Favorite Film Harold and Maude Holds Time-Tested Laughs

Mar 29, 2017 | 2 comments

Harold and Maude meet

Bud Cort plays Harold and Ruth Gordon plays Maude

In The New York Times article, “A Movie Date With My Younger Self,” film writer Mark Caro asks if “Harold and Maude,” a favorite film from his youth, can still hold its charms all these years later. The 1971 movie received bad reviews in The New York Times and Variety when it first came out, yet it became a cult classic on the college circuit.

Happy birthday to Bud Cort, who played Harold! Today is his 69th birthday. Has he aged as well as this iconic film?

Caro had “parked it on some side ramp in my mind.” He was nervous about revisiting the film.

Here’s a movie that mines laughter from fake suicide attempts as it depicts the budding relationship between a pale-faced, death-obsessed 20-year-old (Bud Cort’s Harold) and a 79-year-old life-embracing pixie (Ruth Gordon’s Maude). Harold repeatedly pretends to kill himself to freak out his snobby, rich mother. Maude steals sickly trees from sidewalks to return them to nature. Cat Stevens’s soundtrack takes Maude’s side, reminding us, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.”

After a very long break, Caro decided to re-screen his adolescent film heartthrob in a theater setting.

Instead of watching it on a TV screen, I wanted to recreate the conditions under which I’d originally enjoyed this movie, so I booked it at Chicago’s Music Box Theater as part of my film series, “Is It Still Funny?” It was a packed house, and as Harold embarks on that first fake suicide, I could feel my own tension building.

Then his mother addresses her hanging child with a droll “I suppose you think that’s very funny, Harold,” and the dam burst: laughter, release, a crowded theater in sync in the dark.

Holy Toledo, what a great movie. I mean, that shouldn’t have been a surprise given that it used to be my favorite, but still … me of little faith.

It wasn’t just that it still makes me laugh at big moments and small. It wasn’t just that the movie still guts me at the end. It wasn’t even how impressed I was by the tightness of Ashby’s direction and Colin Higgins’s screenplay, how expertly the film establishes a tone that balances the macabre and some literal cheerleading for life — and how it anticipates the deadpan yet emotionally penetrating works of Wes Anderson and other American indie filmmakers.

What I hadn’t expected was how “Harold and Maude” would connect me to sensibilities that have become part of my core. Maybe this is why I loved the movie so much, because it dramatizes a way of seeing the world that looks directly into darkness but also emphasizes humor, creative thinking and kindness while concluding that cynicism and despair are dead ends.

As twisted as the movie is, it feels the way I often have felt, that push-pull of amusement and horror, curiosity and withdrawal, with songs heightening the emotions. Music plays a key role in almost all of my favorite movies, and “Harold and Maude” addresses the why.

What does Maude do to lift Harold out of his morbid spiral? She gives him a banjo because everyone should be able to make some music. As someone who plays guitar more enthusiastically than skillfully for soul-restorative purposes, who regards his record collection as an encyclopedia of moods and who has songs constantly running through his head, I relate.

You can see my Friday Funeral Film review of “Harold and Maude” through this link. And treat yourself to this video about the recreation of the Jaguar hearse from the film.

Recreation of the Jaguar Hearse from Harold and Maude
A Good Goodbye