Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and whether you spent it grabbing dinner and a movie with someone special or at home binging on chocolates and Netflix, odds are you were overwhelmed with possibilities for cinematic romance. So which to choose? A respectable Oscar-winner, like Titanic? Something a little bit sexy—Dirty Dancing, perhaps? Maybe it was a guilty pleasure, like Notting Hill, or pretty much anything based on a Nicholas Sparks novel (it’s okay, we’ve all been there).
Whatever you ended up watching, you probably didn’t even consider Hal Ashby’s 1971 black comedy Harold and Maude—and that’s a shame, because while this cult classic may not be dressed in the usual trappings of romance, at its weird little heart is the most romantic message of all: There’s someone for everyone.
Unconventional doesn’t begin to describe Harold and Maude, which spins ‘boy meets girl’ into ‘boy meets septuagenarian’. 19-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) is obsessed with death, much to the dismay of his socialite mother. His idea of a good time involves staging elaborate fakes suicides, driving around in a hearse and attending the funerals of strangers.
That’s where he meets fellow funeral-crasher Maude (Ruth Gordon), a lively, adventurous widow 60 years his senior, who spends her spare time stealing cars and modeling in the nude.
In a lesser film, their pairing might simply be an extreme case of ‘opposites attract’: Harold, with his blue-tinged skin, his bulging, watery eyes and his long, hunched frame, looks like something out of the mind of Tim Burton, while diminutive, wrinkled Maude is often flitting around the room, wearing bright colours and bursting with energy. But as the two form a friendship and eventually a romance, it becomes clear that their connection comes not from their differences but from heir willingness to share those weird parts of themselves with each other.
It’s in Maude’s presence that we first see Harold smile, and by the time the film reaches its end, we have seen him literally somersault with joy. Fans of ridiculous romantic gestures will appreciate the scene in which Harold gives Maude an inscribed coin from an arcade game, which she promptly tosses into the sea. ‘So I’ll always know where it is,’ she explains.
Early reviewers of Harold and Maude weren’t kind, with many finding the film’s humour too morbid and the relationship creepy, and the film tanked at the box office. In fact, Harold and Maude didn’t even turn a profit until twelve years after it first hit theatres, when it had finally achieved cult classic status. Some are still no doubt put off by the age gap between the film’s hero and his love interest.
But even outside of its strange romance, Harold and Maude has a lot to offer. Maude tells Harold that ‘everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves’, a philosophy that the film takes to heart as it presents a series of absurd characters, from Harold’s militant uncle to his pedantic psychiatrist. Vivian Pickles is superb as Harold’s increasingly exasperated mother, whose solution to his odd fixation with morbidity is to set him up on a series of increasingly disastrous dates.
Cat Stevens composed the music, including ‘If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out’, which was written specifically for the film, and which is played at its ending. It’s an ending that, fittingly, is both completely surprising and utterly predictable—an appropriate finale to a film that is full of contradictions.