Monday, July 20, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Harold and Maude"

"Harold and Maude" is short, simple and perfect.

I first saw this wonderful movie in college, when I was about the age of Harold, the death-obsessed protagonist who falls in love with an 80-year-old woman. I figured it would be an absurdist comedy -- a 20-year-old boning a woman four times his age?!? -- but instead discovered a joyous movie about living life to its fullest, and in your own way.

I got to thinking about it again while reviewing "Adam's Rib," which Ruth Gordon co-wrote. It's astonishing to think that she was such a talented screenwriter -- thrice nominated for an Oscar -- and then transitioned into an onscreen performer. She'd made bit appearances here and there, but really launched her acting career in 1965, just shy of her 70th birthday.

Think about that. It sounds like a parlor joke: "Well, I got too old to be a writer so they made me an actress instead."

She went onto two more Oscar nominations for acting, including a win for "Rosemary's Baby." She was not nominated for her performance in "Harold and Maude," though, which is a travesty since it's the performance of her career.

Maude is a force of nature, but never feels like a cinematic contrivance. This vivacious, impish oldster meets Harold, who like her enjoys anonymously attending the funerals of strangers. She steals cars as a way of shaking people out of the comfort of their normal lives.

There's a great scene where Harold makes her a button at the carnival that says, "Harold loves Maude." She calls it the best present she's received in years, then immediately flings it into the harbor. He looks at her with astonishment: "Now I'll always know where it is."

The humor in the film comes from the tension between Harold and his mother, who wants to marry him off, or see him join the Army, or do anything besides mope around and pretend to kill himself. The scene where she invites a blind date for Harold, who arrives at their mansion only to see Harold apparently immolate himself, is a comedy classic.

People tend to think of "Harold and Maude" as a Hal Ashby film, but he merely directed it. It was dreamed up by Colin Higgins as an original screenplay -- his first feature film. He also wrote "Silver Streak," "Foul Play" and "Nine to Five" before dying young in 1988.

The final topping on the cake for this film is the soundtrack, comprised mostly of Cat Stevens songs. They just seem to capture the essence of the movie, in much the way the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack did for "The Graduate" a few years earlier.

"Harold and Maude" is a movie about love, and hope. Even though the two main characters seem obsessed with dying -- one as an escape, the other as a release -- it is only because they found so much in life that made it worthwhile.

4 stars

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