Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude would not be made today, and not because a studio wouldn’t back it: no one would even want to make it in these cynical times we live in. Its sweet, almost-syrupy-but-not-quite earnestness could only exist in 1971, when the younger generation, despite being killed in their thousands in a war that no one wanted, could still find it within themselves to believe in peace and love. It was largely panned upon its initial release, dismissed as hokey and simplistic and all too strange, but it found a cult following in later years from those who wanted to live in the world that its two protagonists share. It’s a world of intimacy and love, of the promise that no matter how dismal it may seem, life is still worth living. There may never have been a film before or since that addressed life and death with such ease and high spirits – you can’t help come away from Harold and Maude without having its wide-eyed optimism brushed off on you.
It’s peculiar to think of it, but the origins of the reviled Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope can be traced at least in part Ruth Gordon’s 79-year-old Maude. Her counterpart, the dour, pasty, rake-thing teenager Harold (Bud Cort) is obsessed with death, elaborately (and hilariously) faking his own suicide over and over in an attempt to court his conservative, old-money mother’s attention and attending the funerals of people he doesn’t know in order, it’s assumed, to feel something. It’s at one of these funerals that he meets Maude, his polar opposite – dressed in bright colours with her hair in braids and almost sixty years his senior, she is the car stealing, art making, flower-power bolt from the blue that awakens him to the beauty of the world around him.
If your eyes rolled upon reading that synopsis, it may be because they’ve been conditioned to: Harold and Maude’s mission is to break through out knee-jerk shield of cynicism and connect to our beating, bleeding hearts. The film has an oddness to is that diffuses scenes that could be cheesy, and its dark streak of comedy – Harold’s faked suicides become ever more elaborate and grotesque – keeps the mood from being too saccharine.
It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, especially as both characters are very simply drawn to the point that one could easily dismiss the whole thing as trite, but the leads’ performances, particularly Gordon’s, mean that they are both easy enough to believe in. Maude’s joy at the world that surrounds her is absolutely infectious – she spouts clichés with such conviction that they become profound and new, and the simplicity with which she sees the world takes on a power and resonance of its own. Unlike the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, she’s more than just a quirky object to facilitate Harold’s breaking out of his shell. She does do that, yes, but she’s a woman with a life behind her that he can only catch glimpses of, and more importantly, she never acts for anyone but herself – to the point of eventual tragedy. Harold loves Maude, and Maude loves everyone and everything, including Harold.
The film’s optimistic view isn’t blind to injustice, though – the toll that Vietnam was taking on America’s youth constantly looms in the background, coming to the fore when Harold’s mother (Vivian Pickles) sends him to his military uncle (Charles Tyner) to be drafted – a character subject to considerable ridicule throughout. Ashby knows the war is no joke, though, and the film’s most powerful moment comes when a shot of the couple in a field of white daisies gives way to one of them in a cemetery of white military gravestones, the camera pulling back to reveal the vast scale of the destruction America wrought on its people. It’s a striking edit in the middle of a film that often seems visually staid but for a flourish here and there. Ashby has lots of fun with fields of vision, placing comic moments in the background whilst the action takes place in the foreground, and he takes a lot of care to make Harold’s family home feel like a dark, oppressive castle compared to Maude’s haphazard and carefree shack. Mostly though, the film is content to tells its story with few frills, and rightly so: a more pronounced style may have pushed the film’s subject matter into the realm of twee.
What Harold and Maude does best, though, is intimacy. Harold’s mother and uncle play supporting roles, but for the most part the film is just the two of them talking and going on little adventures. Their growing closeness is embracing, inviting the viewer in, taking you along with them and asking you to believe in the world that they do. And all the while Cat Stevens is singing in the background, his love, gentle philosophising inviting you along too, with what must be one of the most iconic soundtracks ever produced out of an artist’s existing repertoire. The film’s final, devastating montage taps into the universal sadness of death, but when Harold goes skipping over the hilltops as the credits roll, it’s clear that the message is one of hope, of life. “If you want to sing out, sing out, and if you want to be free, be free.”
Harold and Maude is available in the UK on DVD and Bluray from Masters of Cinema.