Released in December 1971, Harold and Maude was a box office bomb. The romantic black comedy is the story of a young man intrigued by death named Harold (Bud Cort) who forms a friendship and eventual romance with a 79-year-old woman named Maude (Ruth Gordon), who teaches Harold how to enjoy life to the fullest. The film was directed by the New Hollywood icon Hal Ashby, but the film received minimal marketing from Paramount Pictures and was a box office bomb and reviews were mixed.
However, as the years went on the ’70s movie gained a cult following. By 1983, 12 years after its initial release, the movie turned a profit. It received a wide array of cultural recognition and in 1997 was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Harold and Maude have been delighting audiences for over 50 years, and even for those who are not fans of romantic comedies, Harold and Maude provide something uniquely special that anyone can enjoy it.
Darker Than Most Romantic Comedies
Most audiences have a certain image in their head of what they expect a romantic comedy to be, one that has been so recognizable that it has been parodied in other movies and television shows. Harold and Maude fit the basic premise of a romantic comedy but swerves in every direction in what audiences expect. Instead of the typical conventional attractive star couple, Harold and Maude’s two leads are an awkward young man and an older woman who could be his grandma. This is not the pairing audiences are used to seeing, yet it still features the familiar trope of one person teaching another how to live life.
The movie is also extremely dark. The jokes here are ones of elaborate fake suicides that work as great physical comedy but also are slightly unsettling. The audience is invited to laugh, but there is an inherently uncomfortable nature to it which somehow makes it funnier. There really is no other romantic comedy like it in that respect, which allows it to stick out of the pack.
Cat Stevens’ Harold and Maude Soundtrack
Here is an unspoken fact — a bad movie can be made somewhat redeemable by a good soundtrack or one killer needle drop, and a great movie can be made iconic with a great soundtrack. Harold and Maude has one of the all-time great soundtracks. The music is composed by Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam) and features many of his classic tracks like “Trouble” and “Where Do The Children Play.” It also features original songs that have become two of his most famous, “Don’t Be Shy” and the beautiful, thematically significant “If You Want To Sing Out.”
Harold and Maude‘s soundtrack perfectly captures the energy of the movie. It is a folk rock album that has both a youthful energy and an older wisdom that speaks to years of experience. It can contrast the film’s dark comedy or highlight the sweetly intimate moments, and makes even this morbid, dark film feel almost sentimental at times without ever succumbing to the saccharine cheesiness which plagues most rom-coms. The soundtrack to Harold and Maude is one of the best ever made, to the extent that it even works on its own as a stand-alone album, but also as the perfect mix of a score speaking for the movie.
A Timeless Story That Speaks to Everyone
Harold and Maude has remained timeless and endured for so long because there is something universally relatable about it. While the exact circumstance might not be one-to-one relatability, the film is about two ostracized and iconoclastic people who find one another despite not fitting in, and in Harold’s case, he discovers something about himself he didn’t know was there. Everyone in their life has at one point felt isolated. They have felt different and can relate to Harold.
Harold and Maude is very much a product of the counterculture taking form in New Hollywood during the late 1960s and early 70s. Yet unlike films like Easy Rider and The Graduate (a very different film about a young man falling for a much older woman, set to an iconic folk soundtrack) which are such products of their times that they couldn’t be made at any other point, Harold and Maude is a story that speaks to every generation and could easily be made today. It almost seems like the kind of small indie film that would blow up in the 2000s (like Garden State or Napoleon Dynamite). That rebellious nature of love, that makes one defy everything will never be pinned down to a specific time or place because it is human nature.
Harold and Maude Isn’t About Romance as Much as It’s About Living
Most romantic comedies avoid the concept of death, as it’s just not a fun topic to include in your typical falling-in-love narrative. Yet Harold and Maude takes that uncomfortable discussion and puts it front and center. Despite clearly being a romantic comedy, Harold and Maude is less concerned with romance and more with the bigger concept of finding one’s purpose in life. Harold is a young man who has given up on life, even though he has so much of his life ahead of him. Maude has lived a life full of adventures and is not afraid of death. She wants Harold to experience the same long and fulfilling life that she had.
Living can be hard sometimes; it is filled with pain and suffering and moments of true darkness. Death is a looming shadow that nobody can escape from and everyone will meet one day. Everything will end, from romantic relationships to life itself. Yet despite that specter of dread hanging over the proceedings, there is something beautiful in how life can work. Love can be found in the unlikeliest place. The people who are met along the road can have such grand impacts on us that shift who we are.
By the end of Harold and Maude, Harold has had to say goodbye to Maude by a force outside his control. In what appears to be his final act, he drives his car off the cliff, but the camera reveals Harold is standing on the cliff having learned the lesson Maude taught him: enjoy the life you have and live it to every advantage. He is a new man, and anyone who has undergone similar feelings of despair can likely identify with that feeling.