‘Harold and Maude’: A comedy that happens when absolutely everything goes right

Harold and Maude. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Even by the standards of such Hal Ashby comedies as The Last Detail and Being There, Harold and Maude is exceptional.

Harold and Maude, which screens this weekend at the Landmark Sunshine, is a perfect example of what an artist like Ashby could do when given the chance to really cut loose and create just the right circumstances for success. You just need to rewatch Harold and Maude to know that, when he made the film, Ashby was an artist at the height of his self-confidence and creative powers.

As a former film editor, director Hal Ashby knew exactly how to pace a comedy. He was also somewhat famous for his laconic attitude on-set. He was a very hands-off filmmaker and often let his actors do their own thing. When you watch a movie like Harold and Maude, you see that that approach isn’t laziness, as some might charge, since Ashby was often high and an unabashed hippie, too. When Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon’s performances in Harold and Maude show how Ashby made the most out of his actors’ nuanced performances, and why he was a great American filmmaker.

Cort plays Harold, a death-obsessed blueblood who acts out against his oblivious mother (Vivian Pickles) by repeatedly faking his own death in a series of increasingly flamboyant faux suicides. His mother could care less and she tries to set him up with a young woman he can date and marry. But, as the film’s title implies, Harold only develops feelings for Maude (Gordon), a mischievous 79-year-old. Maude, like Harold, recreationally attends funerals. But unlike Harold, Maude is a car-jacker, a nude model, an amateur painter, an aroma collector and something of a drag racer. How could he not fall in love with her?

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Harold and Maude’s rapport is entirely reliant on atmosphere, facilitated by good acting, good screenwriting (all praise due to Australian scribbler Colin Higgins, who also published a novelization of his screenplay in 1971), and very good direction.

In fact, much of Harold and Maude’s emotional impact is delivered by quietly blank stares and devilishly innocent smiles. In an especially crucial scene, once Harold has learned to confide in Maude, he explains to her whey he ritualistically fakes his death. He tells her an anecdote about the first time he killed himself. Then he lowers his head and starts convulsing. And what starts as laughter imperceptibly changes to choked sobs. Maude then gives Harold an incredibly romantic pep talk: “I understand. A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they’re not really dead. They’re just backing away from life. Take a jump. Get hurt, even. Play as well as you can.” She continues by insisting that the only real answer to Harold’s problems is to, “L-I-V-E: live,” emphasizing, “live” with brio. Then she playfully scrunches her nose up and jokes, “Otherwise, you’ve got nothing to talk about in the locker room.”

To give credit where credit is sorely due, Gordon’s performance is Harold and Maude is brilliant. But that in turn speaks to Ashby’s unostentatious genius. He didn’t single-handedly create great things—he simply orchestrated them.

Which is to say: he earned his title as a film director. So when you see Gordon tell Cort, upon observing a giant pile of scrap metal being hoisted into a compactor, “Yes, there is definitely a certain attraction,” putting a hard stress on “def” and the second soft “a” in “Attraction,” remember: that line reading is great firstly because of Gordon but also because of Ashby. You can also see actor and director bringing out the best in each other in the scene where Maude recklessly swerves out of her way to drive right by two hippy hitchhikers. As the hippies look back at Maude’s latest stolen car, Ashby cuts to Gordon in her car, remarking contentedly to herself: “Power steering!”

Everything comes together in an unassuming but no less pointed way in the scene where Harold tells Maude what kind of flower he’s most like. “What flower would you like to be,” Maude asks Harold as they’re both reflected in a nearby pond’s green surface. “I don’t know,” Harold wonders.

There’s a hint of bashfulness in his answer that subtly changes his character’s usual monotone so that it sounds like it belongs to a noticeably changed young man. He settles on a field of white dandelions. “Why’s that?” “I don’t know,” he replies thoughtfully. “Because they’re all alike?” Maude reassures Harold that that’s not true, that every flower is different in some way. Ashby caps this scene by ambiguously juxtaposing those white flowers with a panoramic shot of identical white headstones neatly arranged in a cemetery. Here lies the individual; Ashby knew him well.

Ashby was a champion of free spirits. He would have been the perfect director to make a film adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide, as is evident from the last scene of Harold and Maude where Harold wanders off while strumming Cat Stevens’s “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” on a banjo.

Many of Ashby’s most enchanting characters are capable of finding the best of all possible worlds in even the most darkly humorous moments. Like Being There’s Chance, Maude isn’t a Pollyanna: she just chooses to make her own world out of the one that surrounds her. It’s a defiant act on her part. Similarly, Ashby triumphally created a microcosm in Harold and Maude in which two morbid-minded protagonists initially bond because they know that eventually, they’re both going to die. Maude speaks for Ashby when she tells Harold to, “Go and love some more,” quavering noticeably when she says “more.”

Harold and Maude may be all about death, but thanks to Ashby’s eye for comedy and his bittersweet sense of optimism, it’s just as deeply funny as it is moving.