READER RECOMMENDATION: HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)

The second submission in the June review writing contest: by “SG Eric”.

DIRECTOR: Hal Ashby

FEATURING: Bud Cort,

PLOT: Twenty-something rich kid unfulfilled with his life stages fake suicides to peeve his uppity mother and ultimately finds meaning in life when he meets carefree 89-year-old Maude.

Still from Harold and Maude (1971)

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST: The May-December romance theme is taken to the extreme by romantically entangling (yes, I mean sexually) a very young man with a very old lady.  Considered taboo by most people, the film makes a plea that the perversion is justified because these two odd souls truly do make a bona fide connection with each other, regardless of age or what society deems as acceptable.

COMMENTS:  First off, I’ll admit that I’m biased when it comes to this film. It has been my all-time favorite for about as long as I can remember. Excepting The Dark Crystal (which just frightened me) it was the first truly “weird” film I encountered as a child.  Like any other kid of my generation, I was enamored by the spectacle that was Star Wars.  Fantasy consumes a child’s existence, and there was no greater escape than those first three films.  I’m guessing around ’84 I first came upon Harold and Maude on HBO.  I was engrossed immediately.  Here was a movie that did not rely on fantasy to hold your attention.  Sure, there is some reality-based whimsy involved.  The humor is dark for sure, some may say morbid, but to a 10-year-old kid watching someone feigning multiple suicides comes off as hilarious.  At least it did for me at the time, and yes it still does.

I know this movie has a huge and dedicated cult following.  Without trying to sound completely snobbish, I hope it stays within that circle.  It deserves to be seen by those who like their cinema offbeat.  I find this movie to be so perfect that I cannot fathom anyone not enjoying it.

Now let’s talk about what makes this movie weird.  The May-December theme is basically a couple who is one-half old and one-half young.  It has been explored many times over in movies, usually in dreadful Hollywood romantic comedies.  Usually, it is the older man falling for the younger girl… yes, tracing a semi-origin to “Lolita,” one of the most popular novels written about the subject, which was made into a couple of “controversial” films.  There are exceptions of good films exploring this theme.  Ghost World (I agree a bit creepy for a couple) or Lost in Translation are good examples, but they never really surpassed plain ol’ sweetness.  What sets Harold and Maude apart, other than the gender-role age discrepancy being reversed, is that they give each other hope and a true purpose for life.

Harold’s mother ceaselessly tries to find a respectable mate through dating services.  Harold wants no part in this shallowness, and bizarre fake suicides are performed to ward each one off.  Upon meeting Maude at funeral services, for which neither one knows the deceased, they hit it off.  Maude takes part in several shenanigans that involuntarily involve Harold.  He starts to see this chaos/anarchy as a means for living and loving.  He tells his mother early on that he has found a companion in Maude and provides evidence with a picture of her.  I believe initially the affair was meant to once again irk his mother, but eventually unfolds to true and devout love.  Of course his mother is aghast and she stops at nothing to prevent the relationship.  Again, the results are nothing short of hilarious.

I have always been fascinated by two people who are linked together and it seems to be a complete mismatch.  The beauty of Harold and Maude is that they are not mismatched at all.  Only the age factor makes it seem that way.  I compare it to seeing a strange couple walking down the aisle of a store.  One is obese and the other is pencil-thin.  It makes you raise and eyebrow and think, “that’s weird.”  Is it?  If they are happy I salute them. Love truly knows no boundaries and it makes this life what it is.  Films like Harold and Maude can show you that love exists, in spades.  It may also tell you to take that spade and dig up that city tree and transplant it in the forest where it belongs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a doggedly eccentric film which some will reject out of hand. Others will find it profoundly moving and life affirming.”–TV Guide

13 thoughts on “READER RECOMMENDATION: HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)”

  1. I’m not at all certain I can accept Harold and Maude as a candidate for the list–at least it would need to fall near the “less weird” end of the continuum. This isn’t because I don’t like the movie–indeed, it is a cherished treasure–I can still remember nearly asphixiating with laughter when I first saw it. Yes, yes it does take the May/December (more like March/late December in this case) romance theme pretty much to the (legal–and tasteful) extreme, which might qualify it as weird in the eyes of some. The point by the way is that there’s nothing perverted at all about their romance–the film goes to great lengths to illustrate that the “perversion” is in the hearts and minds of those who object to their love–Harold’s Mother, his Uncle, the Priest. And therein is the problem with considering this film ‘weird”: the theme can basically be boiled down to the rather conventional “to thine own self be true” (or in the words of Cat Stevens “if you want to be you be you.”) There are of course the flashes of black humor, but all of it is a joke the viewer is in on–none of it would really challenge the sensibilities of any but the most conservative audience members. Compare this to A Clockwork Orange, made the same year, or Pink Flamingos–made in 72–and this movie doesn’t seem weird at all.

  2. James,

    I appreciate your comments. You do make some valid points. I guess my plea for Harold & Maude’s inclusion onto the list stems from my personal love for the film and how it changed my perspective on what movies should be. Throughout my teenage years and early adulthood as I went to (usually) terrible movies my friends dragged me to, Harold & Maude always lingered in the back of my mind as the type of film I wanted to see. “Traditional” movies weren’t doing it for me anymore. Of course, on a weirdness spectrum, the film would rank low compared to others. What I love about the list thus far is how many styles, genres, and themes that are represented. No disrespect to THE LIST, but a film like Dillinger is Dead, which is included, portrays a man doing mundane daily things…cooking, watching TV, cleaning a gun, etc. for pretty much the entire film. I didn’t see avant-garde stylings or much weirdness at all, while others might. The years between 1967 through about 1979 has an astounding amount of creative, unique, and rebellious movies that changed cinema forever and had a key style to them that I feel is lacking in much of film today. I agree A Clockwork Orange is brilliant and much weirder than my choice. As for Pink Flamingos, it was an exercise in bad taste and that is all it claimed to be. Another point is that no matter how weird one initially finds a film to be, among repeated viewings it is going to diminish that weirdness impact. I regret using the word offbeat in my recommendation and would edit that to say “eccentric”. Without trying to distort film from reality, if one were to be acquainted with someone like the characters of Harold or Maude there would be no denying there was something odd about them. 366 summed it up best in his “mission statement”…sometimes you just get that “know-it-when you see-it” feeling invoked in you upon the first viewing of a film. I got it with Harold & Maude when I was 10 and it changed my young minds way of thinking. Even if I didn’t completely realize it at the time. I still think it’s weird movie though.

  3. I agree with James that, although I like the film, I don’t find Harold and Maude all that weird. Offbeat, definitely, but not all the way to weird. Still, part of our mission is to cover “cult” movies and I do think Harold and Maude is the kind of alternative cinema that will appeal to our core audience, so I’m quite happy to have the review on the site.

    Were I to throw this one onto a list with all the pics Eric mentioned in the Suggestion BoxFantastic Planet, Ricki-Oh, Death Race 2000 (original), Julien Donkey-Boy, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, Celine and Julie Go Boating, 3 Women, and Persona—I suspect I’d rank Harold and Maude as the least weird. But that list indicates the man knows his bizarre, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that a capsule for this one belongs here.

    By the way, Dillinger is Dead would not have made the List if not for the final five minutes, which put it over the top. It’s not one of the weirdest movies on the List, but it is totally unique and experimental in concept and has that completely surreal ending going for it.

  4. I do know my bizarre, and what I’ve put in the suggestion box is just the tip of the iceberg. But thanks for the compliment 366. I didn’t mean to trash Dillinger is Dead. You’re right, the ending was surreal and completely unexpected (a cook…on a boat…um, okay) but the monotony up to that point killed me. Another widely acclaimed film, Jeanne Dielman,23,Quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles explores the banality of human existance much in the same way & its 3 HOURS! of cooking, cleaning, and a little bit of prostitution. I couldn’t make it through the whole thing, so in its defense maybe it also got better. But anyway, I’ve seen approximately 85-90% of the list and adore most of it. I’m really enjoying the anticipation of finding out what is going to make it on there next. It’s a bitter pill to swollow, but I can except the exclusion of my beloved Harold & Maude.

  5. Thanks for reminding me about Harold and Maude,Eric. I remember going to great lengths to see this when I was, ooh, about thirteen probably. Much longer ago than I care to recall anyway :) I think it is at the “quirky” end of the weird spectrum. You also saw it at a young age Eric. I wonder if the age at which you first see “weirdness” factors into one’s opinion.
    I thoroughly understand you wanting to see the movie included because I think there are films that you just happen upon at the right time in your life and they touch something in you. The first time I saw The Wizard Of Oz, it was a showing at school on a pull down projector screen, with a Mighty Mouse cartoon on first. It is the first film I remember seeing on a big-ish screen. I wouldn’t argue that it’s weird at all, I just knew as I rushed home to tell my mum about it that I was in love, that it was the most magical thing I’d ever seen. I guess what I’m trying to say Eric, is that whether Harold and Maude qualifies as “weird enough”, I really enjoyed reading your review because you LOVE that film. Thank you.

  6. Kat,

    Thanks for your feedback. Yes I truly do love this film. I feel you’re right in saying that the films we see or even books and music that are introduced at an early age really begin to shape us into people and influence our personalities. I must also take this opportunity to express something that I have supressed since becoming involved with this community. The Wizard of Oz actually is a fairly weird movie. Since it is such a beloved and iconic picture that most people have seen, many fluff it off as just a classic family film, and it is magical seeing it as a child. Having recently viewing it several times with my young daughter, I feel it is one strange spectacle. I could go on for awhile describing it’s weirdness, but I won’t bore you here. I recently read they are making a prequel with Robert Downey, jr. as the wizard. Why can’t they leave well enough alone? If they ever remake and ruin Harold & Maude I’m going to flip my wig!

  7. If they decide to perpetrate that particular abomination I fully expect them to cast oooh, Michael Cera and Betty White.

  8. I agree with S.G. Eric. The sum totality of the unusual story, offbeat themes and sequences of oddball, occasionally bizarre events in Harold and Maude make it a weird movie. I would not find it out of place on the list.

    I had a different take on the themes. I think it is more about different perspectives on suicide and Harold’s evolution of character than the unusual nature of the relationship. The relationship seemed just a vehicle to me. Your take on it however, is a fresh perspective I had not considered, and equally valid. I think your interpretation is sensitive and intelligent. Your review touched me. Not only did it give me a new way to connect with the movie, but it reminded me of why I connected with Harold And Maude in the first place. I really like the way you think and write, Eric.

  9. All I can say is thank you for your kind words and taking the time to read the review Pamela. It means a lot coming from you. I like the way you think and write as well. I’m fairly certain I’ve read all of your submissions to the site and they are always outstanding interpretations. I must say I’m rather shocked at the amount of comments and feedback that Harold & Maude has generated. My intention was to express my thoughts on the one movie that I really felt passionate about and it inadvertantly led to my defending it’s justification as “weird”. It doesn’t really matter if it makes THE LIST or not. I consider it my Holy Grail, my Citizen Kane, my Beatles… you get the idea. The film has so many universal truths and themes that it is almost certain the viewer should at least relate to certain aspects, whether they like the film or not. Wes Anderson basically built his career around this film, didn’t he? Or am I just missing something?

    1. “Wes Anderson basically built his career around this film, didn’t he? Or am I just missing something?”

      Huh, I wrote my comment before I read yours. I’ve seen that argued by a few critics. I love Harold & Maude, and I love Wes Anderson.

  10. My dad and I both love this movie. I saw it again at a cult movie night, and as I was leaving Cat Stevens came up on my iPod, which was nice.
    I suppose it’s weirdness may have diminished – the AV Club (or a site like that) suggests it’s the origin of Wes Anderson’s ‘quirky’ style, which I suppose you can make an argument for. But at the same time, I agree that a List of great cult/weird movies would feel incomplete without Harold & Maude.

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