Harold and Maude is my favorite movie. Besides its impressive Cat Stevens soundtrack, Harold and Maude is notable for portraying mental illness in an irreverent but realistic manner. Harold's neuroticism extends through his Freudian relationship with his domineering mother to his infatuation with Maude, a relationship based more on Harold's conception of Maude as a substitute mother/authority figure. Harold completes his Oedipal desire by having intercourse with Maude, perhaps an attempt to break free of the times his mother controlled his every coming and going, using cars and gifts as bribes (however controversial the act). This climax devolves into Harold's estrangement from Maude, culminating in her suicide. The viewer, not fully sure as to the status of Maude, may have the sense of imperfect action -- a past continuous action.

Most striking is the juxtaposition between religion and psychotherapy in this film. Harold is sent for his weekly appointments to the psychotherapist; his decision to marry Maude is ultimately judged by a Catholic priest. The therapist advises Harold not to marry under the watchful eye of Freud, the shadow antagonist of the work. Yet this decision is confirmed by the priest who is protected by a photograph of Pope Paul VI in exactly the same spot as Freud was in the therapist's office. Harold never seems to escape the confusion of double messages, his relationship with an overprotective mother never reconciled by his affair with a widow, his religion contradicting and confirming the psychoanalytic currents that have run deep into his life.

I view Harold and Maude as a trip into my own neuroses, a disorienting journey through what might happen in my worst nightmares. This movie may have done a great service in putting non mentally ill people in the position of riding the waves of manic depression.

Harold and Maude is my favorite movie, too, but I have a very different perception of it. I don't see Harold as mentally ill, for one thing. He's an angst-filled teenager (or young adult). He's bright, and rather lost; he feels unloved. He is being raised by a mother who cares more for show than substance and whose life is centered around her social engagements. She sees Harold as another accessory in her life, one that doesn't quite fit. (When Harold's mother decides it is time for him to marry, she fills out the dating service questionnaire with her own answers, not his.)

Harold goes to funerals; he craves the raw emotion and realness that accompany such occasions. Maude goes to funerals; she likes the pageantry of life. Maude blows Harold's mind. This is a coming of age story; she makes him uncomfortable, she leads him to question his life and his sense of morality (and mortality), his sense of what matters. She teaches him to play the banjo.

The priest and the therapist are stiff caricatures of society's mores. Maude stands out in bright contrast as a vibrant symbol of individuality. I see Maude as freeing Harold from his mother, from his confusion and neediness. She hands him the key to escape his old life and become his own person.

Maude: What kind of flower would you like to be?
Harold: I don't know. One of these, maybe.
Maude: Why do you say that?
Harold: Because they're all alike.
Maude: Oh, but they're NOT! Look. See, some are smaller; some are fatter; some grow to the left, some to the right; some even have lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences! You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world's sorrow comes from people who are this, yet allow themselves to be treated as that.

Synopsis

Inspired by a newspaper clipping, the idea of a young man marrying a woman several times his senior became the black comedy of Harold and Maude. Interesting characters, beautiful editing, an excellent script, and a superior soundtrack make this film a classic.

Bud Cort plays Harold, a privileged but troubled twenty-year old. In the opening sequence Harold enters one of the rooms of his lavish house, puts a Cat Stevens record on, climbs on top of a chair, and places a noose around his neck. Just as Harold jumps off of the chair he is standing on, his mother comes in to remind him of the dinner party they are hosting that night, completely oblivious to the fact that her son is hanging from the rafters with a rope around his neck.

Of course, she is familiar with his “suicides” by now.

While in a therapy session, Harold explains to his pyschiatrist that he has carried out several of these staged suicides.

Psychiatrist: Tell me, Harold, how many of these, uh, "suicides" have you performed?
Harold: An accurate number would be difficult to gauge.
Psychiatrist: Well, just give me a rough estimate.
Harold: A rough estimate? I'd say... fifteen.
Psychiatrist: Fifteen?
Harold: That's a rough estimate.
Psychiatrist: Were they all done for your mother's benefit?
Harold: No, I would not say "benefit."

We also learn that for fun Harold likes to go to funerals.

It is at one of these funerals that Harold first meets Maude.

The two eventually form a close friendship and begin to spend time with each other. At the same time, Harold’s mother decides it is time for him to give up his childish things. She enrolls him in a computer dating service to help him find a wife and gets rid of the hearse he drives. She replaces it with a jaguar.

Harold promptly alters the jaguar to make it look like a hearse.

The course of the two plots- Harold’s budding relationship with Maude and his life at home weave in and out of each other. His relationship with Maude provides the philosophical discourse for the film, while his attempt to torment his mother and the three computer dates provides the dark comedic relief.

Maude, a survivor of the Holocaust who still bears the tattoo given to her by the Germans on her arm, embraces life and lives it to the fullest. She is continually trying to show Harold that life is worth living. She teaches him to play the banjo, liberate trees, and see the beauty that is all around him. Through her influence, Harold’s attitude towards life starts to lighten. He falls in love with her and announces to his mother that he plans to marry her.

Needless to say, Mrs. Chasen is shocked when she sees a photograph of her future daughter-in-law.

On the night of Maude’s 80th birthday, Harold proposes to her.

While Maude is touched by his gesture, she only wanted to live until she reached 80 and has taken steps to end her life.

The final sequence of the film is perhaps one of the most beautiful I have ever seen- backed by the song “Trouble,” shots of Harold rushing with Maude to the Hospital and then waiting for word on her condition convey the emotion of the event without a single line of dialogue. (As an indication of how intricately constructed this sequence is constructed, I wrote a ten-page paper for a film class analyzing the sequence, which lasts maybe 7 minutes.)

Why I love Harold

The first time I watched this movie I instantly fell in love with it and it has been my favorite film ever since. This is the movie I turn to for a reminder to not take life so seriously, and to L-I-V-E live. I remember trying to introduce my high school friends to Harold and Maude. I rented it for a party we were having, but only one of my friends and her sister would watch it with me. The next day they told everyone how fantastic it was, and soon everyone else watched it. They all fell in love with Harold as well. I took a class in high school mainly because the teacher took time to teach us about the film, and as I mentioned before, I wrote a ten-page paper about only a short fragment of the movie.

I can’t imagine someone watching this film and not being touched.

Harold is a character one can easily relate to- frustrated by his circumstances, trying to get the attention he needs, not satisfied by his life until it is touched by love. We all long to blow bubbles in bed in the morning after someone has made us see the light. Or at least I would hope other people long to have their lives touched that deeply by another person.

Maude is the person we all wish we could be- in love with life even though life has not been easy. Her age has not slowed her down, she goes for what she wants with gusto and passion. We want other people to be inspired by the passion we, and love us for that passion.

There are a lot of things you can take away from this movie, depending on the perspective you bring to it. I never saw Harold as mentally ill, just unaware and unhappy. I cry at the end of the film every time I watch it not because I find it sad but because I find it so damn beautiful.

Maude: A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they're not dead, really. They're just... backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt, even! 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! L. I. V. E. LIVE! ...Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.

The Soundtrack

In the tradition of The Graduate, the Harold and Maude soundtrack is almost exclusively the work of one artist- Cat Stevens. There are few movies where the music compliments the film as much as it does in Harold and Maude. The songs are frequently used to enhance the scenes, rather than detract from them. The best example of this is when Maude begins to play the piano and sing “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” as her singing blends in with Stevens as the actual song comes in. If only every soundtrack could be as well suited and as skillfully used as this one- yet the soundtrack does not seem to exist as its own recording, at least on CD.

Songs include:

Cast List

  • Ruth Gordon- Maude
  • Bud Cort- Harold Chasen
  • Vivian Pickles- Mrs. Chasen
  • Cyril Cusack- Glaucus
  • Charles Tyner- Uncle Victor
  • Ellen Geer- Sunshine Dore
  • Eric Christmas- Priest
  • G. Wood- Psychiatrist
  • Judy Engels- Candy Gulf
  • Shari Summers- Edith Phern
  • Tom Skerritt (credited as M. Borman)- Motorcycle Office
  • Susan Madigan- Girlfriend
  • Ray K. Gorman (credited as Ray Gorman)- Police Officer
  • Gordon Devol (credited as Gordon DeVol)- Police Officer
  • Harvey Brumfield- Police officer
  • Henry Dieckoff- Butler
  • Philip Schultz (I)- Doctor
  • Sonia Sorrell- Nurse
  • Barry Higgins- Intern
  • Hal Ashby- uncredited
  • Jerry Randall- uncredited

Harold and Maude was released in 1971. It was written by Colin Higgins (who also wrote Nine to Five/ 9 to 5) and was directed by Hal Ashby.

Quotes, Sountrack listing, and cast information from http://www.imdb.com

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