In Harold and Maude, a young Bud Cort delivers one of the all-time cinematic expressions of existential horror. His big eyes dialed open just one notch below bulging, his mouth tightly shut so as to prevent even the slightest inhalation or exhalation of breath, his skin the pale pallor of a newly morgued corpse, Cort’s Harold looks like a missing member of the Addams Family—the one who has no sense of humor.
What has led Harold to this state of despair? The movie, written by Colin Higgins and directed by Hal Ashby, never explicitly spells it out for us, but we can guess. Harold’s father is not part of the current picture, but his oddball exploits (like floating down the Seine naked) cast a shadow over Harold’s life. His mother (Vivian Pickles), a fluttering socialite who manages every element of Harold’s existence, keeps him imprisoned in a vast, useless mansion. (The cars she buys him might as well come with a ball and chain attached.) Add to this the fact that Harold is at that late-teen age where life can seem to be either full of promise or the start of a severe prison sentence, and it’s no wonder that Harold—when he’s not elaborately staging his own suicide to shock his mother—stares into the camera as if he’s looking into an endless, hungry abyss.
It should be noted that Harold and Maude plays all of this, including Harold’s many, many, many fake suicides, for laughs. This deadpan comic tone gets a bit broader with the appearance of Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old eccentric whom Harold meets at a funeral (it turns out they both attend strangers’ funerals for “fun”). Gordon’s comic presence is a bit too big for what the movie is trying to do—with her habit of stealing cars and careening through stoplights, there’s too much of a “crazy grandma” vibe to her character—but there is no denying that she and Cort manage genuine moments of intimate connection. And lest you think that this means Harold and Maude turns into a treacly, feel-good drama, I’ll just say that as the film goes on this central relationship becomes quite a bit more complicated.
In its May-December romance, its oddball characters, deadpan tone, and extensive use of the music of Cat Stevens, Harold and Maude is an obvious inspiration for Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. If I prefer the latter film it’s because Rushmore is better calibrated in its screenplay, formal execution, and performances. Still, as a product of the early 1970s, when the studio system was being shaken up in surprising and refreshing ways, Harold and Maude had a shagginess that’s endearing, and lasting. Rushmore aside, you’ll find few movies like it.