Harold likes to go to funerals of people he didn't know. His idea of a hot rod is a fixed-up hearse. One of his favorite pastimes is elaborately staging mock suicides for his mother's benefit. Does this sound like someone you want dating your sister?
The 1971 film Harold and Maude is best known as a love story between a man 20 years old and a woman going on 80. I've heard (and read) people describe the film as all about that relationship and people's intolerance to it. However, that is not the movie I saw when I first watched it a decade ago, and that is not what I see now. Sure, the age-disparate romance is a key element here, but the subject of people's intolerance to such a relationship is barely touched on, and then only as subtext in one of the movie's larger themes.
The movie starts out with a series of deliciously dark hilarity. The comedy is greatly enhanced by by the casting of Bud Cort as Harold; his cherubic boyish face and gangly, fragile-looking frame lend irony to his morbid fascination.
In one of the two main story threads, Harold's wealthy, overbearing mother, played to snobbish perfection by British actress Vivian Pickles, makes numerous attempts to get Harold to lighten up and be more 'normal.' She forces him to spend time with his Army officer uncle Victor--played by Charles Tyner in the best portrayal of a bloodthirsty military officer this side Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. She gets him into psychotherapy with a hopelessly out-of-touch therapist (G. Wood). She signs him up for a computer dating service. She eventually tries to force him to join the Army.
To my mind, this is the true conflict of Harold's character, and really the movie; he has never learned to live his own life, thanks to his domineering mother. We come to learn the details of how he obtained his morbid fascination, and the dysfunction between mother and son become even more clear. A humorous example of their relationship is a scene where she sits him down (against his wishes, of course) to fill out the paperwork for the computer dating service. She proceeds to read the questions aloud, state her own answers, and print them on the form without so much as a word from him. He slowly loads a revolver while this is going on, and then makes a homicidal gesture toward her, which quickly turns into one of his trademark staged suicides. Thus, without engaging in any exposition whatsoever, director Hal Ashby elegantly gives us a wealth of insight into the relationship between son and mother.
In the second major plot thread, Harold and Maude (Ruth Gordon) become acquainted after chance meetings at the funerals of strangers. She displays several eccentricities of her own, including stealing the nearest car when she needs to get somewhere--never mind if the car belongs to a priest--and happily escaping arrest. Harold is drawn to her carefree lifestyle, and the two become friends. He learns from her to live life to the fullest--a theme that would recur in countless movies in the decades to follow--but as the friendship progresses, we begin to understand that her devil-may-care attitude is something of a facade. Ashby, who died in 1988, accomplishes this in characteristically subtle touches, like a quick glimpse of the concentration camp number tattooed on Maude's arm. In the latter parts we learn more about Maude's sad past.
The relationship does finally turn into a brief and ill-fated romance. By that time, however, we know enough about the characters to realize that although their friendship is deep and meaningful, the decision to make it a romance seems like a desire to escape the unpleasant realities in both of their lives. Not much time is spent showing people opposing the relationship, but several do, most notably Harold's mother. That only serves to make it seem that the romance with Maude is, for him, a step toward standing up for himself against his mother, albeit a necessary step.
Having said that, though, don't let the disturbing aspects of the movie dissuade you. There are thematic paradoxes within the movie, as with life itself, and one extremely upsetting plot twist. But at the end Harold comes away realizing the simple truth that life is a beautiful thing, and he is going to savor it. That is the message the viewer should take away as well.
See it for the subtle craftsmanship, the complex and satisfying characters, and the wonderful soundtrack by Cat Stevens that made me an instant fan. But most of all, see it if you like outrageously morbid humor. I still laugh out loud at the creative methods Harold uses to scare off the computer dates. The scenes with Uncle Victor, who lost an arm in combat but has his uniform jacket rigged up so the empty sleeve can still render a salute, are priceless, as is the scheme Harold and Maude use to get Harold out of having to join the army, the scene in which they run away from the motorcycle cop...I could go on and on. Although I don't consider it a perfect film, "above average" doesn't come close to doing this movie justice.
Note: as you have probably gathered, anyone who has friends or family that have committed suicide are likely better off avoiding this. I would not put it on when kids were around.
Director: Hal Ashby
Running Time: 91 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sinister thematic elements, violence, drug content and language.
Click here for complete details at IMDB.com.
Copyright 2003 by Toby Baldwin
Originally written September 5, 2001.
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