Harold and Maude (1971)

I don’t watch much in the way of romance movies. It’s one of those genres I have a major blindspot for, like teen movies or dance movies not about break dancers in the 1980s. Hell, I’ve seen more episodes of Manimal than I have some of these genres, and there’s only eight of those. Why is this? Well, it probably has to do with romances often falling into other genres: screwball comedies (which are great) and romantic comedies (which I often avoid), period pieces and literary adaptations, dramas that tack on a romance aspect but aren’t really about the romance, etc. In fact, when I think of films truly about romance, things pretty much begin and end in my head with Marty. Which is probably a good thing considering it’s about regular people in a relationship and not about stupidly gorgeous Hollywood stars playing “regular” people in a relationship. It’s nice to not have movie studios remind us that we’re all hideous troglodytes outside of Los Angeles sometimes.

Enter Harold and Maude. Harold is a young man with an overbearing socialite mother who wouldn’t know what the real world was if it rubbed a cream pie on her perfect makeup. He’s got a silver spoon in his mouth, but the falseness of it all hurts him to the point he repeatedly pretends to commit suicide, drives a hearse, and spends a lot of time at other people’s funerals. And then he runs into Maude, a Holocaust survivor nearly four times his age who doesn’t give a damn about things like laws, has little respect for authority, and believes in living life to its fullest no matter what. Though she never says it, she’s seen the worst of the world and now pursues its best without limitation. The attraction between the two is immediate, and they share their lives with each other as Maude teaches Harold about how to truly live. They’re a couple of outsiders who prefer to be themselves in a society that wants to make them conform to strict rules, particularly from Harold’s family.

The story is mainly about Harold; Maude remains somewhat of a mystery unless you pay attention for it. For example, her being a Holocaust survivor is never explicitly stated in the film. Harold catches a glimpse of a tattoo used to mark prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, but nothing much else is said on the subject. While the two have adventures together, it’s Harold whose life we focus on, and it’s Harold who is learning from Maude about how a life should be properly lived. While the love they feel for each other is real, being with Maude is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, and by the end, it is Harold who has learned the lesson from loving her.

Of course, being a guy in his early twenties and falling in love with a woman who is nearly 80 poses some problems for people. While the message of the film is to learn to live life by your own rules, another key component is learning to accept that it’s okay to love who you love. Harold and Maude’s age difference is stark, but it isn’t played as some gross thing; rather, it’s the perverse “normal” people’s reactions to it that stand out as disgusting. In particular, the family priest gives a sexualized rant that seems to reflect far more on his own desires by focusing entirely on Harold and Maude taking a trip downtown to pound town. In this reflection of rejection, the age gap could also be used to stand in for interracial, interfaith, or same sex relationships, with the film wanting the audience to know that it really is all right to be yourselves.

Also, it being an older woman and a younger man is far more shocking than the opposite, which is pretty normal in Hollywood. How often do we have to see guys in their forties and fifties hooking up with women in college? Yet Hollywood traditionally forces women into the “mom” role by the time they’re in their thirties, and the thought of a woman being a sex symbol at 40 appears to never even cross Hollywood execs’ minds despite how much the 40-year-olds in LA don’t resemble us nuclear mutants out here in flyover country. Let the older ladies have some fun too! They’re hot AND experienced!

Ahem, as a horror and schlock fan, I also have to point out that this movie gives some great moments of gore. Harold’s fake suicides are used as a ploy to grab attention, though they generally fail to do so. He also uses them as a means to drive off women his mother wants him to date, where they are effective. In one particular scene, Harold pulls out a cleaver and hacks off a fake arm; it’s a brilliant and sudden, bloody chop that sends the poor potential match reeling and angers his mom. Hanging, self-immolation, shooting, and seppuku are also performed, complete with bloodspray that is a treat for a film where you wouldn’t expect to find such things. Hell, I’d have come just for the gore if they had told me ahead of time it was gonna be here.

One other key thing that needs to be mentioned regarding Harold and Maude: I hope you like Cat Stevens. He did the soundtrack, and while multiple of his songs appear in the film, he also wrote a couple originals just for this. One in particular, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” gets played numerous time, including a banjo version as well as one that Maude sings while at the piano. It happens so often that I kinda forgot there was more to the soundtrack than that one song. And yes, it plays over the end credits as Harold rocks the banjo. If you can’t handle that much Cat Stevens, bail. Bail now.

As for the rest of us, Harold and Maude is a romantic treat that fits more into my crazy sensibilities with its uproarious and comic tale of two people loving and living their lives. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it too. And if you don’t, well, maybe we shouldn’t date.

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