Harold and Maude

Movie Information

In Brief: Four years ago, the Asheville Film Society ran Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) as part of ActionFest. Back then, Paramount advised running it from the DVD (which was nothing to brag about) because the available prints were in such bad shape. Much has changed in four years. Now the film is available in a new 4K restoration DCP — meaning it looks as good as it did in 1971 and maybe better. The film itself wears its years effortlessly. It feels as cheeky and fresh now as it did when it first appeared, and that’s pretty remarkable when you consider that the film is every inch a product of that counter-culture era. It has all the elements of its time in its anti-war, anti-establishment sensibility, yet it feels just as relevant now as it ever did. Even its all-Cat Stevens soundtrack retains its freshness. I think it comes down to the fact that true irreverence never really grows old — and the even greater fact that its generation-spanning romance between young Harold (Bud Cort) and elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) also spans the years, because it remains true. It also remains a little bit shocking in the way it forces the viewer to rethink conventional notions of what is or isn’t an “acceptable” romance. Of course, the additional fact that the story is a very quirky, biting, dark comedy plays a part, too. And still, it’s really the film’s emotional resonance that sold it 44 years ago and sells it today, keeping it a living classic work.
Genre: Cult Comedy Romance
Director: Hal Ashby (Being There)
Starring: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charles Tyner, Ellen Geer
Rated: PG



Before there was a Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon, and before midnight movies like Phantom of the ParadiseTommy and Carrie were the order of the day, there was Harold and Maude. Director Hal Ashby’s cult classic spoke to the generation of the early 1970s much as Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and Karel Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment had to the preceding one of the mid-’60s. In fact, Harold and Maude was not only embraced by those ’70s kids, but it’s wholly iconoclastic worldview significantly broadened the way many of them thought. Detailing the non-platonic romance of Harold (the even-younger-looking-than-his-23-years Bud Cort) and Maude (the 75-year-old Ruth Gordon), the film crossed a line that even today seems almost unthinkable. Of course, it did so partly by creating two characters who were far from anything that might be called average.




Harold is a withdrawn rich boy who delights in staging elaborate — often gory — “suicides” to torment his very-proper control-freak of a mother (Vivian Pickles, best known as Isadora Duncan in the Ken Russell TV film Isadora), who remains blissfully unaffected by his theatrics. Harold is obsessed with death — no sooner does mom give him a brand-new E-type Jaguar than he converts it into a mini version of his preferred mode of transportation, a hearse. His favorite hobby is attending the funerals of people he doesn’t know.




It’s at one of these staid ceremonies that he meets Maude, whose favorite mode of transportation is whatever car she happens to have just stolen. They’re a match made in heaven. Yet it’s interestingly atypical, even now, that the far older person in the film teaches the younger one how to live and, in fact, espouses most of Harold and Maude‘s iconoclastic messages. It’s given to Maude to wax anti-establishment, answering Harold’s question about what she fought for with, “Oh, big issues. Liberty. Rights. Justice. Kings died, kingdoms fell. I don’t regret the kingdoms — what sense in borders and nations and patriotism? But I miss the kings.” All of which makes this exactly the reverse of any ordinary Vietnam-era film (at one point, Maude comments, “It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life.”)


h and m poster 3a


By turns funny, moving and outrageous — sometimes all at once — the film is Hal Ashby’s masterpiece, thanks in no small part to Colin Higgins’ nearly perfect screenplay and the incredible performances of Cort, Gordon and Pickles — none of whom would ever get this kind of chance again. On top of it all is Cat Stevens’ amazing pop soundtrack (remember how great he once was?), providing just the right wistful, mournful touch for this glimmering jewel of a movie. If you’ve never seen Harold and Maude, that needs correcting. If you have, return visits are never disappointing — especially now when you can see it as it should look.

The Asheville Film Society is showing Harold and Maude on Wednesday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m. at The Carolina Asheville as part of the Budget Big Screen series. Admission is $6 for AFS members and $8 for the general public. Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther will introduce the film.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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3 thoughts on “Harold and Maude

  1. sally sefton

    Often I see a film that I loved when I was younger and I come away from it disappointed as I realize that my frame of reference has shifted and my response to the work is not the same as I remembered. Not so with HAROLD AND MAUDE. The quirky tenderness of these characters have imbedded themselves deeply into my psyche and I consider them old friends whenever I get the chance to revisit them.

    I think when I first encountered the unlikely romance, I was caught in a judgment that kept me from fully engaging in the story. I think that all stopped after a couple of scenes. Their attraction, so well articulated by this review, seems to be a perfect, tragic fit. I am always delighted by the quirkiness, and touched by the sweet romance of all of it

    Once again I find myself envious of a place that brings these great films back to the big screen for very little, or no cost to the viewer. One of our theaters just showed DOUBLE INDEMNITY and charged us $3 MORE than the usual admission price. Lucky Asheville.

    • Ken Hanke

      I never tire of Harold and Maude.

      Not to downplay your praise for the Asheville movie scene, but Double Indemnity was a Fathom/TCM “event” that was piped in and had a pre-inflated price. Don’t know what the regular price is out there, but tickets here were $15, which is $5 over regular. The irony of this is these are actually lower quality than the DCP presentations we have.

      • sally sefton

        It isn’t downplaying it. I actually feel a little better knowing that. But that was the only film shown in the last six months that was made before 2014. So there you have the envy.

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