Harold and Maude
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The self-destructive and needy wealthy teenager Harold is obsessed by death and spends his leisure time attending funerals, watching the demolishing of buildings, visiting junkyards, simulating suicides trying to get attention from his indifferent, snobbish and egocentric mother, and having sessions with his psychologist. When Harold meets the anarchist seventy-nine-year-old Maude at a funeral, they become friends and the old lady discloses other perspectives of the cycle of life for him. Meanwhile, his mother enlists him in a dating service and tries to force Harold to join the army. On the day of Maude's eightieth birthday, Harold proposes to her but he finds the truth about life at the end of hers.
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Maude is 79, nearing her 80th birthday. But in spirit she’s a teenager again, living wildly, spontaneously, irresponsibly. For kicks she joy rides, stealing cars, driving recklessly, burning rubber with police sirens wailing behind her. She also goes to funerals, enjoying their symbolism and solemnity — the pious church sermon, the hymns and organ music, the mourners in black, the sealed casket, the hearse and chauffeur, the mumbled religious homilies and tears falling over the open grave. She isn’t there to mock death. She’s there to face it without flinching.
Harold is 18 and likes funerals too, but for different reasons. He’s pale, impassive, morbid, a corpse in the making. He hates his mother, himself, life. He wants to die but hasn’t quite worked out how it will happen. But to that literal end he’s practising. His lone hobby, apart from attending funerals, is staging mock suicides. He’s the victim, his mother the unwitting spectator. In this endeavour he’s quite imaginative. He hangs himself, slashes his wrists in the bath, lops off a hand with a meat cleaver, shoots himself in the mouth with a handgun, sets himself on fire in the back garden and commits ritual hara kiri with a sharp samurai sword, seemingly disemboweling himself. He also floats face down in the family swimming pool, holding his breath for superhuman amounts of time in an effort to appear dead. These attention-getters are a cry for Mama’s absent love. In lieu of this missing emotion, she showers wealthy gifts on him. For instance, she buys him a flashy sports car to make him feel sporty, but we know Harold: he takes a welder’s torch to it and converts it into a hearse. So, he’s the lonely rich boy with no father, siblings, friends, mother’s love and self-esteem, an unhappy lad who longs for death but hasn’t yet bucked up the courage to top himself.
Maude lives in an old abandoned railway carriage with an odd assortment of collected things: stuffed animals, flowers, musical instruments, and a machine that replicates fragrances, or what she calls her odorifics. “Snowfall on 42nd Street,” for instance, is a smell to experience by breathing in air from a canister so named, thus transporting winter in New York to sunny California. Eccentric may be the telling adjective with her.
Death brings Harold and Maude together at the funeral of yet another stranger. “Did you know him?” they ask one another, then seem to bond over the surprising answer of “no”, each preferring the concept of death over any thoughts of the departed (whom they didn’t know anyway). In this way death acts as go-between in their friendship, one which will quickly blossom into love for Harold, as Maude is the only sentient and creative being he has ever met. Her motto, or one of them, is to “aim above morality” so as to “not miss out on the fun.” Needless to say, fun has forever been an alien concept and experience in Harold’s life. Education for him was boarding school. Home is prison. Friends don’t exist, nor did love till now.
Harold visits Maude’s railway carriage. He loves it. It feels like home, a real home. The objects inside are unique, interesting, personal. They all have stories behind them which Maude, forever happy to talk, generously informs Harold of. He’s fascinated. For the first time he’s interested in something other than death. Naturally, he falls in love with Maude. Age is meaningless, spirit and character everything. Maude is flattered, but keeps things light and platonic. Instead of lovemaking, they do other things together. They uproot a tree from the city and drive it to a forest to replant it where, in Maude’s words, “it can breathe again.” They steal cars and joyride together. They even steal a police motorcycle from a cop and leave the officer standing in their dust. They have a picnic. They eat and drink and talk to the birds. Harold yells like Tarzan and does somersaults. Then, overjoyed, he carries Maude on his back and runs through a field. For the first time in his life he’s alive and conscious of it. Love has rescued and transformed him, which is one of love’s greater attributes. He also plays the banjo, a musical instrument Maude has given to him. And of course they still go to funerals, sitting through the dreary church services and standing in the rain at cemeteries.
But things at home are as bad as ever for Harold. In fact, they are getting worse. Mother is worried about Harold. She thinks his suicidal antics have been going too far. It’s one thing to be a wise-aleck teenager with a morbid sense of humour, but another to remain stunted and not face up to certain adult responsibilities. Such as marriage, Mama informs him. To this end a string of computer dates from a dating service parade through their opulent mansion. They all love the building, setting, landscaping, decor, atmosphere. They even pretend to like Harold — the boy who cannot laugh or smile or even speak intelligibly above a mumbled monotone. Cold fish or not, Harold is popular. All the young women profess to be keenly interested in him. That is, until Harold pulls the trigger again with the gun to his head or pulls off some other seemingly deadly prank in their midst.
Mother’s patience is shredded. Harold’s weekly visits to a shrink are not going well. The psychiatrist can make no headway because Harold remains clammed up. In desperation, she thinks his Uncle Victor, a military man, can talk him into joining the army. This fails. Harold pretends to be a gung-ho lunatic who wants to shoot, scalp, dismember and eat the enemy. Even for Uncle Victor, a red-white-and-blue racist and jingoist, this is too much. Uncle Victor declares Harold unfit for duty.
Harold is a nowhere man, a loser and misfit. Even his put-upon mother is coming to this awful, inconsolable conclusion. But just when all seems lost Harold astonishes everyone by announcing his engagement to Maude. His mother can’t believe it and demands to see her photo. Harold has one, a recent one. His mother nearly faints. The psychiatrist, priest and Uncle Victor are equally appalled. They knew Harold was eccentric, far from normal, but this prank takes the cake. Yet the joke we’re in on and they’re not is that it’s no joke this time. Harold loves Maude, truly loves her, and throughout the course of this magical film we see how and why this could be.
Maude loves him too, she tells him. But her love is very democratic, not reserved solely for him. In fact what she loves even more than Harold is life itself. The funerals are a reminder of this for her — a way of remembering all that she has and has experienced. She is happy, content, at peace — all the things Harold isn’t but may become by learning from her.
In some fairy tales the frog is transformed into a prince but cannot remain a prince. In the end he returns to his modest lily pad in the pond. So it is in this one too. The great and only love of Harold’s life cannot last because Maude cannot last on Earth. A crisis of life and death happens and Harold is forced to face it. He must choose.
It’s an old film (1971) and Cat Stevens sings throughout on the soundtrack. His songs are hippyish and optimistic. He was in the flower power crowd and rode the peace train with his hard-headed woman to a place where all the children could play and have tea with the tillerman. Harold learns to play one of his songs on the banjo. He is not proficient at it, but he pegs away, wanting to learn, to sing and dance, to click his heels. And in the end, this is what he sings as the credits roll by:
If you want to sing out, sing out
If you want to be free, be free
Cos there’s a million things to be
You know that there are
The film has become a veritable cult classic since its release in 1971. It's a hilarious black comedy and the ultimate May-December romance all rolled into one. Harold is twenty, spoiled, filthy rich, and bored with life. Maude is a lively lady in her very late seventies. They meet at a funeral and form an unlikely friendship from the moment the free spirited Maude goes joyriding in Harold's private hearse. Everything about the film is utterly outrageous, from the characters, their relationship and Harold's macabre "hobby" to Maude's utter disregard for conventions and property.
Harold is played by Bud Cort, Maude by the wonderful Ruth Gordon. Both deliver delightfully OTT performances. It's cheesy, it's campy, it's funny as hell, it's one of the most enjoyable films I've ever seen. An absolute gem. The Cat Stevens soundtrack is legendary to boot.
Hal Ashby did better things (Being There, Last Detail, Shampoo). Here he looks too much like a common hippy director
Harold's mother is trying to get him a girlfriend. It's still a fun film after that, but not as funny.
To tell anything more about the film might put people off, because it's about Harold and Maude,
and its a romance, but with a massive ages between them.
So glad I could get the DVD and have the opportunity to watch it again. Brilliant story a friendship between two extremely different people who were able to find a common goal. Loved it! I don't think this film would be made now. Both great actors specially Ruth Gordon she was wonderful in it.