Harold & Maude (1971): Hal Ashby’s Cult Movie Starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort

“Harold & Maude,” a satirical-whimsical romantic comedy, directed by Hal Ashby from a script by Colin Higgins, centers on a truly odd couple.  Bud Cort plays Harold, a rich, suicidal introvert adolescent who’s lost interest in his life.  Ruth Gordon is his opposite as Maude, an old, poor, spunky woman full of life.

Harold’s mom arranges for dates with young, educated girls, but he finds all of them boring. The early scenes depict Harold’s gruesome methods of suicide, which do not scare his unflappable mother (Vivian Pickles), because she does not take them—or her son–seriously.

Upon their accidental meeting at a cemetery, Maude advises Harold to “reach out,” get out of himself, and he follows her dictate by falling in love with her.  Their romantic affair is to be consummated on the eve of her 80th birthday.

Maude lives in a railway car, but she fantasizes about a future life as a sunflower.  Eccentric to a fault, she likes to steal vehicles and then drive them rapidly and crazily.

A peculiar movie, “Harold & Maude” blends together (not always successfully) a cool and sophisticated mood with an underlying sentimental tone.

Ruth Gordon is good at playing a freaky eccentric, but neither she nor Cort project any overt sexuality.  The central love story is too sanitary, playing it too safely to be really considered an anti-mainstream picture.

Though marked by some wit and dark humor, the film is not skillfully directed by Ashby; the actors are often seen from a distance, as if he were afraid to get too close to them.  Ashby who would develop into a better filmmaker in the course of the decade, manifest in such films as “Shampoo.”

Despite its flaws, “Harold and Maude” became a cult film with young American audiences of the 1970s. The film was released during the height of the Vietnam War, anti-war movement, the Flower Children, and its anarchic humor and anti-establishment ethos reflected the zeitgeist.