Get up and scan the titles on your video shelf (or drawer or whatever). Do it now. Quickly. I'll wait.
Back now? Good. Now, when you were looking at all those movies, did one title give you an overwhelming feeling of "Man, I can't wait to see that one again!" I certainly hope so. It seems to be a good idea for everybody to have a film like that in their collection. Mine is Harold and Maude.
I suppose it's easy to see why the film's regulated to cult status - why, look up offbeat cinema in the dictionary and it might say "See Harold and Maude." For instance, it opens on the main character, Harold (Bud Cort), carefully walking through the study, making a little nametag, lighting a candle, and then hanging himself. His not-very-startled mother responds by asking him if he thinks it's funny. A tiny smile from the apparent suicide victim indicates that yes, he does...very much so.
That single morbidly funny moment kicks off a journey through the human experience, as seen from both ends. For Harold, a death-obsessed 20-year old from a wealthy family, life changes when he meets Maude, a vivacious septugenarian for whom the word "eccentric" is far too mild a description. The two seem to have some common bond that attracts them instantly.
In Maude, Harold finds something completely removed from his doldrum world of social parties and scaring mother with faked death scenes. He finds an utter liberation in the company of a kindred spirit. In Harold, Maude finds an all-too-willing cohort in her quest to save the world, one small piece at a time. Armed with a Buddhist philosophy and a total lack of "sensibility," she does what she pleases, when she pleases, and doesn't give a hoot (or a nanny for that manner) about what society thinks of her.
The brilliance of Colin Higgins' script and Hal Ashby's direction is that the film's tone shifts as Harold comes around to a brighter point of view. It starts out as a black satire, the kind the British make about really dark things happening to very rich people. However, as soon as the two title characters get together, it starts to become, of all things, a romantic comedy with a tinge of the revolutionary.
Ooh, and some of the lines in this screenplay are dynamite. One particular favorite of mine is, "Do you...like...knives?" delivered with deadly accuracy by Cort. During one particular escapade, Maude runs afoul of a highway patrolman (a young Tom Skerritt, credited as M. Borman). Her way of deflecting the officious manner of the cop only served to completely befuddle him and amuse Harold (and me).
Both leads are marvelously absorbing, especially Gordon. Though she'd won an Oscar before this (for her intentionally off-putting part in the excellent Rosemary's Baby), Maude was a part she deserved it for. Even at 75, she manages to be spunkier and more energetic than any other member of the cast, full of not only a zeal for life but an undercurrent of compassion for everything in it. Cort is more subdued, and rightly so. To watch two people be as alive as Gordon would be like watching a really irritating morning talk show. Besides, being exuberant isn't in the character of Harold. Cort brings out the near-perfectly tuned being of a morbid man-child without a clear direction or purpose. That's not to say he doesn't hiccup. There's one point where the script calls for him to cry and he never makes his reasons for doing so plausible. Still, when he smiles after doing something particularly devilish, it's really quite disturbing in a humorous way.
The supporting cast is equally excellent. Vivian Pickles plays Harold's mother, a worldly socialite who doesn't understand her son but (barely) puts up with him. Pickles is an absolute delight as she tries to shoehorn her son into some definition of normality - and he just won't fit. Harold's Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), who became a permanent lefty as General MacArthur's right hand man, also contributes some humor. Funniest of all, though, is the very brief part of the priest, in his scene where he tries to tell Harold not to do something frightfully abnormal - the homoerotic urges just seep through his religious exterior.
And Ashby knows just how to show off those latent desires. The visual style here is lightyears beyond the typical mundane direction of most comedies. We have some beautiful shots, and wonderfully edited moments of comic genius. The best sequences, speaking in purely visual terms, take place in Maude's little converted freight car of a home. The tiny, crowded space provides for a lot of captivatingly framed bits...certainly an added draw to an already exquisite picture.
The very best part of Harold and Maude, though, is the message. Of course, I'm going to make you watch the film to get it, but for being a romantic comedy, it has an awful lot to say about human nature.
As the Cat Stevens soundtrack goes "...there's a million ways to go, you know that there are..." You could go and rent the latest Freddie Prinze, Jr. film, and maybe you'd enjoy yourself - you're certainly not risking being - *gasp* - offended. I recommend you go seek this film out on DVD or VHS (surprisingly, the DVD isn't that much of an improvement of the video). There's a chance it might not sit well, but imagine the new filmic friend you'll discover if it sits well with you. This is another of my favorite films.