Harold and Maude is a 1971 film by Hal Ashby. The life and career of Hal Ashby have been interesting, to say the least. He won an Oscar for Best Film Editing for In the Heat of the Night (1967), he directed a number of cool movies and he met an untimely death from cancer after having had significant drug-related health issues. But this post is about his 1971 film which was a box office flop when it came out but is now considered as a small cult movie, just think of how many times it’s referenced in There’s Something About Mary (1998).
Harold (Bud Cort) is a rich and bored boy who spends his days staging imaginative suicides to torment his mother (Vivian Pickels) who’s actually between resignation and indifference, busy as she is with her high-society friends. Harold’s other hobby is attending funerals at the cemetery, and he’s so obsessed with death that he buys a hearse to go around. The mother’s only concern is that everything should look normal, so she buys him a Cadillac and looks for a potential bride. In response, Harold modifies the Cadillac to make it look like the hearse that his mother had had taken away and begins a relationship with Maude (Ruth Gordon), a funny old hippie in her seventies who likes to go to funerals like Harold. She does it for quite a different reason, though: she’s so fascinated by life that she likes to see how it ends and how new things are born.
The relationship between the two is strange but very sweet. Young Harold finally finds someone to love in his until-then-empty life, and Maude has lived terrible things in the past and at his venerable age she lives every day as if it were the last, taking everything lightly, from car thefts to statues in churches, right up to death itself. But although death is undoubtedly the prominent theme of the film (other themes being love, the meaning of life, giving the right importance to things, and the importance of appearance in our society), Harold and Maude remains first and foremost a comedy, and 50 years on it still is extremely funny and entertaining! It’s a surreal comedy, full of black humor that probably no one understood at the time but that works great in the film. The main characters are all extreme: Harold is bored to death (literally), Maude is always joyful, and the mother of Harold coulnd’t be more superficial. This is the way writer Colin Higgins uses to convey intelligent messages with irony, with almost parodic situations.
I feel compelled to add that the film wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for the exceptional soundtrack by Cat Stevens. On the one hand, it makes the film dated and situates it without a shadow of a doubt in the early seventies (but the same can be said of the clothes, the cars, etc.). On the other hand, it gives the movie a light and at the same time intelligent tone thanks to the smart lyrics of the songs written by the British singer. His songs are really beautiful! Cat Stevens even makes a cameo as one of attendantes at a funeral!
In conclusion, I most certainly recommend this brilliant comedy to anyone. It’s funny, it’s well-written, it develops several themes, and nothing in it sounds trivial or stupid. Plus, it has a kiler soundtrack. And I don’t know if Tim Burton ever said anything about it, but I consider this movie as a sort of precursor to his cinema (dark humor, weird and anti-social protagonists…). Ciao!
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- The movie page on Internet Movie DataBase
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