Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude is a certified cult classic. It’s a film which has stood the test of time and gained a following since its unsuccessful release in 1971. Ashby’s film is a glorious black comedy that plays by its own rules, creating an oddball tale of friendship which you must root for.
Harold (Bud Cort) is a suicidal young man who spends his time plotting ways to kill himself and visiting funerals. At one of these funerals he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79 year old kook who helps him find new meaning in life. They’re unlikely friendship soon turns into a full blown love affair, all of which is set to the musical strains of Cat Stevens.
On paper Harold and Maude shouldn’t work but it does, thanks to Colin Higgins’ bleak comic script and Hal Ashby’s freewheeling filmmaking sensibilities. The film plays like the bizarre cousin to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, while it is also very clear that Ashby’s film had a direct influence on director Wes Anderson (nearly every one of Anderson’s films is inspired by this). Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon make an impressive pairing. The former’s dour and depressed youth, a great counterpoint to the latter’s M.P.D.G (Manic Pixie Dream Grandmother). It’s splendid casting and both actors feel like the parts were written for them – it wasn’t, Higgins began the script while at UCLA with the great Paul Schrader.
Looking at Harold and Maude now, it’s odd to see how it wasn’t a box office success when it was first released in 1971. The film feels perfect for its time, teetering in the tail end of the counterculture movement when the Vietnam War was in still in full swing, but that’s what the passage of time can do – box office numbers don’t really matter, it’s the quality of the film that counts. Ashby went on to have a successful career without ever really succumbing to the Hollywood machine. It could be said that the rest of his oeuvre was mainly star driven (by the likes of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Peter Sellers), but Harold and Maud is very much a director’s vision.
Bold, touching and darkly comic, Harold and Maud is a great little cult gem that is just sitting there waiting to be discovered by a new audience. If you’ve seen it, watch it again and if you haven’t – what’s kept you?