Friday, August 9, 2019

Harold and Maude - a fond look

Harold and Maude, by Hal Ashby

Harold and Maude is a perfect movie. It takes no step wrong, the story is complete and flows beautifully. And a fine story it is, too: Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) the 19-year old son of a wealthy single (never clear whether she’s divorced or widowed) society lady (Vivian Pickles), is obsessed with death, suicide, and funerals. At one such funeral, for someone he didn’t know, he encounters Maude (Ruth Gordon), who’d never met the deceased either.

That’s enough plot. She is 51 years his senior. He’s in love with death, she with life. The soundtrack is by the former Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam). And Ashby’s career as a film editor is on full display – every transition is a perfect little segue, yet they are never contrived. The movie has no wasted shots nor scenes – everything serves the story’s progress and its conclusion.

Comic and absurdist moments are abundant, from Maude’s penchant for stealing cars (having none of her own, she prefers to borrow what’s handy to get around, and carries a huge ring of keys for that purpose), to the dating-service dates Harold’s mother sets him up with, having decided he ought to get married. Ashby riffs on popular culture and social unrest (this was released in 1971), but in a way that plays up the human penchant for self-contradiction.

I recently had the good fortune to see this gem on a big screen, where it rightly belongs, and was delighted to note the theater was packed – plenty of folks who’d grown up with this movie, along with a number seeing it for the first time. Somewhere in the ether, the spirit of Hal Ashby is smiling along with our absorption in this excellent love story.