Harold and Maude exists within that golden era of New Hollywood, sometimes referred to as the Hollywood New Wave, which started with films like Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider and ending with Star Wars and Jaws.
New Hollywood was important because it marked the beginning of the director as king (in America, anyway) and a new style of film emerged. The director of Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby created his films within this movement, but he made his a little differently from the frenetic, cocaine-fuelled film sets of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese et al.
A hangover from the hippie movement, Ashby’s films are concerned with kindness, friendship and living against the grain, he places happiness and compassion above all else. His influence is evident in modern filmmaking, especially with filmmakers such as Wes Anderson who were clearly heavily inspired by Ashby and this film in particular. He’s like the hippie Dad to Wes Anderson, and all those indie filmmakers giving it up for the outcasts.
Harold and Maude is a May to December romance featuring teenager “Harold” (Bud Cort) and 80-year-old “Maude” (Ruth Gordon). There’s so much about this film that is brilliant: the Cat Stevens soundtrack which simultaneously fills you with joy and breaks your heart, the deadpan humour (especially from Bud Cort who is incredible in this film) and the humanist ethos which pervades the narrative.
It’s hard to talk about this film without giving too much away, but I’ll give it a go; Harold is a troubled, neglected and wealthy teenager who finds a friend and a comrade in Maude. Their relationship is treated with such compassion, it’s hard to imagine another director who would treat the relationship between a teenager and an 80-year-old woman with such deference. In fact, this is alluded to in an excellently funny and uncomfortable scene in which a priest tries to warn Harold off the sins of the flesh.
The chemistry between Cort and Gordon is astounding. Their relationship, tentative at first, is beautifully crafted. Ruth Gordon deserves a mention here, her joy-filled Maude is something to behold, her humanist approach to life invigorates Harold and the audience too. She shows Harold how much beauty and love there is in the world, and I defy the audience to finish watching Harold and Maude without a warm, fuzzy feeling and a desire to look at the flowers more often.