Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Thirty-Six


#36 — Harold & Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
Engaging in an exercise like this countdown naturally inspires the generation of all sorts of half-baked theories, trying to condense disparate ranges of films made by wildly different and unique directors into succinct categories defined by reductive philosophizing that purports a sort of industry-wide groupthink that plainly isn’t all that likely. So why not throw a new thesis up? Part of what makes the films of the nineteen-seventies so striking is the emergent celebration of true outcasts. Antiheroes spent the sixties grabbing moviegoers by the lapels, but Bonnie, Clyde, Luke (who had notably chilly hands) and all the others were outside of society by choice, trying on rebellion like a smart new suit. In the seventies, there was suddenly room for those who didn’t fit in because society pushed them aside. And unlike now, when outcasts typically can’t be honored without also heaping some ridicule on them, they were warmly celebrated for the way they stood apart.

Harold and Maude, director Hal Ashby’s second feature, is one of those films that finds a kind-hearted purity among the outcasts. Bud Cort plays Harold, a young man from a privileged background who’s grimly dark sense of humor cuts directly against his family’s staid plans of obedient conformity. He’s like Benjamin Braddock with a proclivity for gruesome staged suicides. His place in the world begins to make a little more sense to him when one of his regular outings to the funeral of a stranger brings him into contact with a woman with the same odd pastime. This is Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, a woman on the verge of her eightieth birthday. She’s as distinctively out of step as Harold, but she’s his opposite, embracing life and celebrating the possibility in every fleeting moment. What’s more, she redefines the parameters of the experience. “Vice, Virtue. It’s best not to be too moral,” she says. “You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. If you apply that to life, then you’re bound to live it fully.” A touching romance develops between the title characters, despite an age difference best measured in decades.

The screenplay by Colin Higgins was an expansion of his UCLA thesis in the screenwriting MFA program and it was his first produced work, ahead of more conventional (but still enjoyable) work later in the decade such as Silver Streak and Foul Play, the latter also serving as his directorial debut. The script represented a singular, fearlessly creative voice, but the film truly sparkles because of Ashby’s amazing visual sense and his unique command of tone. Without ever compromising the bleakness built into the story, Ashby finds a way to make the film resolutely celebratory. There are times when the simple framing of an image–often combining ornate precision with a vivid wit–is enough to shape and reshape the entire film in a moment. The byplay between Cort and Gordon is a marvel of understatement infused with personality, importantly developing the relationship in such a way that it’s completely believable that these two would be drawn to one another and that Harold, despite his seeming commitment to gloom, would be capable of change when standing in Maude’s quivering light. It takes boundless empathy in a filmmaker to achieve such a thing with material this complicated. Ashby may have been near the beginning of his directorial career, but he was already proving that he had that elusive quality in abundance.