Harold and Maude (1971)
Written by Colin Higgins
Directed by Hal Ashby
This is the movie that established Hal Ashby and remains the first film most people think of when they hear his name. Its basic plot has been mimicked by dozens of independent films since yet none of them seem to recapture the magic of the original. It’s inspired many filmmakers since, especially Wes Anderson. You could argue that it reinvented the concept of the manic pixie dream girl who serves to enlighten the male protagonist. There is a lot that begins with Harold and Maude.
Harold Chasen is a young man obsessed with death. He simulates suicide many times, an act that has become an annoyance to his mother. While attending a stranger’s funeral, Harold meets Maude, a 79-year-old who is brimming over with love for life. Harold is attracted to Maude and embarks on several escapades with her, which involve stealing cars and replanting trees in the woods. Eventually, the young man falls in love with Maude, which draws ill feelings from his conservative mother and uncle.
The script for Harold and Maude was written as Colin Higgins’ master’s thesis while he was attending UCLA. He worked as a pool boy for a Hollywood producer and got connected with the executives who bought his script with a promise that he would direct it. Later, the studio asked Ashby to direct, but he stipulated he needed Higgins’s blessing to continue, which he received. Upon release, the film was panned by many critics who felt the characters were flat and disliked the dark humor.
They are partly right, Harold and Maude is an allegorical story, with its title leads presenting nihilism and optimism. At a certain point, the two blend together, they literally fall in love within the narrative. This is an essential aspect of the film, life is a mix of birth & death, creation & destruction, good times & bad times. Maude has embraced this philosophy, which is why she doesn’t let small hindrances bring her down, while you can see Harold looking nervous when the police pull them over. In her final scene, we see Maude looking up lovingly at Harold, who thinks he can circumvent death. Maude is feeling nothing but love, knowing what happens next is just what happens in life.
I think one element that drove critics at the time to dislike the movie is that we have a romantic relationship between a twentysomething man and an elderly woman. Even today, such a pairing would be viewed with disgust by large chunks of the audience. However, in Maude is the peace movement that was struggling at the time. Harold is representing how cynical the 1970s youth would become in the wake of a peace movement squashed by jackboots and Nixon. Maude reminds him of hope, and he cannot help but love her because she is her pure self.
I suspect filmmaking fans of this movie are responsible for the injection of the manic pixie dream girl into so many pictures afterward. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a stock character coined by critic Nathan Rabin. He came up with the term after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown and stated that the MPDG “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Harold and Maude presents the MPDG as real, but she is an eighty-year-old woman whose life doesn’t belong to the male character but to herself. As many actions as Harold takes to save Maude she remains the one in charge of her own body. I think it’s a beautiful subversion whose message is that much more beautiful as a result.