Harold and Maude (1971)

Title:Harold and Maude (1971)
Director: Hal Ashby
Writer/s: Colin Higgins

Harold and Maude is a love story. Despite the fact that he is a 20 year old young man obsessed with dying and she is an 80 year old woman with an incredible lust for life, they find each other amidst the drab grey souls that frequent funerals. Okay wait, let’s start at the beginning…


Harold (Bud Cort) is a 20 year old man trying to figure out who he is. He lives with his mother, played by the brilliant Vivian Pickles, a detached socialite who has become immune to Harold’s incessant fake ‘suicide attempts’, or as she calls them, his “amateur theatrics”.  In the opening scenes he is seen writing a letter, then lights a few candles (perhaps mimicking some sort of religious ritual) and finally ties a noose around his neck and jumps off a footstool. When his mother walks into the parlor where Harold is hanging, she calmly picks up the phone and cancels her appointments for the day, lending the audience to believe that this is not the catastrophe it appears to be. In fact Harold will attempt time and time again to shock his mother with an array of violent tactics. The odd part is realizing that none of these attempts are real. After his mother has hung up the phone she addresses Harold in frustration, and mentions a dinner party that evening that she insists he attends. When she leaves the room Harold will cough and splutter and shake free from his noose. At the dinner party his mother tells her guests about her son’s “sense of the absurd”. We realize that all is not well between mother and son as she offhandedly suggests he eat his vegetables and he indulges her by gobbling them down like a starved Neanderthal.

After the dinner party his mother is getting undressed for the night and discovers blood splashed all over the bathroom wall and Harold lying slumped in the tub with his wrists apparently slashed. His mother is not too calm about it this time and runs off screaming to call a psychiatrist.

Besides visiting a shrink, Harold is also forced to seek advice from his one-armed Uncle Victor who fought in the Vietnam War and seems to think that all Harold needs to do is join the army and his apparent frustrations will be cured. This is the only male figure in Harold’s life, other than his psychiatrist.

His psychiatrist seems interested in Harold’s extra-mural activities which pretty much entail attending funerals and coming up with new and interesting ways to kill himself.


After another incident in which his mother swims laps next to Harold who is floating face down in the family pool, his mother seems to think that marriage is the answer to Harold’s constant “psychological purging”.

At the funeral of a stranger Harold will meet Maude for the first time eating fruit next to a headstone. He’ll meet her again in the rain at another funeral as she walks among the drab and grey mourners with her yellow umbrella held aloft. Maude (Ruth Gordon) is 79 and will soon turn 80. She has a habit of stealing people’s cars, and at this particular funeral she steals Harold’s hearse (yes, Harold drives a hearse much to his mother’s horror) and Harold ends up driving Maude home. Maude lives in an abandoned train coach filled with trinkets, strange contraptions and house plants. She talks to Harold of the days when she used to liberate caged canaries.

Maude: “You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries. But I decided that was an idea way before it’s time. Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing… Oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage”

Harold’s mother makes Harold take a dating service survey (of which she answers most of the questions herself). His first date is with a Political Science major with a minor in Home Economics called Candy. Candy only wears purple, and runs screaming from the house after Harold pretends to set himself alight. It will also be the moment when Bud Cort’s acting will break the fourth wall as he looks directly at the camera and smiles.

Maude and Harold start spending more time together. He admits to his psychiatrist that he only has one friend, and it’s pretty obvious that Maude is it. His naïve demeanor is shaken by the liberal Maude whose enthusiasm for life and art include posing nude for an ice sculptor, inventing machines that create the smells of the New York subway and visiting nurseries. Very soon Harold and Maude are walking through daisy fields, visiting military cemeteries and having picnics at demolition sites. They both seem to have an affinity for the obscure and the desire to break rules.

One day while out driving maniacally about Maude spots a tree growing on the sidewalk which she decides needs replanting. They return days later and load it onto the back of Harold’s new car that his mother deems more appropriate for a young man. They are chased by a motorcycle cop along a highway in one of the most outrageous scenes of the film, and it’s not necessarily Maude’s driving that make the scene so unbelievable. Maude has a special way with people of which Harold takes notice:

Harold: “You sure have a way with people”

Maude: “Well, they’re my species”


Maude celebrates life by playing musical instruments, dancing and doing exactly as she pleases because deep down she has a secret that she isn’t ready to share with the enamored Harold who is starting to fall in love with her. He admits to her one night over a shared hookah pipe that:  “I haven’t lived. I died a few times”.

Maude: “A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life”.

Harold goes on two more dates with a file clerk called Edith whose is frightened off when Harold pretends to chop his hand off with a meat cleaver, and an aspiring actress called Sunshine who is probably more outrageous than Harold. It is becoming clear that none of his mother’s attempts are working, and soon Harold is going to admit to Maude that he loves her, and she (surprisingly) loves him too.

We get the feeling though that Maude’s secret will always be the reason why she doesn’t quite love Harold in the same way. They exchange plastic rings at a carnival and suddenly they wake up in bed together in Maude’s train car. Harold is shirtless and blowing bubbles. Maude is sleeping peacefully next to him draped in a sheet. It is worth noting that the idea of a love scene between the characters was not permitted by Paramount at the time as they were concerned that the audience would find this too controversial. This sentiment is echoed when Harold shares his experience with his Uncle Victor, his psychiatrist and finally his priest whose descriptions of “withered flesh” will remain with the viewer for a very long time. His very blatant disgust at their coupling is pretty much how the studio felt at the time. They could allude to the fact that Harold and Maude made love but they could never show it.

As Maude’s 80th birthday looms Harold gives his mother a photograph of his bride-to-be. He plans a big celebration with just the two of them, and as they sip champagne and dance in each other’s arms Maude very casually reveals her plan to die on her 80th birthday. Harold is devastated, and even though he rushes her to hospital the poison she took does what it was meant to do.

The final scenes are of Harold racing his hearse along the countryside cliffs. Suddenly the hearse is seen going off the cliff and smashing along the rocks below. But Harold is not in the car. Harold is walking back towards the city with a banjo in his hand, and the sounds of Cat Stevens ringing though the hillsides.


Cat Stevens wrote the entire soundtrack for the film after Elton John declined the offer. In fact two of the tracks, “Don’t be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” were written exclusively for the film, whilst the rest of the tracks were extracted from the albums Mona Bone Jakone and Tea for the Tillerman. With its dimmed lighting and macabre humor, Cat Stevens’ music becomes another character in this unconventional love story of two very different people alive during the sexual revolution.

I guess I love this film because both Harold and Maude seem like people I could love or even people I could be, or have been at some point in my life. They both feel more alive when they are going against the grain, and they both find the seemingly insignificant things magical. Maude claims her favorite flower is a sunflower because “they’re so tall and simple”. Harold admits that his are the common daisy because “they’re all alike”. Of course Maude disputes this and puts an end to his desire for anonymity by making him aware just how unique each little flower really is.

There is so much to love in Hal Ashby’s brilliant little indie film that could. At the time it was released people didn’t quite get it. Maybe that’s because they were still coming down from the highs of the flower power generation, and this love story was a bit too morbid. Maybe the idea of a 20 year old and an 80 year old just didn’t seem appealing. Regardless though the film would reach cult status in the coming years, and when you watch it you’ll understand just how conventionally unconventional it truly is. It is, in my opinion one of the greatest existential love stories that exists in popular culture today.

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