Forty-five years since Hal Ashby’s deeply dark comedy was released, Amanda Trickett doffs her cap to a strong and complex older woman who, shock, horror, is also a sexual being.
What and why: It’s 45 years since Harold and Maude was released, bombing at the box office, getting a panning from film critics and vanishing swiftly from big screens. That’s one hell of a turkey, right? Well, no, but I’ll get on to that.
What ruffled feathers is that Harold and Maude is a love story between a lonely teen and a woman on the cusp of her 80th. Which, let’s face it, is one hell of an age gap: listen closely and you can almost hear the static crackle of Channel 5 programmers rubbing their legs a la Vic Reeves at the thought.
Throw in some black comedy about suicide and it’s fair to say that Hal Ashby’s 1971 film doesn’t run with the pack. But does it still make an impact or, four decades later, does time gives us a different view on this aged romance?
Harold (Bud Cort) is a detached young man with a death obsession who desperately seeks attention from his mother by staging suicides. We’re barely past the opening credits before Harold’s hanging himself, while his socialite mum goes about business as usual. We soon discover he’s got form for faking elaborate deaths, be it blood-splattering the bathroom or floating face down in the pool while she swims.
As his elegantly cool parent (a brilliant Vivian Pickles) seeks to put an end to his behaviour by marrying him off, Harold’s spending his days attending random funerals.
It’s at one such service that he gets his introduction to Maude (Ruth Gordon), a septuagenarian who shares his passion for gatecrashing graveyards. To say she’s got a lust for life is like saying Iggy Pop occasionally gets his nips out: she’s a firecracker, a free spirit determined to live life to the fullest, whether it’s taking any car she fancies, posing starkers or gathering paraphernalia from a lifetime spent trying a new thing every day.
As a friendship forms, Maude shares her philosophies with Harold, teaching him about the gift of life. And yes, they do get it on. But though it’s an undeniable attraction – the leads are utterly mesmeric as a quirky, unconventional couple – their chemistry isn’t the sole thing that makes Harold and Maude distinctive. From hilariously sabotaged dates and a corking case of Pimp My Ride, to glimpses of heartbreak through pitch-dark comedy, this film isn’t like any other you’ve seen.
“Forty-five years on from Harold and Maude and still we rarely see anything that falls outside formulaic romcoms. There’s very little to support the idea that love – genuine, consenting love – takes a myriad of forms.”
Rated or dated: With its flared trouser suits, hippy soundtrack by Cat Stevens and chicks in matching woollens, there’s no denying the film is looking dated. In an age where predatory OAPs are in the news and cougar has made the Oxford dictionary, I was also fully prepared to see Harold and Maude in a different light.
But, well, I just couldn’t. Beyond its looks, this film still feels groundbreaking as a love story. And maybe I’d feel differently if it was an older man and a younger woman, but you know, I don’t think so. There’ll always be people who view Harold and Maude as boy hooks up with granny. But it’s a real romance – a beautiful, honest, life-affirming connection between two individuals.
Forty-five years on and still we rarely see anything that falls outside formulaic romcoms. There’s very little to support the idea that love – genuine, consenting love – takes a myriad of forms.
Even when films do break the mould, when was the last time you saw a film about an older woman? Not just a female in her twilight years – no, not 40, you over there, we’re talking REAL LIFE old age – but a strong, complex individual with a rich personality and who’s, gasp, a sexual being.
Exactly. So shall we talk about what’s really offensive now?
Harold and Maude’s a fabulous thing, and no matter how old it gets, for me, that ain’t changing. Oh and I’m not alone. Harold and Maude has been reappraised as a cult classic, viewed by film institutes as an outstanding romance and comedy, and counts Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann among its fans.
Dated? Pfft, as if. It’s a big fat RATED.
Find out how you too can be more Maude here.
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Amanda Trickett is a writer, arts PR, toddler mum, tea- and sleep lover. Likely to be found clambering into PJs at the earliest opportunity, though has a distant memory of once being a night owl.