Harold and Maude: Looking back at Hollywood’s unconventional odd couple
Victoria Curatolo | On 13, Feb 2022
Warning: This contains spoilers
“Don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by…”
Harold and Maude has always been unwonted. Like its title characters, the film was cast aside from the get-go; Hal Ashby’s vision of a death-obsessed suicidal teen finding love with a geriatric free-spirit wasn’t exactly your typical rom-com aesthetic. It didn’t do well at the box office and received mediocre reviews upon release in early 1972. However, it eventually found its audience, and over the past 50 years has remained one of cinema’s most beloved and subversive love stories.
The film follows Harold, a 19-year-old who spends his time gatecrashing funerals, driving a hearse and staging suicides in a bid to gain his socialite mother’s attention. After his 15th suicide attempt, he attends another run-of-the-mill funeral and meets Maude, a 79-year-old carefree nonconformist, who also spends her free time at funerals. Harold learns of Maude’s free-spirited outlook on life as she encourages him to appreciate music, art and nature – small joys that Harold had always found so little in before. The two form a unique bond, which gradually turns romantic but is ultimately cut short, leaving Harold to value the true privilege and beauty of living.
The film has remained a cult classic of the New Hollywood Era, and remains iconic for its uplifting characters, effervescent setting, and Cat Stevens’ soundtrack. Harold and Maude are the definitive oddball couple; their relationship is stripped down in a rare and revitalising way. The duo get to know each other in an ordinary fashion, yet under extraordinary circumstances. Disregard age for a second, and you’ve got one of the most organic love stories of all time.
Harold and Maude is a film of contradictions – age, gender, background, philosophy – and these oppositions are symbolic in brief moments throughout. When we first see Harold, he is dressed predominantly in black, while Maude is symbolic of life, seen always wearing yellow. Yet as their relationship grows, Harold transitions to brown attire, then blue, then finally white. When asked if he sings or dances, Harold affirms no, yet by the end is seen literally swaying with a spring in his step as he plays Maude’s beloved banjo. Even the film’s post-sex sequence sees Harold blowing bubbles instead of smoking cigarettes – a tranquility synonymous with Harold’s newfound love and reincarnated spirit.
Death brings a sense of comfort to Harold, whereas Maude believes death offers a second chance. One of the film’s most iconic scenes sees the duo discussing flowers. “I should like to change into a sunflower most of all”, says Maude. “They’re so tall and simple.” And when Harold points out that he would choose to be a daisy in a bid to blend in, Maude reminds him that no two daisies are the same and that, like us, their uniqueness allows them to truly be themselves.
A subsequent scene sees the couple picnicking in the middle of a junkyard, discussing the beauty of life while literally surrounded by garbage. Harold notices a numbered tattoo on Maude’s arm, and it is in this brief moment that he realises that she was once a Nazi concentration camp prisoner. It ultimately becomes clear to Harold, and to us, as to why Maude has such a radical lease on life; having witnessed the randomness of death, she chooses to take control of hers. “Aim above mortality,” proclaims Maude. “If you apply that to life, you’re bound to live it fully.”
The film most notably breaks age barriers. The concept of a young male lead romancing with a much older woman outraged and even discouraged viewers at the time of release – to the point that a love scene between its two characters was ultimately cut. Yet, we’ve seen depictions of the opposite dynamic over the years (Woody Allen’s work being the most prevalent) and this taboo-breaking topic has recently been explored once again in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, which sees a relationship blossom between 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim).
The fundamental influence of Harold and Maude is still relevant five decades later; the notion that love is wherever you find it is universal. “I love you”, says Harold. “That’s wonderful”, replied Maude. “Go and love some more.” This unconventional film helps you sing out, find your way and leaves you with a spring in your step.