Harold and Maude is my favorite movie.
I discovered it many years ago while in high school, having heard about it once or twice through various pop culture references (like There’s Something About Mary). A friend of mind pointed it out to me in a video store and told me I should buy it. “I haven’t seen it,” I protested. “I don’t like buying movies I haven’t seen.”
“You’ll like this one,” she insisted. “If you don’t, I’ll buy it off you.”
How could I lose? So, I bought it, took it home, watched it, and fell in love with it.
I’ve watched it countless times and have bought it twice more, first on DVD and then again on Blu-Ray (thank you, Criterion!).
Whenever someone tells me what their favorite movie is, I’m inclined to ask why. What is it about that particular film that brings you back to it time and time again? For some, the answer is simply entertainment. For others, it’s nostalgia. For me and Harold and Maude, it is because of the film’s mindset, life-affirming but with a twisted sense of humor. The film is rebellious, but sweet, a celebration of life that focuses on death and, on top of all that, a love story that is about love, not just of another human being, but of all humanity, of all that life and the world has to offer, the good and the bad.
Before I continue, I should warn you: SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t seen the film, you might want to go do so before reading any further.
The film opens with Harold, seen only from the waist down as he makes his way through one of the many rooms in his mansion. The mansion is dark, old and stuffy. Through a window we can see the sun is shining bright, but little of it seems to enter into Harold’s home, this itself tells you a great deal about the character. He is young, wealthy, but clearly lives in a dreary antiquated home, full of relics, but no life. He lights candles and makes out a nametag for himself, before stepping on and stool and off again, his feet dangling. Upon first viewing, I wondered if the film was to be told in flashback, telling us what brought this rich young man to suicide. This theory was dispelled by the entrance of Harold’s mother, a woman clearly used to the finer things in life, with no time for frivolity or silliness. She could almost be Margaret Dumont’s daughter. She takes one look at Harold and continues on her with her routine, making a phone call, chiding Harold with, “I suppose you think that’s very funny.”
Billy Wilder once said that if you have a man come in the door, the audience doesn’t care, but if you have him come in the window, the audience is fascinated. Harold has just “come in through the window.”
Harold’s days are spent going to his therapist (whom he always dresses identically to), staging suicides and going to funerals.
It is at these funerals that he notices Maude. First, at the outskirts, contentedly munching on an apple and then offering him some licorice. They chitchat idly, at first Harold seems wary of this strange old lady, but her charm wins him over, and we see him for the first time, having a real conversation with someone. Harold is desperately lonely, stuck in a world of dinner parties, attended exclusively by his mother’s friends, indeed, he seems to feel like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the only way anyone ever notices him is when he is shocking. It is a mindset that some may call unhealthy, but it is one that I identify with (perhaps more than I should). As Harold and Maude make their way out of the church, following the casket, a marching band goes past in the opposite direction, playing a jaunty tune. This can be seen not only as a perfect visual representation of Maude’s mindset, one of eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die, as well as the single shot that sums up the whole film, one of contradictions, morbid humor and an undeniably upbeat perspective.
At a later funeral, this one outside in the rain, as the mourners make their way to their cars (or in Maude’s case, to Harold’s- she has a bad habit of stealing cars), Maude, front and center, carries a bright yellow umbrella, the other mourners carry dark blue or black, while Harold carries none. If we view the rain as symbolic of death and everyone’s umbrella as their attitude to it, we come up with three points: Maude’s outlook is sunny; she views funerals as a way of celebrating life (yellow umbrella). The mourners view funerals and death as a time of mourning, and wish to shelter themselves from thoughts of their own mortality (black umbrellas). Harold, sees death as inevitable and embraces it, allows it consume his every waking moment (no umbrella). Later in the film, Harold asks about Maude’s antiquated umbrella which hangs over the mantle, like a hunting rifle. She tells him that is was used for defense in her youth when she was on picket lines, protesting against injustices, but it is now hung up, retried, just as she is. “I don’t need it for defense anymore, I embrace,” she tells Harold. Thus, Maude, like Harold, thinks about death a great deal, but not as something that we should rush towards, rather, as an inevitability and because it is inevitable, it is all the more important that we embrace life. When Harold tells Maude that he enjoys being dead, and she says, “A lot of people enjoy being dead, but they’re not dead, they’re just backing away from life.”
It is Maude’s mindset that causes so many to be confused by the film’s climax, in which Maude commits suicide. Why does Maude, who spends the whole film espousing the joys and wonders of life, commit suicide at the end? Is it because she lives life on her own terms, and death is a part of life? Does it related to her earlier comment about how living past eighty is just “marking time”? Perhaps, it relates to her earlier speech in the nursery about how she enjoys watching things grow, change and become something new, for this is what she does to Harold. She watches him grow, change and become someone new. Perhaps her greatest lesson to Harold is in her last line to him. Harold, in the back of the ambulance, pleads with her, “Don’t die, Maude, I love you.” She replies, “That’s wonderful, Harold. Go and love some more.” Harold and Maude may not be about a young man learning to love an old woman, rather, it is about an old woman teaching a young man to love life.
Earlier in the film, Harold goes to a junkyard and buys a hearse. His mother is, of course, appalled. Behind his back, she has the car towed and gives him a brand new Jaguar. Harold, rejecting his mother’s gift, turns the silver sporty Jaguar into a sporty black hearse. This vehicle acts as the perfect symbol of Harold’s mind. He is literally, racing towards death. In the film’s finale, after Maude’s death, Harold is seen speeding towards the coast and once again, fakes his suicide by driving his car off a cliff. The camera pans up, revealing Harold, happily strumming on the banjo Maude gave him, playing the tune she taught him. Some view this ending as pessimistic, Harold returning to his old ways, but I disagree. Rather, what we have is Harold throwing away the old way of thinking (by destroying his “racing towards death” vehicle). His wardrobe has changed, from dark suits and ties to lighter colors and a more casual look. As he dances away from us, playing “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” we know that Harold will be okay. (The banjo is not typically viewed as a dignified instrument and perhaps that is why Maude presents it to him -taking away the guitar he clearly wants- to encourage a little less formality in Harold. As she says, “Everyone has the right to make an ass of himself, you can’t let the world judge you.”)
In a scene that I used in my Cinema Therapy group (see the entry “Schlock Therapy”), Harold and Maude are in a field of flowers. Maude tells Harold that she would like to come back as a sunflower. When she asks him what kind of flower he would like to be, he gestures to some daises, saying “One of these maybe.” When asked why, he says because they’re all like. “Oh, but they’re not,” Maude protests, “some are tall, some are short, some lean to the left, some to right, some are missing petals. There’s all kind of observable differences.” She holds up a single flower, “Most of the world’s problems come from people who are this,” (points to flower), “but allow themselves to be treated as that,” (points to field). The camera then pulls back, revealing Harold and Maude to be in a cemetery, one that seems to go on and on and on. It has been argued that this shot is meant to be critical of the Vietnam War and the seemingly endless slaughter of young men, who were turned from single flowers into a field of daises. Others see it as a comment on life itself, that we often forget that people is comprised of persons. (Personally, I subscribe to this latter theory.) When I showed this clip, I asked the patients to come up with something unique or interesting about themselves, reinforcing Maude’s philosophy, that everyone has something that makes them different. The patients loved it.
Harold and Maude is one of the most anti-authority films ever made. Indeed, every traditional leader in society is openly mocked, parents, doctors, priests and the military. Harold’s mother is not only distant and shallow, she is incapable of understanding, or even trying to understand, her son. The psychiatrist is not only always mirrored by Harold, showing that the young man sees right through him, but he views Harold’s relationship with Maude as a deep-seated psychological abnormality wherein he wants to have sex with his grandmother. The priest is seen as humorless, and extremely nauseated by the thought of Harold and Maude having sex. Harold’s uncle, a one-armed super-patriot (General MacArthur’s right-hand man), like most career military offices, believes that the military and war is what truly makes a man a man, to him, Harold is nothing more than a possible recruit. After Harold tells his mother of his intentions to marry Maude, we see these three men, all voicing their objections to the union, all three of them are framed identically (actor center frame, lamp and portrait in the same positions on the desk and wall). Harold and Maude tells us that authority is really all the same. Whether it’s God, Freud or General MacArthur, authority simply wants you to fall in line and become a part of the daisy field.
The one feature film I made, Inherit the Earth, was heavily inspired by Harold and Maude (put politely, rip-off might be more accurate). In fact, I attempted to get Bud Cort to play one of the leads, sadly, his agent rejected my offer of nothing. In fact, my most recent novel, The Widow Wilkins is tonally, if not plot-wise, very similar to Harold and Maude. As I said before, it is my favorite film.
It was not well received when released. Critics like Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert all gave the films poor reviews, calling it tasteless, disgusting and dull. Cort was criticized for his “wooden performance” and Ruth Gordon was accused to repeating what she did to win the Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby. Obviously, I disagree. Cort’s performance is hardly wooden. We are seeing a young man come to life. Cort portrays this by having Harold slowly bloom throughout the film, and his moment s of levity, smirking at the camera or his barely contained glee at telling his psychiatrist how many suicides he has faked for his mother’s “benefit”, hint at the joyous spirit in Harold just waiting to escape. The complaint against Gordon, that she was doing what she did in her last film could just as easily be lobbed at John Wayne, Morgan Freeman or any number of actors brought in to play a type.
But then, upsetting the establishment is part of what Harold and Maude is all about. It is timeless, and its influence can be seen today, notably in the films of Wes Anderson.
I watched the film the other day in preparation for this piece, and now, having written at length about it, I want to watch it again. That is what makes a film a favorite, that feeling that it never gets old, it never ages, and it inspires us, not only in our creative lives, but in our lives. I don’t always live up to Maude’s example, in fact, when I don’t, I can picture the spritely old woman gently chastising me (she would never go so far as to yell or harshly criticize). But then, everyone has the right to make an ass out of himself, right?
Harold loves Maude.
Maude loves Harold.
I love Harold and Maude.