“Harold and Maude” Revisited

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I bought myself a present this week. One that I’ve been waiting for most of my life. That’s not hyperbole. After seeing Harold and Maude in the early 1970s, I was eager to acquire the original soundtrack album, only to find one had not been released. Now, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hal Ashby’s black comedy, it has just been issued for the first time.

Listening to Cat Stevens’ iconic songs I am transported back in time. “I’d left my happy home, to see what I could find out, I left my folk and friends to clear my mind out…” I had recently moved to San Francisco, trying to find myself. I’ve loved this film since I first saw it (at the Clay Theatre?). I was excited to be away from family and friends, living in a real city, embracing my new identity (and behavior) as a gay man.

It now seems significant that this film was developed in the late 1960s at the height of the counter-culture, San Francisco being one of the epicenters of that movement. I told myself I’d moved to San Francisco because of the strong coffee and foreign/independent films, but it was — I later realized —  really to come out as a gay man. Little did I know that this quirky cult classic was written by a gay man who later established the Colin Higgins Foundation, to support LGBTQ youth, in San Francisco. 1971 seems early for a young actor, screenwriter and ultimately director to be out in Hollywood. How, I wondered, did his gay identity inform this “queer” take on upending traditional mores? And how did someone so young develop his perspective about death? Was it helpful when he was facing his own mortality, dying from AIDS at 47? The film became a  touchstone for many during the pandemic.

In the many viewings over the years, I largely focused on its bay area filming locations, including the ruins of Sutro Baths, the Golden Gate National Cemetery, the Dumbarton Bridge. They provide an inadvertent snapshot of what the bay area looked like when I first arrived. One friend was convinced he knew where Harold’s car had gone off the cliff, that it was still there, but I never actually saw it. And I recently learned that the Hillsborough mansion where Harold lives with his mother was near the home of a dear friend. I’d been driving by it unknowingly for years.  

While most of the songs, like “I Think I See The Light,” and “I Wish, I Wish”  (“I wish I knew, I wish I knew / what makes me me, what makes you you…”) had been featured on the albums Mona Bone Jakon and Tea For The Tillerman, a couple were not. “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” (“…And if you want to be you, be you / ‘Cause there’s a million things to do / You know that there are…”) was written specifically for the film. As was “Don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by / Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there / Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead /And don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by…” As a sheltered, 20-something man trying to find his place in the world, I related to Harold.

I’m not alone. Mentioning my admiration to disparate friends, many shared their number of viewings. One friend was excited to tell me that as a twelve-year-old girl, she’d “met Bud Cort on a yacht”. As one  — apparently — does in Los Angeles. She went on to say he was very nice and “gay as a goose.” I hadn’t known.

Harold (Bud Cort) is 19-year-old boy, rich and obsessed with death. He attempts to get a reaction from his mother (Vivian Pickles) by staging a series of mock suicides, to no avail. She seems primarily concerned with making and cancelling appointments with “René,”  her hair stylist. He also enjoys attending strangers’ funerals, where he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon) a 79-year-old free spirit. The two unlikely characters start becoming increasingly intimate. Earth-mother Maude demonstrates a different way of being in the world: while Harold seems to view life as merely an inconvenient and trivial path towards death, Maude plumbs as much meaning as possible from life. Minnah Stein states it succinctly at Film-Cred.com:  “Harold and Maude are a metaphor for the life cycle. Harold is life obsessed with death and Maude is death obsessed with life.”

When initially released, it was deemed “tasteless” by some critics, including Vincent Canby’s pan in the New York Times (Ruth Gordon even wrote him to complain). I concur with the Film Quarterly critic who said, “Harold and Maude is one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in years. It is a love story, a sentimental black comedy, a ludicrous tear-jerker, a grisly social satire.”

One element that I missed on initial viewings was Maude’s backstory. In one scene she reminisces about her youth, “When I was a little girl I was taken to the palace in Vienna, to a garden party. I can still see the sunshine, the parasols, and the flashing uniforms of the young officers. I thought then I would marry a soldier…” She grows quiet. “But that was all… before…” She turns away and her eyes have filled with tears.

Later, watching the sunset at the beach together: “It’s sinking, Harold. Going over the horizon — where we are all going to go.” As Maude is talking and looking out to sea, Harold looks down and sees a number tattooed on her forearm. Maude doesn’t notice but Harold is visibly shocked. The unspoken indication of her status as a survivor of the Holocaust, makes her an even more complicated, and sympathetic, character. Maude continues, “Dreyfus once wrote that on Devil’s Island he would see the most glorious birds. Many years later in Brittany he realized they had only been sea gulls.” She smiles and looks out to sea. “To me they will always be — glorious birds.” I wonder how many audience members (or even Harold) recognize this passing reference to Jewish French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of treason for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans in 1894, igniting a huge political crisis, much of it fueled by anti-Semitism, even after he was later proven innocent.

But my real reason for revisiting this counter-cultural classic now is its connection to death.  For those who haven’t seen this black comedy, there will be spoilers, so drop everything and go watch it. Viewing the film for the umpteenth time, I am reminded of how well it holds up.

After a naked Harold and Maude are seen lying under bed sheets, instead of a morning-after cigarette, Harold blows a bubble. Emma Madin on BBC.com suggests that he is “blowing out life into the air, instead of taking ash into his lungs. He seems to have found the answer to the question “What is the point of living?” The point of living, I surmised by the film’s end, is partly to accept death. To see it as an essential and beautiful and inevitable machine that regenerates more life. It never ceases. If anything, it encourages us to go and love some more.”

I was surprised at all the foreshadowing I’d forgotten or, more likely, missed.

  • In their very first conversation Maude says: “…I’ll be eighty next week. A good time to move on, don’t you think?…I mean, seventy-five is too early, but at eighty-five, well, you’re just marking time and you may as well look over the horizon.”
  • Soon thereafter, at another funeral, she says “… They’re such fun, aren’t they? It’s all change. All revolving. Burials and births. The end to the beginning and the beginning to the end — the great circle of life…”
  • And a little later, as Harold interrogates Maude’s penchant for appropriating other people’s cars. “What owners, Harold? We don’t own anything. It’s a transitory world. We come on the earth with nothing, and we go out with nothing, so isn’t “ownership” a little absurd?”
  • As they regard Glaucus’ ice sculpture, Harold notice that the ice is melting. “Yes” Maude agrees, “That’s one of the drawbacks of the medium.”
  • “And this too shall pass away.” Well, the wise man was right — if you remember that, you can’t help but live life fully.
  • Sitting in a field of flowers, Maude muses, “They grow and bloom, and fade, and die, and some change into something else. Ah, life!… I should like to change into a sunflower most of all…”
  • When Harold asks why she took the photographs out of their frames, Maude replies “They mocked me. They were representations of people I dearly loved yet they knew these people were gradually fading from me, and that in time all I would have left would be vague feelings – but sharp photographs! So I tossed them out. My memory fades, I know. But I prefer pictures made by me with feeling, and not by Kodak with silver nitrate.”

Maude’s seeming nattering slowly starts to sink in as her profound perspective pervades the film, and Harold’s psyche.  After Harold confesses to his first suicidal prank, ending with, “I decided then I enjoyed being dead, Maude responds, “Yes. I understand. A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead really. They’re just backing away from life. They’re players – but they sit on the bench. The game goes on before them. At any moment they can join in. Reach out! Take a chance! Get hurt maybe. But play as well as you can. Go team, go! Give me an “L.” Give me an “I.”  Give me a “V.” Give me an “E.” LIVE! Otherwise, you’ll have nothing to talk about in the locker room.”

When Harold surprises her for her 80th birthday and proposes marriage. Maude tells him:  “Oh, I am happy, Harold. Ecstatically happy. I couldn’t imagine a lovelier farewell. Here is an early, unacknowledged, example of a completed life, or rational old age suicide. Harold does everything he can to save his elderly lover, but to no avail. However, Maude has left him with the greatest gift: a newfound love for life.

HAROLD: Farewell?

MAUDE: Why yes. It’s my eightieth birthday.

HAROLD: But you’re not going anywhere, are you?

MAUDE: Oh yes, dear. I took the pills an hour ago. I should be gone by midnight.

In the ambulance and then the hospital, Maude chides Harold.

MAUDE: Oh, Harold! What a fuss this is. So unnecessary.

HAROLD: Maude, please. Don’t die. I couldn’t bear it. Please, don’t die.

MAUDE: But, Harold, we begin to die as soon as we are born. What is so strange about death? It’s no surprise. It’s part of life. It’s change.

HAROLD: But why now?

MAUDE: I thought eighty was a good round number.

HAROLD: Please, don’t you realize? She is dying.

MAUDE: Well, not dying, actually. I’m changing. You know, like from winter to spring. Of

course, it is a big step to take.

Throughout the film, we now realize, Maude has been articulating what is referred to as a “completed life,” “a life well lived,” or “old age rational suicide.” Harold wasn’t really listening, and we, the audience, weren’t taking her seriously. Now, as I find myself much closer to Maude’s age than to Harold’s, I am beginning to understand. The simple profundity of her last words are finally, perhaps for the first time, heard:

MAUDE: Farewell, Harold. It’s been all such fun.