Film Review: Harold and Maude

by Dan Wilson

With Valentine’s Day just past us, it’s only fitting to take a look at one of the more endearing love stories ever told on the silver screen. I’m talking about Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby’s 1971 film starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in the title roles. Harold is a young man from a wealthy family who just happens to be obsessed by death. He drives a hearse, stages fake suicides in front of his mother, and attends funerals for fun. It’s at one of these funerals that he meets Maude, an energetic elderly women with a joy for life. Neither of them knows the deceased, but they bond over their respective fascinations with the event. Harold’s there for the morbid curiosity. Maude, on the other hand, sees the funerals as celebrations of life, where happy memories are interspersed with tears. As Harold and Maude spend more and more time together, Harold becomes more and more enthralled with this woman. She’s excited to live her life fully, to live it with enthusiasm and gusto. Surprised that Harold doesn’t know how to sing or play a musical instrument, Maude gives him a banjo. The two of them have adventures stealing trees from the city and replanting them in the forest. She teaches him to sing and dance and to enjoy all that life has to offer. Discussing their respective philosophies, Maude imparts her wisdom on Harold’s obsession with death. “A lot of people enjoy being dead,” she says, “but they’re not…they’re alive!” Later, she adds, “Live as well as you can, otherwise you’ve got nothing to talk about in the locker room.” Harold is captivated by her lust for life, and listens with rapt attention. Harold has fallen in love with Maude — which seems more natural over the course of the movie than one might think, given their many decades’ difference in age — and asks for her hand in marriage on the night of her eightieth birthday party. She’s touched, but respectfully declines, because she won’t be here much longer. The pills she’s taken will be kicking in soon, and she won’t wake up in the morning. Horrified, Harold rushes her to the hospital, but it’s too late. He’s left to understand what it all means. After all, she loved her life so much, how could she end it? Maude has taught Harold two lessons. The first is about the transience of life. We are here a short time and can’t escape death. Life’s end is inevitable for each of us, and when it comes, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We can only make a choice about how we’ll respond. Will we approach death reluctantly? Or will we choose to face it gladly, as just another phase of our existence? She has also taught Harold that while we’re alive, we have a choice to live with joy and passion for life. Her choice to do this made it easier for her to leave. Without regrets for paths not taken, she found it easy to leave the party while she was still having fun. Harold has been affected by his relationship with Maude, as short-lived as it was. As the film ends, he destroys the hearse-like car he’s been driving. He’s made a choice to live his life in a way that Maude would be proud of, and we can almost hear her voice singing along with his as he plays his banjo and dances along the cliff. Harold and Maude is available at video stores around town, as well as at the Milwaukee Public Library.