Harold and Maude: 50 years on, Hal Ashby’s box-office bomb is a black comedy classic

Harold and Maude is a movie that celebrates the 1970s. By turns exuberant, psychedelic, hilarious and heartbreaking, it’s a product of the most prolific decade of Hal Ashby’s directorial output: his skewed, sweet-natured stamp is all over it.

From the opening minutes – a macabre mismatch of suicidal scene-setting to the accompaniment of Cat Stevens’ uplifting Don’t Be Shy – Ashby leaves viewers in no doubt about what they have signed up for. What follows is 91 minutes of sunlight and shadow juxtaposed in a way that will have them laughing and gasping in the same breath.

Twentysomething Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) spends his leisure time devising attention-seeking suicide scenarios within sight of his emotionally unavailable mother (an inspired Vivian Pickles). After his 15th staged suicide, Mrs Chasen – not averse to the occasional display of amateur dramatics herself – sends him to a psychiatrist who asks Harold if all 15 attempts were done for his mother’s benefit.

“I would not say benefit,” says a deadpan Harold, a master of the judicious use of looking straight to camera.

His other pastime is going to funerals, which is where he meets 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon), a fellow funeral aficionado, occasional life model and self-described sunflower. Maude is given to “borrowing” other people’s vehicles and, at one of the funerals, pulls over to offer Harold a lift in his own car, a secondhand hearse.

Their friendship develops over the course of the week, a busy one for Harold. His mother has decided he should marry and signs him up for a computer dating service, 70s-style.

‘They screen out the fat and the ugly,” his mother assures a bemused Harold. As she reads out the questionnaire – “Do you sometimes have headaches after a difficult day?” – and responds “Yes I do indeed,” Harold casually loads a gun and points it at her before turning it on himself for suicide attempt number 16.

There follow three more blood-spattered performances – one for each of his prospective wives-to-be – that include self-immolation, a self-inflicted machete attack and a spectacular seppuku that ends in a copycat performance by would-be actor date No 3. In between engagements, Harold and Maude have a picnic at a demolition site, save a tree, steal a couples of vehicles including a police motorbike, frolic in a field of daisies and fall in love.

“What flower would you like to be?” Maude asks Harold.

“One of these [daisies] maybe,” he says. “Because they’re all alike.”

“But they’re not,” Maude replies. “I feel that much of the world’s sorrow come from people who are this,” she holds up a single daisy, “yet allow themselves to be treated as that.” She points to the sea of daisies.

It’s a glimpse of a darker alternative to the light-filled, bohemian past Maude has painted. When Harold catches sight of a row of numbers tattooed on her forearm, we get an inkling as to what has formed her character and what drives her towards the film’s final act.

Harold and Maude bombed at the box office on its release but its combination of black humour with an undercurrent of optimism has won it – and Ashby – a legion of devoted fans in the 50 years since. His was an irreverent, anti-establishment but above all humanistic approach to film-making. When Ashby won an editing Oscar in 1967 for In the Heat of the Night, his acceptance speech was one of the shortest in the history of the Academy Awards: “I only hope that we can use all of our talents and creativity towards peace and love.”

Harold and Maude is the kind of cinema that draws you in for the storyline and keeps you there for the beating heart. It’s a film unapologetically of its time – the wardrobe, cinematography and Cat Stevens soundtrack place it firmly in the 70s – but its themes of joy and redemption resonate now more than ever.

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