Harold and Maude was a bomb on release, but over the last forty years it’s acquired a cult following, and is one of the reasons why its director, Hal Ashby, is so celebrated. Harold (Bud Cort) is a disturbed young man who finds meaning in life when he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon) a free spirit who he falls in love with. The big gimmick: He’s about 18, and she’s in her seventies. Our review of Criterion’s Blu-ray of Harold and Maude follows after the jump.
The film opens showcasing one of Harold’s hobbies: He likes to pretend that he’s committed suicide. His mother (Vivian Pickles) wants him to start dating and lead a normal life, but he’s a rich kid bored with the world, and when he gets a sports car, he transforms it into a hearse. He meets Maude, and she’s a wack-a-doodle who takes whichever vehicle is nearest to her, even if it’s a cop car. She wants to save trees, and is filled with joie de vivre, which is antithetical to Harold. His uncle (Charles Tyner) wants him to join the military, and his shrink makes no progress with him. The only thing that matters to Harold is Maude.
When Elizabethtown became the first entry in Nathan Rabin’s “My Year of the Flops” column, he coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to codify a specific sort of woman in romantic comedies. Often they take interest in a downtrodden man who they bring back to life with their erratic and loving ways. It’s often the default character in indie romantic comedies, and it’s a role that’s been played by great actresses, though perhaps defined by Natalie Portman’s role in Garden State or Zooey Deschanel in most things. Maude is very much the template for this character, but at least here she’s not just some hot woman who happens to fall in with a cute but depressed guy. In that way Harold and Maude is to Seinfeld as those films are to Friends, and those rough edges help the film.
And if you like quirky movies, this is definitely the grandparent or godfather to that genre, and Ashby has a nice light touch. The problem is when you start thinking about it. The main character is a spoiled brat, and though the relationship is believable, you almost wish that Harold was gay or something. Where The Graduate captured a cultural ennui, and said something about being a youth, there’s a level of freak show/jokiness to the core relationship. That it works at all is a minor miracle, but there’s a sense of everything being a put on.
Ashby proved himself to be a great director, and I would argue his masterpiece is Shampoo. This is interesting, but it feels like the people who love this movie are more like Tim Burton fans. It’s got a vibe, and either you love it or don’t. I never felt crazy about this movie, but it’s well made, and it doesn’t cheat its characters, but the value of it is that it makes work its central conceit.
The Criterion Collection’s release is excellent. The film is presented in widescreen (1.85:1) and in 2.0 Mono. The picture and sound quality is what should be expected from a Criterion release. It looks period, so it doesn’t look too scrubbed, but the clarity of image is excellent. The film comes with commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill that mixes anecdotes with stories about the making of, and Ashby’s varied career. Solid track. It also comes with audio excerpts of seminars by Ashby (13 min.) and writer-producer Colin Higgins (13min.) that give the creators a chance to talk about the film. Also here is a new interview with songwriter Yusuf Islam aka Cat Stevens (11 min.) who talks about his career, and how Ashby used the demo versions for the film as he felt they conveyed more than polished versions. He was right.