Hollywood has produced some of the finest romantic comedies seen on screen this last hundred years, but none have been as taboo-busting as director Harold Ashby’s Harold and Maude, even to this day. Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock may have slept with a middle-aged woman in The Graduate, but in this 1971 black comedy, the romantic and sexual relationship is between the 20-year old Harold and the 79-year old Maude. No wonder audiences at the time didn’t know what to make of this future classic.
Harold is played by Bud Cort and led to a Golden Globe nomination for this role. His Hollywood career faltered due to a facial injury after a car accident, which is a shame as his work in this film is a masterclass of improvisation, especially in the way he breaks the fourth wall in turning to the camera and smiling at the audience.
Harold is a strange young man, bored, aimless, and obsessed with death. We first meet him as he walks through the study of his privileged family’s home. We barely get to meet the character before he kills himself by hanging in his first scene. Even more unexpected is the response of Harold’s mother. Unmoved by the death of her son, she asks him if he thinks he is being funny. To which Harold, not dead at all replies, “yes.” In this expectation-defying scene, we begin to understand the morbid curiosity of Harold and the odd relationship with his weary, dispassionate mother.
Harold makes several more staged suicide attempts throughout the film. These are ghoulish practical jokes made to gain attention from his cold, distant mother and to scare away any potential blind dates that she tries to set up for him. When he is not cutting his throat or drowning in swimming pools, Harold also attends funerals. When his psychiatrist asks him why Harold replies “for fun.” He is obsessed with death because he fears life, unable to find meaning or direction. Until he meets Maude.
Played by the Oscar-nominated actress and screenwriter, Ruth Gordon, Maude is a complete contradiction to Harold, in age and outlook. She is a woman unafraid to live life, having seen too much death already, especially, we learn, in a Nazi concentration camp.
She attends funerals because it makes her feel alive. When Harold and Maude meet at a funeral, a friendship develops. Initially, it is a helping relationship, Maude attempting to bring Harold out of his morbid self, enabling him to see life is worth living. Eventually, their relationship develops into something romantic and sexual.
Paramount boss, Robert Evans, was appalled by the sexual aspects of Harold and Maude’s relationship, despite the sensitivity in which it was played. If it wasn’t for Cort, who stood up for his director, Hal Ashby would have been removed from the final edit of the film. Audiences were also put off by the film’s themes of death and intergenerational sex, and the film was a box office flop.
The film was daring for its time but is unfortunate it didn’t garner the critical acclaim it receives today. It has since been re-evaluated and could be considered one of the most romantic and life-affirming movies ever made. It is also one of the funniest and features at number 45 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Funniest Movies of All Time.
This is a must-see film for any lover of cinema. The film plays with existential themes in such an intelligent way, even surpassing similar work by Woody Allen. With a wonderful score by Cat Stevens, a sharp eye for character and dialogue by celebrated comedy writer Colin Higgins, and two career-best turns by Cort and Gordon; this is a wonderful film that may just change the way you look at life.