Feeling trapped and emotionally dead by his wealthy surroundings, 20-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) repeatedly stages his suicide in elaborate ways to annoy his society-conscious mother (Vivian Pickles), while attending other people’s funerals in a custom-built hearse. Meeting Maude (Ruth Gordon), who is about to turn 80, at one of the services, Harold finds himself drawn to the free-spirit whose love of life awakens something inside of him, and it is through her love that Harold begins to see life as something to be lived…
Like Ruth Gordon’s sprightly 79-year-old character, director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins’ life-affirming black comedy Harold and Maude just gets better with age. There’s a hugely uplifting quality to the film as well as wonderful sense of anarchic rebellion that speaks as much now as it did when it was first released, where it became a cause célèbre among North American college audiences and enjoyed extended runs (some going for years).
Key to the film’s longevity are its universal themes of life, death and resurrection (Maude views death only as part of the life cycle and wants to return as a sunflower) and the incredible chemistry between the two leads, whose characters’ 50-year age gap romance shocked audiences of the day. Bud Cort is quietly effective as the manchild Harold, while Ruth Gordon brings a subtle sense of sadness behind Maude’s wrinkly smiles.
While not a laugh out loud comedy, the film is packed with hilarious moments (Maude giving Tom Skerritt’s motorcycle cop the runaround is a highlight, while Charles Tyner‘s one-armed army captain Uncle Victor is a satirical scream) and the script is a quotable delight, with the best quips coming from Maude: ‘Oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage.’ Also uplifting is Cat Steven’s hippie folk tunes and John Alonzo’s cinematography, which finds beauty in the most unlikely of places: the concrete Californian highways, a scrap yard, and the dilapidated railway carriage where Maude resides.
Alzono later scored an Oscar nomination for his work on Polanski’s Chinatown, while Ashby (certainly one of Hollywood’s most underrated directors) would go on to helm the Oscar nominated Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979), probably Peter Sellers’ finest performance on screen. Writer Higgins, meanwhile, ended up directing the comedy hits Foul Play and Nine to Five, before tragically succumbing to AIDS in 1988, aged 47. Ashby died the same year, from cancer, aged 59. Their legacy, however, is this unforgettable cult comedy. So, if you’re ever feeling down or at odds with the world, just let Harold and Maude in your life to make it that little bit better.
THE MASTERS OF CINEMA SERIES RELEASE
This is the first time in the UK that the cult black comedy has been made available on Blu-ray