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Harold and Maude

Paramount Home Video

Starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort

Written by Colin Higgins
Directed by Hal Ashby

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When Hal Ashby's 1971 cult classic Harold and Maude was released, übercritic Vincent Canby of The New York Times hated it passionately. Of lead actors Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort he wrote:

Mr. Cort's baby face and teen-age build look grotesque alongside Miss Gordon's tiny, wizened frame ... as performers, they both are so aggressive, so creepy and off-putting, that Harold and Maude are obviously made for each other, a point the movie itself refuses to recognize with a twist ending that betrays, I think, its life-affirming pretensions.

Gordon wrote a letter to Canby in response, saying in part:

I wish you'd liked Harold and Maude. They said you saw it in a screening room with a dozen other critics. I wish you could have seen it with an audience. Maybe you wouldn't have liked it then, but then I'd feel it you saw it the way it was meant to be seen. Shoulder to shoulder with people is how a play or film is written to be seen and I wish you'd seen it that way.

In her autobiography My Side, Gordon continued, "Harold and Maude for the next five years would be shown in New York, Boston, Dayton, Paris, Minneapolis, Edgartown, you name it; people would come up to me and say they saw it two times, nine times, thirty times, and when last heard from Doug Strand of St. Paul, 'two hundred and one.'"

Most film aficionados have seen Harold and Maude at some point in their lives, usually in high school or college at their local art house. Throughout the '80s the film often shared a bill with Carl Reiner's Where's Poppa? — the connecting threads between the two being Ruth Gordon and black comedy. But truth be told, that connection did a serious disservice to Harold and Maude, the far better film of the two and a classic in its own right.

To refresh on the plot: Harold (Bud Cort, in his career-defining role) is 20, passive and withdrawn, and obsessed with death. He frequents funerals as a pastime and stages fake suicides in an attempt to make an impression on his bullying, emotionally distant mother. At a memorial service he meets Maude (Gordon), who is approaching her 80th birthday. Maude lives each moment fully, spurning convention and authority with exuberant joy, gradually drawing Harold out of his shell and encouraging him to embrace life. All the while, Harold's mother (Vivian Pickles) continues to set him up with a series of computer dates and weathers Harold's elaborately staged, retaliatory fake suicides. The two mismatched friends fall in love, and then Maude teaches Harold one final lesson about the circle of life.

As someone who hadn't seen Harold and Maude since my high school days, I held mostly vague memories of the film. I remembered it as a black comedy about a young man and an old woman who fall in love. And I remembered Harold's darkly funny suicides — the opening credit sequence, where he sets everything up and then hangs himself in the study, his mother ignoring him except to say, "I suppose you think that's funny, Harold"; Harold committing seppaku with a Samurai sword, to which his aspiring actress-date responds with Lady Macbeth's death scene; Harold's mother chatting with a prospective date as the unwitting girl watches Harold through the window while he douses himself with gasoline and sets himself on fire, then becoming hysterical when a non-ignited Harold calmly walks in the room a moment later. What I didn't remember was how visually striking and genuinely moving Harold and Maude is. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate it then. Perhaps it was the contact-high from all the folks smoking pot in the theater. Either way, to view this film as merely a "cult classic" curiosity of the '70s is a shame.

Almost any frame in this film could be taken alone as a piece of art, and certain scenes are breathtaking examples of what a director can do on film. Director Hal Ashby subtly drives home the theme of life vs. death by showing Maude bopping along ahead of a crowd of black-clad mourners, carrying a bright yellow umbrella, or having the couple picnic amongst the wreckage at an auto yard. Sometimes the symbolism is a tad heavy handed — as in a scene featuring a field of white daisies which shifts to hills covered with identical white tombstones — but each image conveys the story's ideas so much more effectively than another hundred pages of dialogue could ever do.

Also easily overlooked in a cursory viewing of the film is the back story behind Maude's obsessively libertarian approach to life. When Harold asks Maude about an umbrella she has hanging on the wall, she tells him it was something she used to defend herself with at protests and political meetings before she moved to America. Harold asks her what she was fighting for and she replies, "Oh, big issues. Liberty, rights, justice ..." She mentions that as a child in Vienna she had been taken to a garden party and admired the soldiers in their uniforms. "I thought then that I would marry a soldier. Later on, Frederick would chide me about it. He was so serious. A professor at the University...and in the government." She looks away, her eyes filling with tears. Later in the film, the couple are watching seagulls flying over San Francisco Bay and, as Harold reaches to hold Maude's hand, her sleeve rides up and he sees she has numbers tattooed on her arm (the moment is so brief the audience can easily miss it). Without acknowledging the tattoo, Maude relates an anecdote about Alfred Dreyfus, who would look out from his solitary confinement on Devil's Island and "see the most glorious birds. Many years later in Britanny he realized they had only been seagulls. ... To me they will always be glorious birds."

Understanding why Maude values freedom the way she does makes this far more than a zany black comedy about a wacky old lady and a young depressive. It lends poignancy to moments such as when Maude is asked by a policeman for her driver's license and she responds, "I don't have one. I don't believe in licenses." This is a woman who will never again carry identity papers to please the authorities. From her stories about setting free the canaries in pet stores to her relocation of a smog-choked tree to the forest, Maude's entire existence is about freedom. And freeing Harold to continue on, fully alive, is her last great act on earth.

A film this wonderful should have been digitally remastered, but the transfer is acceptable, if less than pristine. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen or pan-and-scan, and in Dolby Digtial 5.1 or the original mono (Dolby 2.0). Includes two theatrical trailers. Keep case.

-- Dawn Taylor

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