Today, Harold and Maude is so widely regarded as one of the quintessential New Hollywood films that it’s surprising to learn the movie didn’t have an easy path to immortality—especially since the early life of the project seemed charmed. Writer and co-producer Colin Higgins developed the project during his graduate studies at UCLA’s film school and won a major prize for the script. Then, while working as a pool cleaner in L.A. to stay solvent, Higgins met the film’s other producer, Mildred Lewis. The pair tried to set up the project with Higgins directing, but Paramount nixed that plan and hired editor-turned-filmmaker Hal Ashby. Good move. In addition to hitting just the right mix of satire and sweetness, Ashby shot the picture on such a modest budget that the story reached theaters with its darkness and humanism intact.
Yet Harold and Maude did not catch on during its original release; rather, it took years of home-video exhibition, theatrical reissues, and TV broadcasts for the movie to find its well-deserved status as a minor classic. That said, it’s not difficult to see why the film alienates as many people as it enchants. The premise is perverse, the humor is morbid, and the May-December romance at the heart of the story skirts the limits of good taste. After all, the actors playing the lovers in the movie’s title—Bud Cort (Harold) and Ruth Gordon (Maude)—were in their 20s and 70s, respectively, at the time of filming.
Higgins’ bold script begins by introducing Harold Chasen, a rich kid so bored with the trappings of everyday life that he spends most of his energy staging outrageous suicide scenes for the kinky thrill of shocking his mother, Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles). Since Harold never actually kills himself, however, it’s unclear whether his activities represent a genuine cry for help or just bizarre frivolity. Undaunted, Mrs. Chasen tries to match Harold with various potential brides, but Harold’s eerie theatrics spook all of them. Meanwhile, Harold amuses himself by visiting funerals, which brings him into contact with Maude Chardin, who also digs watching final farewells to the deceased. Maude is as free and open as Harold is repressed and quiet, so as they spend time together, Maude teaches Harold surprising lessons about making the most of every day; she’s also the only person who encourages Harold to embrace his oddness.
The evolution of this relationship involves a series of touching revelations and surprises that won’t be spoiled here, but suffice to say that Harold and Maude has boundless integrity—the film is never less than true to its offbeat self, which is, of course, why the picture has become a source of inspiration for generations of independent-minded filmmakers. Each of the major elements in the movie approaches a kind of poetry, from Cort’s hangdog quirkiness to Gordon’s ebullient outrageousness, while Ashby consistently handles the material with sensitivity and style.
The storytelling is a bit on the schematic side, and some of Harold’s suicide scenes are absurdly grandiose, but the soul of this movie is so utterly unique that expecting it to meet normal expectations is foolhardy. Especially with the jubilant soundtrack of Cat Stevens songs giving the piece a gentle heartbeat, Harold and Maude easily ranks among the most unconventional love stories ever filmed. It is also, not unimportantly, a perfect snapshot of the historical moment when mainstream Hollywood studios let young filmmakers run wild so long as they kept costs low. Harold and Maude isn’t perfect, but learning to accept the imperfections of life—no matter how horrific they might be—is a key component of the picture’s inspirational theme.
Harold and Maude: RIGHT ON