Harold and Maude: Life and How to Live It
By Matt Zoller Seitz
Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, about the love between a suicidal young man of about twenty and an almost eighty-year-old widow, is timeless in part because it never quite belonged to its own time. Conceived in the late 1960s, at the height of the counterculture, it was released in 1971, when the political narrative of peaceful rebels versus the jackbooted establishment had lost what little mainstream appeal it had briefly enjoyed. In the popular imagination, the March on Washington and the Summer of Love had been displaced by Woodstock, Altamont, Kent State, and a string of assassinations and riots. Richard Nixon had ridden into office in 1968 on a wave of law-and-order sentiment and was about to cakewalk into a second term (and unprecedented shame). The counterculture was in retreat. As Peter Fonda’s record producer tells his young girlfriend in 1999’s The Limey, the sixties were “really . . . just ’66 and early ’67. That’s all it was.”
But the movement’s ideals lived on, in a disguised and ultimately more daring form, in Harold and Maude, which 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. The movie’s apoplectic authority figures, dotty old-money types, poetic interludes, and trance-inducing folk-rock soundtrack (by Cat Stevens) may seem typical of earlier hippie flicks. But its two central premises—that an elderly woman could embody the most unguarded, delicate variety of Summer of Love openness and that she and a much younger man should be able to fall in love and get married without being judged, much less stopped—are anything but. Harold and Maude was shocking by the standards of 1971 Hollywood movies, even the ones that styled themselves as adventurous or hip. But it is so ideologically and emotionally consistent, and weaves such a gentle spell, that we can accept the central romance as a metaphor for beleaguered political and social sentiments even as we get to know Harold (Bud Cort) and Maude (Ruth Gordon) as individuals and root for their happiness. 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. Its mix of elements felt strange and new at the time, and still does, even though the film’s characters, tone, and soundtrack have been referenced and plundered by many modern directors, including Wes Anderson, who used two Stevens songs in Rushmore; P. T. Anderson, whose first four features are filled with Ashby-like innocents stumbling through cruel worlds; and David Fincher, whose Fight Club features a misfit couple flirting at self-help groups that they don’t even belong to, as Harold and Maude do at strangers’ funerals.
Ashby was a former editor and one of the staunchest exemplars of countercultural values ever to work in Hollywood. He debuted with 1970’s The Landlord, starring Beau Bridges as a white preppy who buys a brownstone in then black Park Slope, Brooklyn, alienates his stuck-up family, and learns what really matters in life: love, honesty, and spontaneity. He followed it with an impressive string of pictures that rank among the decade’s best, including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). The films vary widely in subject matter, style, and tone. But they all share a fascination with naive outsiders who are part of a larger system or machine, even if they don’t realize it, and who inspire others, accidentally or on purpose.
In all these movies, but especially in Harold and Maude, Ashby displays an extraordinary sensitivity to the spectrum of human experience. Both The Landlord and Harold and Maude are built around disaffected young men who act out against lives of stifling privilege and ossified values, but the latter film is simpler and more direct, and less tied to ripped-from-the-headlines issues. Building on the innovations of the landmark releases The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), Harold and Maude explores outsider mentalities through fragmented cutting, using those music montages to embellish its themes and create a feeling of emotional suspension. But Harold and Maude is ultimately a richer, deeper movie, less measured and a lot more meandering, and also warmer, weirder, and tougher to reduce to catchphrases. It doesn’t position rebels against the establishment, or any group against any other group. It just wants people to be themselves and to be appreciated instead of judged—and to spread bliss by reaching out.
To Read the Rest of the Essay