Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude
Paramount, 1971

Principal Cast:  Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles
Director:  Hal Ashby
Producers:  Colin Higgins, Mildred Lewis, Charles Mulvehill
Screenwriter:  Colin Higgins
Cinematography:  John Alonzo

Harold is a wealthy, death-obsessed teenager who finds it hard to connect with anyone, especially his overbearing mother.  He spends his free time visiting junkyards, simulating suicides and attending funerals for strangers.  It's at one of these funerals that he meets Maude, an 80-year old woman who is full of life and eccentricity.  Harold and Maude get into a series of quirky adventures which leads this unusual friendship to develop into an unconventional romance.

Awards and Nominations
American Film Institute
  • #45 of the 100 Greatest Comedies
  • #69 of the 100 Greatest Romances
  • #89 of the 100 Most Inspiring Films
  • #9 of the Top 10 Romantic Comedies
National Film Preservation Board
Selected in 1997 as a culturally significant film to the National Film Registry.

"A lot of people enjoy being dead.  But they are not dead, really. They're just backing away from life.  Reach out.  Take a chance.  Get hurt even.  But play as well as you can.  Go team, go!  Give me an L.  Give me an I.  Give me a V.  Give me an E. L-I-V-E. LIVE!  Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room."

I can't believe it has taken me this long to finally see this film.  To see that I loved this film would be somewhat of an understatement.  Everything from the direction, screenwriting, acting, music... this movie works on every single level.

It's hard to pick something to start with, but I guess we'll start at the surface.  The performances by the main players in this film are wonderful.  Bud Cort is convincing as the socially awkward (incompetent?) Harold.  Cort never hams up his performance, but this is easily one of the better comedic performances I've ever seen.  But Harold in and of himself is not a comedic character, he's disturbed and lonely.  But in this there is, surprisingly, comedy.  The only other film I had seen Ruth Gordon before this was the excellent horror film Rosemary's Baby, where she played the villain.  Her character couldn't be any more different in this film, and it ranks as one of my favorite characters ever.  Gordon plays this eccentric old lady with such charm, that you can almost see why Harold falls in love with her.

Digging a little deeper, you have to appreciate that a film dealing with death and suicide and mortality... is actually a romantic comedy.  In 2010 this would be considered "edgy," so I really wish I could have been around in 1971 to see how this film was received by audiences.  Hell, most films with "May/December" romances usually deal with a mature older man and an inexperienced younger woman.  This film flips that convention, and the results are a lot more interesting than the conventional formula.

Harold, to put it mildly, simply doesn't fit in.  He stages fake suicides to get some sort of loving attention from his socialite mother.  He is completely obsessed with death and he can't connect with anyone, especially all the women with which his mother sets him up on blind dates.  His mother is forcing marriage on him, his uncle is pushing the military on him... Harold never has a moment to live the life he wants to lead and retracts into himself and rejects everything.  In fact, the only way he can connect with anyone is when he goes to funerals, where he hides among everyone's grief.

Enter: Maude.

The juxtaposition of these two characters is key.  Let's examine.  Harold is a young man, in his physical prime, but obsessed with death.  He is constantly being told what to do and how to live, to the point that he refuses to do either.  Maude is at the end of her life.  She even comments that when one turns 80, their life is over.  Yet, at her age, she shows more spirit and "life" than her junior counterpart.  Maude's optimism and outlook on life is the balance to Harold's bleak outlook on life.  (This is made more poignant when the film subtly suggests that Maude is a Holocaust survivor.)  This is what she contributes to Harold's life:  life itself.  Or rather, this 80 year old woman teaches this man (boy, really... the film never overtly tells us his age) how to live.  They are exactly what the other person needs in their life, which makes their strange relationship perfect.

If you're a fan of quirky indy flicks or the work of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox), do yourself a favor watch, rent or buy this film immediately.  Now quit reading this, buy a banjo and play some Cat Stevens.