“Ok!” I shouted across the breakfast room, “Who’s up for a touch of the comedy of the absurd and a love affair between an octogenarian and a rich boy?” For old Jack here had seen Harold and Maude back in the 1970s and felt like trapping the leches, logicians and bitter pedants in a dark room with everything they hated about The Avengers, the Goodies and Monty Python. For, yes, in its plasticky sheen-o-scope of unnatural colours and garish ’70s gear, this film starts out weird and fun, then gets creepy and crazy. Punishment, indeed, for the humourless crumbletons of Decrepit Towers.
We gathered. Melancholy Meg watched silently. Trembling Trev sat nearest to the screen, dribbling onto his stroke stockings with an air of show-me-the-grandma. So, he didn’t enjoy the early parts of the film as we meet Harold first, a stupendously passive-aggressive rich kid with round face trapped in round hair.
Harold is obsessed with death, but not in the Bardemmy-haircut-means-death way of No Country for Old Men (2007), though that feels like a destination. Bud Cort‘s weird boy is playing with his hang-ups, pissing off his sexy-but-starched British Momma (the splendidly glam and knowing Vivian Pickles in aristo-snottery and irritability mode). Harold repeatedly fakes suicide. We’re not sure at first, but it descends into habit and old Jack certainly sympathised with his Mum as the adolescent show-offery took him through hanging, bath-and-blade bloodiness, drowning, faux bullets through the head, faux immolation and faux hari-kari. A bit like Steed and Whoever reporting to their Mother, Harold and Maude keeps it weird.
Watching the film in the TV Room of Piety, the campery seemed a lot more tame than back in the day. If anything, the styles of 1971 are incidental to the commonalities between our two times (graveyards and faces at funerals). And I didn’t get the stampede of offended old farts that I’d wanted. Perhaps Cat Stevens – sprinkled throughout – cheered their souls too much.
Now – Maude.
Harold makes himself a guest at many a funeral, and sees her at one of them. Through hearse theft and coincidence, they become vicar and police-baiting buddies.
Trembling Trevor had to be pulled back from the screen as Ruth Gordon came on. She was in her mid-70s when this was made (the boy Cort was about 23). Of the two, Ruth Gordon is the more vital. She gives off comic energy, puckishness and uncontrollability in waves. Gordon does a fantastic job. She steals cars as she needs them, cheering the police away with distractions and flattery. The perfect naughty old child, Maude takes over Harold’s imagination, slowly opening up to her view of the world. And…okay…it’s the usual: life is for the living; fuck off to life’s judges; people mustn’t give up…
MAUDE: A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt even. But play as well as you can. Go team go! Give me an L. Give me an I. Give me a V. Give me an E.
And she’s not wrong: she does it and Harold – for all his suicidal games – needs to do it as well.
And then the film properly delivers on the weird: they fall in love.
I said 23 and 75, didn’t I?
There’s a point when old men start to accept those beautiful young women are never going to be available and anything they say or do will be creepy and wrong. It takes a looooooooooooong time, but we get there. But what of all those women that still ache for beautiful boys? Some are brave and admit it (Shag-a-Stud Suzy went a bit far with the care home ground staff, if I’m honest, but she died how she wanted…though it took me a month before I could eat sandwiches off that table again). Others – the vast majority – hide it. Do they accept the gap? Should they? Perhaps the answering of this question is what gets Harold and Maude into all those lists of cracking films about old age. It certainly explains the single tear glittering its way down Melancholy Meg’s cheek.
The film doesn’t go anywhere especially creepy, mind. What builds between Maude and Harold, taboo and very 1960s, looks a lot like impassioned affection these days. Moments are implied, but I think the film is more bothered by them than the TV room was ever going to be.
Pious Pete kept looking across at me during the last half hour, tutting silently. I could feel his piggy little eyes on me – pleased, they were – as the film dropped its most obvious clunker in a moment by the sea. Harold spots the concentration camp number on Maude’s arm…and suddenly the fun dies and all the over-wrought death gags hit the floor. A car zooms off a cliff in a filmic sleight of hand so obvious it pisses you off and then the whole thing is over.
Hmmm. Harold and Maude is inventive, funny, strange and shiny, of its time and not. Ruth Gordon is bouncy and fantastic; Bud Cort is blank-spite incarnate and still. Seek it out – it may work for you… Of course, it’s just possible you should only watch it once in a lifetime…
But, then…there’s a million things to do. You know that there are…