Hal Ashby is a director who sneaks up on you. Maybe you’ve heard of him; his films were nominated for a total of 24 Academy Awards and won seven times, but drugs ruined his career before he became an A-list director. For my part, I was familiar with his movie Shampoo but have been surprised again and again to find out that a famous film I had never seen had Ashby behind the camera. Being There was one such surprise, as was Coming Home, but the biggest surprise was 1971’s Harold and Maude.
Bud Cort, 23 years old at the time of shooting, plays a young man named Harold. Harold is not exactly suicidal, but he’s in the neighborhood: as the movie’s terrific credits sequence shows, he uses some drastic methods to get the attention of his upper-crust mother. He also attends the funerals of total strangers for fun, and at one such funeral he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), whose active life belies the fact that her eightieth birthday is in a few days. Maude goes on to teach Harold about life, love, and how important it is to be your own person.
If last sentence comes off as a little snarky, it’s only because you’ve heard it before from other movies. Lots of other movies. Lots and lots and lots and lots … ahem. You might even say that Maude is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, although her age separates her from any other MPDGs you’re likely to see in a movie. Compared with your average MPDG movie today, I like that this movie sees no need for Maude to “save” Harold. I never really got the feeling that Harold actually wants to die. He’s just sick of his family and he wants to be happy. Maude makes him happy. It’s just that simple.
As with a lot of movies of this type, I’ll look past a lot of Harold and Maude‘s flaws because I think its message is an important one. Yes, Harold’s stuffy mother and militaristic uncle are absurd characters, but they kind of have to be: otherwise this film would be a full-length version of the Twitter meme #FirstWorldProblems. Everyone feels a little trapped and smothered by the world at times, even if they are well-off, and this movie uses a heightened reality to deliver that message. Cort’s performance goes a long way in this regard; he doesn’t play too morose at the beginning of the movie, and he doesn’t play too liberated at the end. If he did, again, it would seem too much like a poor-little-rich-kid story.
I would not necessarily have thought Ashby to be the one to direct material like this. In the films of his I’ve seen, he preferred a flat, motionless camera, almost as though he’s studying his actors in a museum.* That’s fine for the first part of the movie, since Harold practically lives his life like a museum piece, but it would not work for most scenes after Harold meets Maude. It’s exactly there that Ashby picks up his game, moving his camera around and finding innovative ways to capture the beauty of the world that motivates Maude so much. There’s even one scene in which Maude’s aggressive driving is captured from the front in such a way that you’d think Gordon was actually driving the car; I’m sure it’s a rear projection or some other special effect, but it looks more real than today’s computer-generated work.
My big issue with this film is primarily a script problem: Maude is at her core amoral and anarchic, to the point of annoyance. Her belief system is based on disrespecting authority, and I’m not opposed to that, but like many things it should be done in moderation. With her penchant for stealing cars and taunting the police, it just seems like Maude goes too far. It’s not like the police in this movie are stopping civil rights marches or beating anti-war protestors; they’re doing their jobs, and I found it hard to justify the lack of respect for them that Maude has. There’s one scene – one shot, really – which suggests that Maude tends toward anarchy because she’s seen the horrors that governments are willing to legalize. That scene mitigated my dislike of Maude, but it didn’t remove it entirely.
Much like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Harold and Maude is a movie which suffers a little through no fault of its own: it has been ripped off and paid homage to so many times that nothing in it looks new even though it was new at the time. I enjoyed it, but didn’t quite love it, because I knew that the message it espouses would eventually be co-opted and driven in some ugly directions by some far inferior movies. The best compliment I can pay to this movie is that, no matter how much latter-day films like Elizabethtown try to bring it down, it still holds up.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Although later in his career, he would become the first director to use the Steadicam for handheld shots.