“Harold and Maude”: An Enduring Dark Comedy

Although some top critics weren’t so fond of Hal Ashby‘s dark comedy Harold and Maude when it was released in 1971, it was certainly cherished on many college campuses and beyond. Even now there’s much to appreciate—including that engaging Cat Stevens soundtrack.

Alex Godfrey, The Guardian, explains the surprising-in-retrospect history related to the movie’s poor initial reception:

…(I)t met with scathing reviews, bombed, and vanished from mainstream cinemas within a week. ‘You couldn’t drag people in,’ producer Charles Mulvehill told critic and author Peter Biskind. ‘The idea of a 20-year-old boy with an 80-year-old woman just made people want to vomit. If you asked people what it was about, ultimately it became a boy who was fucking his grandmother.’

Excuse the language, but that was the mainstream sentiment.

The more objective description of Harold and Maude on Rotten Tomatoes: “Harold, the 20-year-old son of a wealthy, neglectful woman, tries to gain attention for himself with various hilariously staged ‘suicides.’ Obsessed with death, Harold meets a like-minded 79-year-old woman named Maude. Harold and Maude become inseparable friends, both helping each other out of various personal travails.” The leads were played by Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon (1896-1985).

A key question posed: what will the idea of death and dying eventually mean to each of them?

The trailer:

THE BAD REVIEWS

One-and-a-half stars from Roger Ebert in 1972: “Death can be as funny as most things in life, I suppose, but not the way Harold and Maude go about it.”

Agreeing it’s “not very funny” was Tony Ortega, Village Voice, while Variety said, “Harold and Maude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.”

MORE POSITIVE REVIEWS AND ANALYSES

Nate Yapp, Cinema Blend: “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.”

His apt description of Maude: “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.”

TV Guide on Harold meeting Maude:

At two successive [funeral] services, he meets…a 79-year-old concentration camp survivor who is as thrilled with life as he is with death. A classic free spirit, she is the polar opposite of the solemn Harold. Nonetheless they become great pals, and she instills in him a desire to live, to spread his wings, to enjoy his brief time on earth. As time passes, they share several wacky adventures and their friendship blossoms into love–much to the alarm of Harold’s mother.

Also among the disapprovers is Harold’s ineffectual psychoanalytical psychiatrist.

THE WRITER

Colin Higgins (1941-1988) died from AIDS complications. Living on in his name is The Colin Higgins Foundation, “dedicated to supporting LQBTQ youth in underserved communities and the programs and organizations that foster and build their leadership and empowerment.”

A FITTING CONCLUSION

Matt Zoller Seitz, who ironically enough now submits reviews to Rogerebert.com, has now stated that Harold and Maude “is timeless in part because it never quite belonged to its own time” (Criterion).

He goes on to explain why it appealed to those of us who were young in the 60’s and 70’s. Harold and Maude…:

…took values that had been expressed by youthful rebels and dropouts in the late 1960s—peace, love, understanding, distrust of authority, a determination to march to the beat of a different drummer—and put them in the mouth of an old woman embroiled in one of the oddest and most original love stories ever filmed…It’s a romance, a tragedy, a satire, a paean to eccentricity, a philosophical statement, and a ‘trip’ film whose music montages seem to roll in like waves.

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