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May 17, 2012

Harold and Maude

by Franz Patrick


Harold and Maude (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Harold (Bud Cort) had a predilection for the macabre. When he got up on a chair, positioned a rope around his neck, and kicked off his feet’s remaining support between life and death, his mother (Vivian Pickles) entered the room, glanced at her son’s discolored face, and calmly used the telephone. But not to call for help. This so-called suicide attempt was not a first. Harold was a young man so fascinated with death, he even attended funerals for fun. When he met Maude (Ruth Gordon), an ebullient seventy-nine-year-old woman who also enjoyed attending other people’s funerals, the two formed a complicated bond. Written by Colin Higgins, “Harold and Maude” was a strange but heart-warming dark comedy, equipped with excellent and perfectly placed Cat Stevens songs, because it took elements that were wrong and refrained from making them right. Instead, the filmmakers captured issues that could have been awkward and made them rather beautiful, one of which was the vast age difference between Harold and Maude. Cort excelled in playing a character who was reticent, almost a loner in every aspect of living. He spoke in a low tone of voice, slow, almost muffled, apathetic to the pleasures and advantages of being financially well-off. Gordon’s spicy voice and vibrant ways of moving her limbs provided a refreshing contrast against Cort’s depressed character. When the two occupied the same room, Gordon was almost minx-like but never creepy, as a bee is unable to help itself from landing on a specific flower. In Maude’s case, age came with experience and she often reminded him to live, that it didn’t matter if he wanted to take life seriously or foolishly as long as lived it the way he wanted to. Harold and Maude, standing between a precipice of being several generations apart, completed each other in the most touching ways. Expressing disgust that the two eventually shared a bed, sans an actual sex scene though nonetheless implicated, is a sign of immaturity. For me, it was only normal that the two would eventually feel the urge to explore each other physically considering they’d grown to know each other so well. That’s more than I can say for random hook-ups during drunken college nights and sweaty Vegas clubs. Much of the humor stemmed from Harold’s mother, the controlling Mrs. Chasen, happily inviting young women into the mansion just so Harold could finally choose a wife. She thought marriage would bring him to life through learning to take up real responsibilities. Although the arranged dates were very amusing, there was a real sadness in the relationship between mother and son, too. Her idea of happiness was so far from his, the two didn’t seem at all related. Notice that each of their conversations revolved around the son being told what to do in order to be a happier person. Their relationship became so unnavigable, the mother was even willing to contact Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a veteran who lost an arm in a war, to force Harold to join the military. Maybe she’d rather have a dead son than a son who likened the idea of death. I didn’t understand her nor do I think we were supposed to. The picture astutely used her as a symbol of what society expects from each of us. The biggest accomplishment of “Harold and Maude,” directed by Hal Ashby, was its unabashed celebration of differences. The next time I feel like doing somersaults on the beach, I’ll do it without giving a damn.

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