HAROLD & MAUDE: The Most Influential and Inspiring Film You’ve Never Heard Of

“I haven’t lived.  I’ve died a few times,” a somber Harold (Bud Cort) utters into the silence.  Harold is an odd young man: in his spare time he drives a hearse, recreationally attends strangers’ funerals, and commits mock suicides in vain attempt for his mother’s (Vivian Pickles) attention and affection.  He tells his patient companion, a 79 year- old Holocaust survivor, about his accidental first brush with death.  Maude (Ruth Gordon) nods at him and replies “Yes.  I understand.  A lot of people enjoy being dead.  But they aren’t dead really.  They’re just backing away from life…” Maude is also odd and she also recreationally attends strangers’ funerals (that’s where she’s met her new boyfriend, Harold).  But she also steals cars and recklessly speeds about in them, liberates trees to replant in forests, and devoutly “believe[s] in life.”  HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) is a macabre romantic comedy directed by Hal Ashby and written by Colin Higgins and has earned the reputation as an incredibly influential cult classic. 

HAROLD AND MAUDE poster directed by Hal Ashby

The film cost approximately $1.3 million to make, but never actually made a profit until 1983, through home release sales, as well as retrospective screenings.  However, it is an interesting occurrence that in some locations the film opened to extended runs with The New York Times writer Aljean Harmetz observing in an 1983 article that “even at the beginning, not everyone had hated HAROLD AND MAUDE.  The movie played 92 consecutive weeks in Boston, 112 weeks in Montreal, [and] two years in Paris.”  It garnered Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress and Best Actor and has also earned its place in history with becoming officially preserved by the National Film Registry in 1997.  The film also placed in “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs” (#45), “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Passions” (#69), “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Cheers” (#89), and “AFI’s 10 Top Ten” (#9 in Romantic Comedy Category) lists.

Being one of his favorite films, it has influenced Wes Anderson’s comedy style, tone, and possibly colour- scaping (Maude’s heavy yellow influences are prominent throughout).  It’s also an exciting aside fact that Bud Cort appears in Anderson’s THE LIFE AQUATIC OF STEVE ZISSOU (2004) as Bill Umbell.  Even Jon Poll’s beautiful high school dramatic comedy CHARLIE BARTLETT (2007), which starred Anton Yelchin as the titular character, Kat Dennings, Hope Davis, and Robert Downey Jr. is almost a modern retelling of the classic.  Bartlett deploys Harold’s mimicking tricks with his psychologist and utilizes the film’s “theme song” If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out by Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf) twice in its duration.

Cat Stevens had composed the song specifically for HAROLD AND MAUDE and debuted it on the soundtrack; the same also applies to his song Don’t Be Shy.  It is rumoured that Elton John was originally offered the position of composer, but had suggested Stevens when he left the project.  If this is true, then it may be a lucky occurrence as the film’s soundtrack could not be more perfect in terms of matching tone and style, and serves to enhance its inspirational theme.  The film is filled with meaningful moments where the soundtrack enlightens the viewer.

An especially moving instance is during Harold and Maude’s outing in a field of daisies.  She asks what flower Harold would like to be and demurely replies, “one of these maybe…  because they’re all the same.”  Maude refutes his answer over a close up showing the individual flowers, explaining, “that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are like this, but allow themselves to be treated like that.”  The audience sees her arm sweep over a sea of seemingly identical daisies, and panning farther away, the viewer is shown a sea of fallen soldiers’ identical white tombstones.  Quietly playing is Stevens’ Where Do The Children Play; it is an exceedingly powerful and personal moment, and has a subversive political tone.

Ashby often uses effective shot compositions that contain interesting imagery and large amounts of information.  Key examples are any scenes set in the offices of employees of social institutions: Harold’s psychiatrists’ (G. Wood) office is barren, and stark white with only three very small certificates and a portrait of Sigmund Freud displayed; a Priest’s (Eric Christmas) is also a plain white room, but has a very large portrait of the Pope; while Harold’s Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a single- armed general in the army, was General MacArthur’s “right- hand man” and proudly salutes his portrait of Nathan Hale.  The audience is handed the ideology of these individuals and institutions, while also being engaged visually.  The mise- en- scene of each of these scenes mirrors one another, and are framed the same.  This repetition subconsciously stresses the importance of these locations and moments.  Visuals and editing of this calibre and style often leave the viewer with the understanding that there is a larger statement being made, even if it isn’t immediately clear. 

Ashby would go on to become a prominent New Wave director after HAROLD & MAUDE, with projects such as SHAMPOO (1975), COMING HOME (1978), and BEING THERE (1979).  Some credit may be given to Bud Cort in that without him sacrificing his professional reputation, Ashby would have lost creative control over editing HAROLD & MUAUDE.  Paramount studios had been worried about the political themes within the film, and they did not want audiences to see intimacy been the main characters due to their age difference.  The studio had cut quite a few scenes from the film, leaving Ashby disheartened.  Ashby had already earned a generous reputation on set, with making the wrier, Colin Higgins integral to production, after he was refused the director’s chair.  Lead actor, Bud Cort, decided to step in, and boycotted all the press releases until Ashby was given back control of the editing process.  It worked; Ashby was able to preserve his and Higgins’ visions for the film, with few exceptions (although the shot of a massive “FUCK WAR” sign was still nixed).  The move had earned Bud Cort a reputation for being difficult to work with, however, and he never worked with Paramount again until 2015 in Mark Osborne’s THE LITTLE PRINCE (2015).  Ruth Gordon who was already an Oscar- winner for her performance in Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and a well- known 4- time Oscar- nominated writer, would continue her robust career, earning herself 3 Primetime Emmy nominations and a win over the years. HAROLD & MAUDE is a truly inspiring and influential film, but due to its odd subject matter, has earned itself a place on the cult classic shelf.  It is unlikely to ever get a remake or reboot, making it completely unique.  It must be noted that the film could trigger viewers, with many graphic suicide facsimiles, including the opening scene.  However, the visuals and soundtrack are so cohesive that the ultimate message becomes the takeaway: “Reach out! Take a chance! Get hurt even. But play as well as you can!… Otherwise you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.”

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