not in our stars, but in ourselves
19/52: A movie your mother loves
When I was 17 or so, my mom introduced me to one of her all-time favorite films: Harold and Maude. As an off-beat misfit teenager, she’d been drawn to it from the first time she saw it. Since I was an off-beat misfit teenager myself, she felt reasonably sure I’d dig it as well – and she was right. It’s a cult classic, but not one for the exhibitionists (like Rocky Horror) or the enthusiasts of trash (like The Room). It’s for the weird little introverts, the loners, the dreamers, the people dancing to the beat of their own, absolutely unique drum – like me and my mom.
Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) lives in an enormous, baroque mansion with his socialite mother (Vivian Pickles). He’s a young man, and utterly aimless. To rattle Mrs. Chasen, he stages elaborate suicides: hanging, slit wrists, immolation, drowning, etc. He also attends funerals – and that’s where he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon): Dame Marjorie Chardin, in another lifetime back in Vienna before the war. She’s a sprightly 79-year-old who attends funerals because they’re all part of life – something she celebrates in every possible way. Harold, on the other hand, is obsessed with death. Nevertheless, he’s taken by her enthusiasm and unorthodox approach to law and order (“oh, the police, always wanting to play games!” she says as a frustrated cop tries to get her to pull over for blasting through a toll booth). They spend every day together, and Harold falls in love. His mother is horrified when he informs her that, despite her efforts to arrange a girlfriend for him through a “computer dating service” (in 1971 – can you imagine!), he intends to marry Maude instead. Maude, however, had introduced herself at a funeral by announcing her firm belief that 80 is the right age to die – and guess whose birthday it is.
Here’s the funny thing about Harold and Maude: while there is romance involved, and plenty of (dark) comedy afoot, it’s certainly not a typical romantic comedy – for reasons other than the obvious. I mean, among those obvious reasons, there’s the older woman/younger man pairing. More conventional rom-coms may well dabble in older men and younger women – but even then, not quite so extreme a May-December difference as this. The film helpfully provides a voice for the peanut gallery, those who might be disgusted by the thought of sex with an elderly woman (and they do have sex; Harold blows bubbles afterwards, rather than the more customary cigarette smoking): his army general uncle, his psychiatrist, and his priest all inform him how utterly wrong and horrible it is for him to love Maude. There you are, peanut gallery: you’re personified by the three heads of the patriarchy. Talk about shade. Anyway, where many rom-coms are by and for that peanut gallery, Harold and Maude is very decidedly against the usual meet-cute and so on.
The film explains its own ethos quite clearly in a scene where Harold and Maude discuss reincarnation in floral form. Maude is talking about how she loves to watch things grow, bloom, die, and change into something else – and how she would like to change into a sunflower, since “they’re so simple and elegant.” She asks Harold what he would want to come back as. He indicates a field of daisies, and says, “One of these, I guess.” When Maude asks why, he says it’s because they’re all the same. Maude responds:
Ohhh, 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… [she points to a single daisy] …yet allow themselves be treated as… [she gestures vaguely to the field of daisies] …that.
She’s an individualist, through and through, and it’s been a hard-won fight. She refers to challenging authorities back in Vienna, before the war; during the war, judging by the number inscribed on her forearm, she was imprisoned in a concentration camp. It could have broken her, and turned her into a nihilist, but here she is: the kind of person who uproots a tree from a city street to transplant it into the forest because she has “got to do something about this life!” She won’t let any system claim or oppress her, since they’re all anti-life. Harold, by contrast, has had every opportunity, every advantage – and he simply wants to disappear. There’s a point in there somewhere, about the self-indulgence of younger generations as compared to the forced march to enlightenment of (certain members of) older generations – but it’s not too terribly sharp.
It had been ages since I’d watched Harold and Maude, so I approached it on this re-watch from almost a fresh perspective. I’ve been through a lot since I was 17, of course, and it was interesting to compare my reaction now to my reaction then. This time, it sort of struck me how unemotional the movie is – another rarity in a rom-com, which is usually a genre full of cloying sentiment. In a typical rom-com, the character with whom we spend the most time is usually the one who’s shaping the film’s “consciousness,” so to speak: we see what they see, hear the music they hear, and through some sort of cinematic magic – we feel what they feel. We spend the most time with Harold, but I don’t think we’re in his consciousness. I think the film takes Maude as its consciousness: for as enthusiastic a lover of life as she is, she can and does take a detached view of humanity at times. She doesn’t get attached to things, nor does she let something as tempestuous as emotion interfere with her enjoyment of life’s more intellectual and tactile pleasures. It’s an interesting approach in an ostensible romantic comedy, and especially interesting for a female character.
That brings me to another facet I noticed this time: Maude is presented as a definite eccentric. If, god forbid, they ever try to remake Harold and Maude (no doubt with a conventionally gorgeous actress who happens to be on the wrong side of 40 as Maude), I fear they’d try to fashion her into the dreaded manic pixie dream girl. For my part, I think she’s much more akin to the heroines of pre-Code films: autonomous women who did what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted; who weren’t afraid to be a bit screwy or dizzy, and also to show off how much cleverer and braver they were than everyone else (the men especially); who frankly enjoyed sex and didn’t feel a bit sorry about it. Gordon, slight and slim and fey, has just the right body type for the era – even here, in her later years. I could also imagine someone like Louise Brooks in the part, if that helps you to visualize what I mean. The leading ladies of the late ’20s and early ’30s had a distinctly compact look – as if to prove that enormous firecrackers could come in a tiny package, a typical characterization of the time. She’s especially ’30s-ish in comparison to Cort, who’s tall and lanky and shaggy and as counter-culture as it’s possible to look. I don’t know how intentional that aspect of Maude’s casting and character may have been – but it was an especially enjoyable extra layer for me this time.
In conclusion: even if you’re as conventional as they come, even if the premise makes you fall into a dead faint, see Harold and Maude. It’s a strange film, quite obviously made on the flimsiest of shoestring budgets, but it’s well worth your time. Go on, live a little.