Harold and Maude is one of those “little classics” that’s a shared secret among the few who saw it on their first run, sort of the Lost in Translation of its generation. Like the 2003 film, there are going to be those who love it and those who just don’t understand the appeal. I’m sure if I had been my current age in 1971, I would have been charmed out of my socks by this idiosyncratic May-December romance.
As it is, separated by thirty-five years, the cultural rust has accumulated on this movie, which is almost completely a creation of its times. Among those perhaps ten to fifteen years my junior, it would probably be a rare person who could connect to this film. That doesn’t make it bad, just dated.
Seventeen-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) is somewhat alienated in the same way that Paris Hilton is a somewhat flexible in her morals. Sad and obsessed with mortality, he uses fake suicide attempts to gain the attention of his mother (Vivian Pickles). Their relationship is about as distant as Neptune and the Earth. His car is a hearse he rescued from the junkyard. Irritated more than alarmed, mom sends him to a psychiatrist who seems to have memorized his textbooks without actually learning anything.
When he does get out of the house, he attends funerals of people he doesn’t know. Seventy-nine-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon) is his dead opposite in every way. She seems to possess exactly the childlike appetite for life that Harold has had squashed out of him. She attends funerals not out of Harold’s morbid obsessions but simply as a reminder that life is short and needs to be lived. Then, when she needs a ride, she just helps herself to the first car that catches her eye (and the way she drives, it’s amazing she’s lived to seventy-nine). After one funeral, she picks Harold’s hearse. I think this is probably the quirkiest version of the “meet cute” that I can remember.
It’s fairly predictable that free-spirited Maude will slowly draw out the inward-looking Harold, but it’s these scenes, in which their friendship slowly evolves into something more like a romance, that bring this movie to life. I think people who look back fondly on Harold and Maude are remembering only this part and forgetting the rest, including an unnecessary sub-plot in which Harold’s mother tries to set him up on a bunch of computer dates. Lovers of this film might also be forgetting an ending that comes completely from out of left field.
Harold and Maude definitely has its faults, especially humor that is often forced and very dated, however the central relationship has a certain magic to it that works when it’s on screen. Whether or not that’s enough to recommend this film is a matter of taste. I liked it, but I tend to be forgiving of movies where I liked the characters, despite all of its other shortcomings.