#5. Harold and Maude (1971)
Directed by: Hal Ashby
Written by: Colin Higgins
Starring: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon
Hal Ashby was one of the most unique voices of the New Hollywood era, and his film Harold and Maude may be the director at his very peak. Ashby’s film is chock full of pitch black comedy, themes of death, aging, and changing times, and features one of the very best on screen pairings in movie history. Harold and Maude sees Harold (Bud Cort), a young man obsessed with death and the morbid side of life in general. Harold stages fake suicides which push his mother to her breaking point, straining their already empty relationship. At the funeral of a complete stranger, Harold eventually meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a much older free-spirited and quirky woman whose carefree nature is a breath of fresh air to the young Harold. The two strike up a friendship that sees them make and listen to music, and generally wreak havoc around the city. Eventually the friendship turns into a romantic relationship, but is doomed to fail – on Maude’s 80th birthday, she plans to commit suicide. Harold and Maude is a movie with enormous heart and soul – it relies heavily on incredibly dark humor revolving around death and suicide, but don’t let these things distract you; the film is as romantic and hopeful as they come. The budding friendship between Harold and Maude is delightful in every way, the shenanigans they get involved in as a pair are hilarious and absurd, and the conversations between the two are compelling and poignant. Both characters are complete misfits in what seems to be a proper and upright society – they were seemingly made for each other. The subtleties in Colin Higgins’ script are incredible – Harold’s obsession with death opens the door for Maude to show him the great many joys of life, and Maude’s carefree and unstoppably optimistic attitude most likely stems from her time in a Nazi concentration camp (as evidenced by the tattoo on her arm). The chemistry between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon is tremendous, especially for a pair so mismatched in age and acting experience. Gordon’s Maude is very much atypical for somebody her age, and Cort’s Harold represents an entire lost generation of young people obsessed with their mortality. On top of the terrific characters and the actors that play them, Harold and Maude is entirely set to the music of Cat Stevens, where the artist premiered his iconic songs “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” and “Don’t Be Shy” among other. The soundtrack perfectly contrasts Harold’s morbid attitude and obsession with death, and more properly reflects Maude’s worldview. Hal Ashby’s film is eccentric and bizarre from the very start, making it something of an acquired taste for many viewers. If you can stomach its unique sensibilities, Harold and Maude features two of the most unique screen characters you’ll ever see, and a heck of a romance at its core. It’s an odd, dark, and hilarious fairy tale.