We’ve been in a bit of a slump here on Cinematic Century. The last two films that I’ve talked about have been ones that I love quite a bit, but they’ve been surrounded by a whole bunch of nothing, giving me two years in a row that didn’t really have much competition at all. But, that’s done now. Because, looking ahead, that isn’t going to be a problem for quite a while. The 1970’s are going to be very kind to me, while also giving me quite a bit of frustration over which film I’ll choose to highlight as my favorite of the year. Take 1971 for example. This was a hard year! I mean, Diamond Are Forever came out that year, and that movie has an elephant winning a jackpot on a Vegas slot-machine. But, more seriously, 1971 was also a terrific year when it came to dramatic crime movies. I mean, just take a look at the major films released in 1971 and you’ll be blown away. We have The French Connection, a fantastic police procedural featuring one of the all-time greatest car-chases in American cinema. We get Dirty Harry, a movie with incredibly questionable morality that’s kind of platonic ideal of “loose-canon cop” movies while juggling an incredibly timely Zodiac Killer representation. We also have Stephen Spielberg’s first major work, the absolutely wonderful Duel, which really sets out everything that Spielberg would knock out of the park for the foreseeable future. Going across the pond we have the great Get Carter, a movie that cements Michael Caine as one of the most badass actors of the seventies. You can also get pumped full of childlike whimsy and cruelty with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, one of my all-time favorite movies as a kid. Or, going in the complete opposite direction, we could talk about A Clockwork Orange, which was definitely my favorite Kubrick movie when I was a moody teenager, and still mostly holds up as a brilliant piece of dytopian film-making. These are all great movies, and there’s a whole bunch of other pieces of cinematic brilliance hiding in 1971 like Shaft, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Vanishing Point, and Play Misty for Me, giving me one of my most challenging years so far in this project. But, when it came down to it, I had to go with my heart, and focus on one of the weirdest and most delightful little oddities of the entire 1970’s, Harold and Maude.
This film, one of the perennial Midnight Movies, came from extremely humble origins, and ones that really point out where American cinema will be going for years afterwards. It all started as a script written by a UCLA student named Colin Higgins who wrote the story as a thesis with the plan to turn it into a play. But, Higgins managed to get the script into the hands of a movie producer while working as a friend’s pool-boy. The producer brought the script to Paramount, who became very interested in bringing the movie to life. Unfortunately, Higgins himself wasn’t ready to direct the movie, and after some unsatisfying test-footage was made the project was taken away from him and given to eccentric filmmaker Hal Ashby, himself with only one feature film under his belt. Ashby decided to bring Higgins along though, teaching him the process for making a film while getting the movie up and running. The film picked up long-running actress Ruth Gordon and relative newcomer Bud Cort to play the titular roles, and a soundtrack by folk singer Cat Stevens, and was released upon an unsuspecting public, who promptly rejected it. Like so many movies I talk about, Harold and Maude did not find its audience when it was first released, deemed too mean-spirited and cynical. But, over time and perhaps thanks to its prevalence in the Midnight Movie circuit, Harold and Maude gained something of a cult following, and finally started getting recognized as the oddball little piece of transgression that it really is, giving all the weird, macabre misfits of the world a love story of their very own.
Harold and Maude primarily tells the story of Harold Chasen, a rich young man who lives a life of solitude and ennui. He doesn’t have to work, and seems to only speak with his over-bearing mother who wishes nothing more than for Harold to be normal. But, perhaps to a legitimate case of depression or just a need to act out, Harold spends his time fixating on the concept of death, and staging increasingly elaborate fake suicides in order to bother his otherwise unflappable mother. Harold fritters away his days, planning mock-hangings, disembowelments, and immolations, in between visiting random funerals for people he doesn’t know. And, one day, after driving his newly purchased hearse to a funeral for a stranger, Harold encounters someone else who appears to be just crashing the funeral. She’s an elderly woman named Maude, and she also seems to be just lurking around, enjoying the funeral for her own reasons. And, she quickly realizes that Harold is in a similar position, and tries to befriend him. Harold doesn’t know what to make of Maude, and intends to just brush her off, witnessing her steal a priest’s car in the process.
But, despite his best intentions, Harold can’t get away form Maude. She continues showing up at funerals he’s crashing, and the two continue getting to know each other. And, eventually, Harold decides to befriend the old woman, coming with her to her home to learn about her. Maude is a 79 year old Holocaust survivor who has lived a very storied life, and has decided to make the most of her life, since she figures that 80 will be a good age to die. She’s an artist who spends time making as much joy as she can, while living by nobody else’s rules. And, in her carefree nature Harold finds someone he can actually connect to, even though she’s the exact opposite of him. The two start spending quite a bit of time together, while Maude’s eternal optimism and zeal for life starts to wear off on Harold. Meanwhile, Harold’s mother is trying every trick she can think of to get Harold out of his rut, including marrying him off through a computer dating service and sending him to the military. But, as Harold dodges his mother’s attempts at intervention, he begins to realize something unexpected.
He’s fallen in love with Maude. The two start spending all of their time together, going on wild adventures. They steal a lot of cars, take a small tree from the city to plant in the forest, and learn to play music together. And, in the process, Harold finally is able to come to terms with the real reason that he fakes so many suicides, revealing to Maude that while in school he was involved in a chemistry lab accident that led the school to think he’d died. And, after witnessing his mother’s dramatic reaction to his supposed death, Harold has decided that his death would be a good thing. But, Maude helps him realize that there’s more to life than death, and the two end up sleeping together. Harold then makes his intentions known that he wishes to marry Maude, planning a massive eightieth birthday party for her where he’ll propose. His mother is aghast by this choice, but Harold ignores her and gives Maude a wonderful birthday. But, as they dance together, she reveals that she has taken an overdose of sleeping pills, having always planned to kill herself on her eightieth birthday party. Harold rushes Maude to the hospital, desperate to save her. But, he’s too late. Maude dies, and Harold is left alone. But, instead of regressing to his depressed state Harold destroys his hearse and wanders off to start a new life, one that will enjoy the pleasures and potential that living has to offer.
I feel like more often than not I end up feeling a little disappointed when I see some of the more famous Midnight Movies for the first time. Usually I check them out and find that the reason they gained their cult status is because they were “so bad they’re good.” And, while I have an incredibly fondness of Mystery Science Theater 3000, that whole purposefully bad thing can really wear down on me. But, every now and then I come across a film that gained a cult status not because it was bad, but because it was just too weird to be accepted by mainstream audiences. And, that’s what Harold and Maude is. It doesn’t have near the polish that director Hal Ashby’s later works would have, but this movie is anything but “so bad it’s good.” It’s just one of the strangest movies you’ll ever see in your life. It really and truly is structured like a pretty typical romantic comedy, just between an 80 year old woman and a massively depressed young man. And, weirdly enough, the film never really seems to mock their love for the age discrepancy. The other characters in the film are pretty horrified by it, but the movie itself doesn’t attempt to shame them or anything. It’s just a charming love story about two people who don’t fit inside the traditional mold. And we completely buy their friendship and their love, primarily thanks to a pair of truly wonderful performances. Ruth Gordon has quite a storied career as an actress, appearing in films, television, and plays for decades, and the life she brings to the zany and artistic Maude is truly something to behold. Likewise, Bud Cort is able to find a humanity in Harold, which could so very easily tip over into becoming a completely unappealing and annoying character. But, they work well together, and end up becoming a very enjoyable screen couple, telling a love story that’s somehow unlike anything else you’ve seen, and yet intimately familiar.
There’s a concept, coined by the great Nathan Rabin, known as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s a term used to shame male screenwriters who create female characters who don’t resemble any sort of actual human being, and are just some sort of idealized version of a woman who lives and breathes art and who makes the male protagonist a better man thanks to her love. It’s a term that has certainly become over-used since it was first coined, but it does point out a very strange trend among romantic comedies. And, weirdly enough, part of me does kind of think that Maude could be considered a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but one who skews a little more towards reality. She’s a very strange person, who doesn’t seem to do anything other than enjoy life. She lives in an old train car, she plays music, she creates scents, she attends funerals, and she just generally seems to live life to its fullest. She’s a character who has seen the darkest humanity has to offer, and has decided to counter than darkness by putting as much light and positivity into the world as she can. And, though that, she’s able to save Harold from succumbing to a life of ennui and death. He becomes a better person thanks to Maude. But, not at the expense of Maude’s character. The problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is that they aren’t really people. They don’t live real lives, they’re just objects in order to help the male protagonists. But, Maude is different. She fulfills a lot of tropes related to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she feels more authentic. She’s a real person who helps inspire Harold to be a real person as well, but doesn’t have to give up any agency in the process. It’s apparently an easy hole for male screenwriters to fall in, especially when writing stories about men who learn to be better, but Harold and Maude functions as a demonstration on how to do this whole thing right.
Harold and Maude was written by Colin Higgins, directed by Hal Ashby, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1971.
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