Well, I did it, I watched Harold & Maude for the first time and, the magic is lost on me. I think I get it, the message, no one can tell you who to love or how to love or how to live. It make sense, and it’s a fine message. And Hal Ashby is a very good director. Harold & Maude is a great looking movie, it’s filled with quirky characters and a strong anti-establishmentarianism that I do admire. Other aspects of the movie, simply left me cold.
Harold & Maude stars Bud Cort as Harold, a depressed young man in hi early 20’s who fills his days by attending funerals and faking his death by suicide. Harold is a deeply morbid young man whose strained relationship with his mother, Mrs Chasen (Vivian Pickles), is at a point where his repeatedly faking his suicide death in order to disturb her, I assume. Mrs Chasen appears entirely unfazed by Harold’s performances, aside from when he bloodied her bathroom.
Harold’s depressive state grows until one day at a funeral he meets a fellow funeral junkie by the name of Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude likes attending funerals as much as Harold does and while he wasn’t seeking any company, she eventually insinuates herself into a friendship with Harold that eventually grows into love. The two go on adventures together including stealing a dying tree from a sidewalk and re-planting it in a forest.
In that particular adventure, Maude has them running from a truly befuddled motorcycle cop who cannot understand how Maude can be so honest about not having a license, having stolen the tree and having stolen the truck they drove in order to steal the tree. This series of scenes crescendos eventually with Maude and Harold stealing the officer’s motorcycle in easily the best gag in the movie.
I don’t dislike Harold & Maude at all, I just wasn’t taken with it as so many have been. The whimsical nature of the story and Hal Ashby’s direction are fine but they aren’t really to my taste. I also didn’t feel that Harold’s elaborate bouts of dark humor landed all that well. I enjoyed more Vivian Pickles blase reactions to Harold’s faked suicides. The fact that she pays no mind to him other than being slightly perturbed serves to make Harold seem like the villain in my eyes.
What was Mrs Chasen’s great crime against Harold exactly? At one point Harold monologues about how his mother gave a very theatrical, perhaps faked, response to a report that he’d been killed in an accident at school but he comes off as whiny rather than sympathetic in that monologue. Meanwhile, Mrs Chasen appears to be a villain only because she is rich and out of touch with her sons iconoclastic values. She’s uptight and right wing but she’s also seemingly supportive of her son, she puts up with his elaborate suicide pranks, how bad is she really?
Maude is a lovely character, well played by Ruth Gordon as a lovable eccentric. Movies are filled with such lovable eccentrics and I did buy the idea that someone as strange as Harold could fall in love with someone as equally as strange as he is. Ruth is certainly that. Were Maude played by a younger actress she might be considered what pop culture writer Nathan Rabin dubbed a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl.’
If you are unaware of the term, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, t’s a catchall phrase for women in movies who seem to exist solely to save the souls of depressed, handsome young men in need of love and sex with an attractive version of the Madonna-Whore complex. Gordon slips from that cliche only because she is not conventionally attractive. She’s nearly 80 years old and while vivacious and full of life, she is not likely to be considered ideal in a culture obsessed with attractiveness.
The love story is intended, in my opinion, to state that loving someone is about loving their personality which is a very true statement. Indeed, if you and someone 60 years your senior share a bond of experience and mutual attraction, no one should tell you how to live. For me, I find the age difference in Harold & Maude a bridge that I cannot cross. It fills me with an unease that is perhaps unfair but it’s true.
Hal Ashby does well to make Harold & Maude appealing in its quirkiness but not all that memorable for me. It’s pleasant enough, if you don’t mind the running gag about suicide, the film is a downright lark. But for me, it’s far too light and airy. Because I didn’t truly buy into the love story or Harold’s desperate attempts to shock his mother, I didn’t buy into what grounds Harold & Maude in the iconic. I don’t see Harold & Maude as a must see classic. It’s cute and weird but not all that resonant beyond its rather minor provocations.
Harold & Maude is available for rent on Amazon Prime.