In February 1972, tired of working to little purpose in Milford Fortenberry’s dairy in Mississippi, I decided to enter the US Navy. I was only 17, but a signature from my father, who owned me, was enough to transfer ownership to Uncle Sam. Because of my background in the dairy learning about cows, as well as a year of working in my father’s bakery where I learned about cakes, it naturally followed that I was selected to receive instruction in the Arabic language out in Monterey, so after boot camp I drove my Datsun to California and checked it out.
This was the raggedy end of the hippie era, superior to the sixties in that there was more sex and fewer body crabs. I was to enjoy my year in Monterey very much, but when I first got there I didn’t know anyone, so I went to the movies. Harold and Maude was playing as the “B” half of a bill with Play It Again, Sam at a theater in Carmel, California which is joined at the Clint to Monterey. I was there to see the Woody Allen movie. I had never heard of Harold and Maude, and had it been presented as the second feature, I might well have missed it, but it came on first and my poor country mind was forever twisted.
Harold (Bud Cort) is the property of his fabulously wealthy mother, played by Vivian Pickles. Harold is a master of the spectacular fake suicide, and we meet him at a stage when his mother has long since grown used to it. He is barely a man and looks even younger than he is. His mother has money. We are reminded again and again of his enormous wealth. People have expectations of Harold, but they arise from a sterile, artificial place. Harold is a little like a masterwork clock that keeps poor time; his mother would throw it out were it not made of such fine materials.
Harold is drawn to death and darkness. His primary recreation is attending funerals for people he does not know. It is there he meets Maude, and it is there Ashby and his writer, Higgins, discover the sublime. Ruth Gordon is simply perfect in this role. Her Maude is over the top, played as broadly as if it were a stage play instead of a movie. And her relationship to Harold is both charming and dangerous. It is dangerous not because a very, very young man has an affair with a very, very old woman, but because we are made to understand it, to agree with it. Gordon is sexy as hell in this movie, her face flowing from wrinkled and worn to radiant and beautiful all in the scan of a single shot. She moves like a leopardess on cocaine, bouncing back and forth between a wild energy and a luxuriant loll.
Maude is trying to teach Harold to come alive. I will not labor the ways the movie uses symbol to reinforce its theme, or the cleverness of scenes, or any of the bits of business that enrich the story. I will not embed video from Youtube. Many of you have already seen this movie and don’t need it, and if you haven’t seen it, I do not want to spoil it for you. But to both groups I would say, “Watch it soon.”
Harold and Maude is now, and has always been, regarded as a cult film. “Cult film” is often pejorative, but not for this movie. I think Harold and Maude is a cult film because it is a movie meant for smart people. Despite being thoroughly set in its time, it plays as freshly today as it did all those years ago when I first saw it, when I knew little more than the difference between a cow and a cake.
What is this movie’s theme? Partly, it is the rather obvious one: Don’t let yourself be owned. Be yourself. But that is the phony theme for humanities professors to nanner on about. For us smart folks, Maude tells us the real theme in three short words to Harold: “Aim above morality.”
That, my friend, is a dangerous idea, indeed.