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HAROLD AND MAUDE (director: Hal Ashby; screenwriter: Colin Higgins; cinematographer: John A. Alonzo; editors: William A. Sawyer/Edward Warschilka; music: Cat Stevens; cast: Ruth Gordon (Maude), Bud Cort (Harold Chasen), Vivian Pickles (Mrs. Chasen), Cyril Cusack (Sculptor), Charles Tyner (Uncle Victor), Ellen Geer (Sunshine), Tom Skerritt-as M. Borman (Motorcycle Officer), Eric Christmas (Priest), G. Wood (Psychiatrist); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Colin Higgins/Charles B. Mulvehill; Paramount; 1971)
“A black comedy cult classic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A black comedy cult classic. Harold and Maude is a unique film that hit the mark with the American public at the time of its release and still remains to this day a very popular ‘counter culture’ film. Director Hal Ashby has his sights set on how trying it can be for children of the rich. To make his point, the filmmaker uses the witty and spare screenplay by Colin Higgins (the script was Higgins’s UCLA thesis) to straddle the thin line between the absurd and the whimsical. It features the odd romance between the obsessed with death, 20-year-old, morbid, spoiled, rich boy Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) and the almost 80-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). She’s a vivacious lover of life and free-spirit, while he’s a loner whose only pleasures in life are to spend his free time attending funerals and staging mock suicides in front of his regal widowed mother (Vivian Pickles). Mrs. Chasen is not amused by Harold’s attention grabbing mock suicide attempts such as hanging himself from the ceiling of his room. She tries to overlook her son’s mental problems and boldly arranges for him to meet three dates from a computer dating service with the hopes he will marry and thereby gain instant maturity. The dates fail, as Harold does his mock suicide bit on every date ruining any chance for romance. Mom also has her delicate Harold see a shrink over what she calls his amateur theatrics. All these scenarios are worked into comical skits and are played out to one song after another from Cat Stevens on the soundtrack, as the feel-good music and the dead-pan humor go great together.

Sharing the same love of attending church funerals Harold and Maude come together at several of the funerals, and she invites him home after one funeral. She steals cars, models in the nude for a sculptor, speaks out for humanitarian causes, rails against the military and takes a dying tree from a city street and re-plants it in the woods. Maude’s philosophy is “don’t get attached to things that are here today and gone tomorrow.” Their teacher-pupil relationship leads to Harold asking Maude to marry him; the surprise she has for him will bring him out of his death-like behavior.

The comedy works best when it’s totally nutty. But at times it becomes sluggish and filled with unneeded sentimentality and too much serious preaching about the worth of life over death. Though the film’s credo of ‘living out your own trip’ always remains amusing and relevant, some heavy-handed executed scenes are used to belabor the point. The one with the motorcycle cop and Maude in the stolen car became tiresome and drained energy from the film.

It is my understanding that the suits at Paramount panicked at some of the more daring scenes and cut them, which is unfortunate. What remains grand is the amazing performances by both Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. Their brilliant performances are what keep this film charming and timeless, even after seeing it some 40 years later.

The strange relationship between the quirky couple seeking to discover the wonders in life and the filmmaker’s plea for individual rights over conformity to society, is a liberating experience for the viewer as well as for Harold. This couple is immortalized in Hollywood history and should become an unforgettable one for the viewer.

REVIEWED ON 10/11/2004 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”