Before there was a Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon, and before midnight movies like Phantom of the Paradise, Tommy 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Harold is a withdrawn rich boy who delights in staging elaborate — often gory — “suicides” to torment his very-proper control-freak of a mother (Vivian Pickles, best known as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.”)
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.