a funeral mass, and afterwards drives off in the priest’s car. Harold doesn’t know what to make of her. Maude is wacky and carefree with a rebellious streak. She lives in an old train car. She talks incessantly about life. She used to “liberate” canaries from pet shops, and now she enlists his assistance in rescuing a tree from a city sidewalk. Maude takes Harold on something of a roller coaster ride, going on adventures and showing him life’s many pleasures: art, music, dancing, flowers, just being alive. After he sabotages his mother’s attempts to find him a wife through a computer dating service, Harold decides to marry Maude. Their relationship culminates with a surprise party he throws for her 80th birthday—and a surprise she gives him.
Harold and Maude, which started out as a masters thesis that screenwriter Colin Higgins wrote at UCLA, easily could have slid into a mawkish mess. It doesn’t, though: it’s deceptively deep, and director Hal Ashby strikes an inimitable balance of sweet and weird. For one thing, he keeps things simple and lets them unfold naturally. Harold and Maude are both odd, but not in a forced or creepy way; they’re tender, relatable, and even adorable despite the fact that they make an unlikely match and cause discomfort to everyone around them. Their chemistry, like this entire film, has an easiness to it. Cat Stevens’s breezy soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment—I can’t imagine anyone else’s music here (Ashby originally approached Elton John: http://mentalfloss.com/article/69546/10-perfectly-paired-facts-about-harold-and-maude ). The story is interesting far beyond a formulaic romantic comedy; it maintains its edge with biting and macabre humor—fake suicides, dates gone horribly wrong, sessions with a psychiatrist, Harold’s fake murder of Maude, and that hilariously ghasly denouncement from a repressed priest (Eric Christmas). Pickles is flawlessly uptight and understated, and watching her is a delight in every single scene she has. Tom Skerritt (he’s the cop) in a small early role is a bonus. The tone and look both grow cheery as Maude pulls Harold out of his shell and he starts making his own choices.
This film has so many moments that still give me chills, not the least of which is Harold’s cry when he learns what Maude has done on her birthday. The hospital scene is wrenching for so many different reasons. The conversation in the daisy patch that pans out and turns into a graveyard (a la Arlington National Cemetery) and the momentary glimpse of the tattoo on Maude’s arm are subtle but jolting. Harold’s metamorphosis is the best part: standing on top of a cliff holding his banjo, he walks away playing “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” It’s one of the few happy endings to a film that I truly love.
In 1997, the United States Library of Congress deemed Harold and Maude “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
(Music Box) A+