Alan Ball owes his whole career to this movie. Before there was Six Feet Under and the Fisher family and elaborate, bizarrely humorous death scenes, there was Harold and Maude. It took me awhile to see this, but I’m sure glad I did. Morbidity never made me chuckle so much.
The “kid” (who’s now in his 60s) who played Harold, Bud Cort, basically received the role of a lifetime at his young age. Harold’s staged suicides must have been so much fun to play as a twentysometihng, and yet also so disorienting, too, because of Harold’s nonchalance about the whole thing. Cort’s facial expressions, or really lack thereof, were so subtle and so committed; each time he shocked one of his mother’s dates for him, I laughed harder at the prank and at his stoicism.
But this movie isn’t just about fake blood. It’s about a weird little relationship, one that might make you cringe if the faux violence didn’t already. Harold’s love interest, Maude (Ruth Gordon) is on the brink of being an octogenarian, but far more invested in life than he. She exemplifies joie du vivre, carelessness, spontaneity, and giddiness, all while glossing over the cliche aspect of being a grandma trying to relive her youth. Rather, she seems to have been this way her whole life, grabbing everything by the balls and tossing it aside when she’s through with it. She despises deterioration and self-pity, and she manages to bring out the light in a very dark young individual.
Harold and Maude has one of the shortest credit sequences I’ve ever seen, and that’s probably because it’s a minimalistic movie in the truest sense of the word. The whole story is the title characters, and while they never really have deep conversation that last more than 30 seconds, it’s plain from the way their faces are shot that they share this inexplicable, deep bond. It’s odd and cute, even after [spoiler alert] they sleep together. Honestly, I thought I’d be more disturbed than I was seeing them in bed together, but I was so taken by the genuine sentimentality (as opposed to saccharine) that I barely noticed.
Harold and Maude were together because they were the same person, at once old and young, at once selfish and helpless, and together they made both terrible and priceless decisions. Certain people live unbridled, but these two together [bad pun coming here] reined each other in. That is a true statement, even if the joke is terrible. By the end of the film, I thought I’d be pining to know what became of Harold, but part of the pleasure of the movie is not knowing, ever. For all we care, he’s probably still playing his banjo somewhere in the hills. Or cleaning the blood off his axe.