Wednesday, August 3, 2022

#2,794. Harold and Maude (1971) - Hal Ashby in the 1970s


Nineteen-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) is preoccupied with death. Time and again, he stages fake suicides, driving his wealthy socialite mother (Vivian Pickles) to despair. It’s gotten to the point that she doesn’t even react when she finds Harold hanging from the neck in the dining room, or floating face-down in their large swimming pool. Aside from being fascinated with his own demise, Harold drives a hearse, and spends an inordinate amount of time attending funerals for perfect strangers.

It’s during these graveside services that Harold continually runs into Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old free spirit who embraces life and all it has to offer. Though complete opposites, Harold and Maude strike up a friendship, and spend a great deal of time together. In fact, when his mother signs him up for a computer dating service, Harold sabotages each and every encounter with a potential girlfriend because he has fallen in love with Maude!

Though the humor is often dark, and its title characters make for one of the strangest romantic couplings in cinematic history, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude is surprisingly sweet. Hell, even with all the staged suicides and funeral services, I’d go so far as to say the movie is life-affirming, and the reason why (along with Cat Stevens' toe-tapping music) is Ruth Gordon.

Gordon is just about perfect as the carefree Maude, who, though quickly approaching her 80th birthday, is full of energy and willing to take risks. She is constantly stealing cars (after a funeral, she unknowingly swipes Harold’s hearse, then offers him a ride home), frustrating the police (especially a motorcycle cop played by an uncredited Tom Skerritt), and at one point poses in the nude for an artist friend (played by Cyril Cusack).

Gordon’s spirit and vivacity even rubs off on her co-star; though serviceable in those scenes when Harold is in the company of his overbearing mother, his psychiatrist (G. Wood), or his three blind dates (Judy Engels, Shari Summers, and Ellen Geer), Cort’s performance perks up whenever he and Gordon are together. Despite the 60-year age difference between their characters, we fully accept their love affairm, in part because we the audience find Maude every bit as engaging as Harold does.

Ashby’s second feature film, Harold and Maude has a few things in common with his 1970 directorial debut, The Landlord. Like Elgar, Beau Bridges’ character in that earlier film, Harold comes from a wealthy family, yet ultimately turns his back on that privileged lifestyle (though, unlike Elgar, Cort’s Harold has always been uncomfortable around his mother). And while it is definitely a comedy, Harold and Maude, like The Landlord, isn’t afraid to get serious once in a while. Particularly poignant is a brief, one-second glimpse of Maude’s forearm late in the film, which reveals something about the character that puts her entire outlook into perspective.

Funny, sad, romantic, and oh-so strange, Harold and Maude is a must-see!
Rating: 9 out of 10

No comments: