Big Screen Streaming: Harold and Maude
-Film Reviewed by Roger Market–
First released in 1971, Harold and Maude was ahead of its time. Consequently, the film was a box office flop, but it later enjoyed a cult following. By 1983, Harold and Maude had finally turned a profit. Now, in the age of streaming video, a new generation of viewers can enjoy this wonderful dark comedy about a wealthy teenager who’s bored of money and—much to his mother’s chagrin—obsessed with death.
When Harold Chasen finally meets 79-year-old Maude at a funeral, after seeing her at several other burials around town, he realizes that she’s more than a fellow funeral crasher. Maude has a zest for life that Harold has never seen, a worldview that’s a stark contrast to his own. How many septuagenarians are prepared to steal a car at a moment’s notice? A deep, beautiful friendship quickly emerges from their encounter, one that challenges Harold just as much as it teaches him about life.
The main subplot of the film revolves around Harold’s mother’s conviction that it’s time “to put away childish things” and become a man. In particular, Mrs. Chasen wants her son to get married and to abandon his fascination with death. “I can’t stand much more of this!” she says, horrified by his morbid curiosities. In one memorable scene, Mrs. Chasen tells Harold that she’s going to help him fill out a dating questionnaire for a computer matching service that will set him up with three young women. She then she proceeds to answer all the questions herself, reading them aloud. “‘Do you sometimes have headaches or backaches after a difficult day?’” she asks. “Yes, I do indeed!” she replies, marking her answer. Meanwhile, a silent Harold sits nearby and pretends to shoot himself in the face, obviously feeling stifled by his mother’s empty concern and self-involved actions. Harold’s dates feature similar antics, as they take place at their home, with Mrs. Chasen taking an active role.
In one of the film’s most iconic moments, Harold goes to visit Maude in her home, which is actually an old train car by the side of the road. In this scene, Maude sings and dances to Cat Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” which becomes a theme song of sorts. She plays it on the player piano.
Maude then asks Harold to play a song with her, and he tells her he doesn’t play an instrument. “Dear me, everybody should be able to play some music,” she says, opening a closet full of instruments. She rifles through, finally selecting a banjo. “This is the one,” she says, giving it to him.
Up to now, music has mostly been in the background of the movie, but here, Maude brings it to the forefront and makes it special for Harold. To her, music is a “cosmic dance,” and it’s representative of the most precious things in life. This concept is echoed by the movie’s stellar soundtrack, which consists of several songs by Cat Stevens, plus a couple of instrumentals. Indeed, some viewers may be surprised to learn that Stevens’ now-classic “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” were composed specifically for Harold and Maude and were not released outside the movie until 1984. The message of “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” for the movie is apparent in the lyrics themselves, but the events of the final act, including a reprise of the song at the end, drive the point home: as Maude would say, waving her arms about like a cheerleader, “L-I-V-E, live!”
Ruth Gordon, who plays Maude, turns in a dynamite performance. Although she was about seventy-five when the film came out—only a few years younger than her character—she exhibits a young, lively spirit that perfectly captures the essence of Maude. Viewers won’t even bat an eye when she launches into her little cheer. Likewise, Bud Cort does a great job embodying Harold, and the chemistry between Gordon and Cort is mesmerizing. The film’s events span about a week, and in that short time, Harold and Maude become the best of friends. Indeed, they are in love. The controversial bond conveyed on screen is genuine and full of heart, especially as the movie reaches its inevitable conclusion. Meanwhile, Vivian Pickles is hilarious as Harold’s overbearing, self-centered mother. Her delivery of the line “HAROLD! That was your last date!” is one that most viewers will never forget.
For all the incredible qualities of Harold and Maude, the film does have a few minor flaws. The most obvious issue is the question of Harold’s age. Although Cort was twenty-three when the film debuted, he had a deceptively young face. In the opening scene, for example, Harold seems to be about twelve years old. It’s a bit shocking, therefore, when he buys a hearse and begins driving. For the most part, there’s hardly a mention of school or anything else that would normally clue the viewer in to a young character’s age. Another minor flaw is that in the second half of the movie, Harold sees Maude’s bare arm for the first time and notices a number tattooed. Perhaps writer Colin Higgins didn’t want to focus too much attention on the fact that Maude is a Holocaust survivor, but on the other hand, this turn of events seems like an opportunity for adding depth to Maude’s character: an old women who escaped the Holocaust with an infectious passion for life.
Nonetheless, Harold and Maude is a fantastic movie. It’s the kind of movie that “they” don’t make anymore, particularly because it doesn’t fall into any of the categories with which Hollywood is presently infatuated. The film isn’t based on a book or any other intellectual property; it isn’t part of a series; and it doesn’t feature superheroes, dinosaurs, or talking animals. This 1970s gem was made for just $1.3 million, but every dollar went toward making a film that’s touching and darkly comedic. Harold and Maude is highly recommended, and right now, viewers can catch it for free on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Post Photo Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org