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Film buffs know right away when you mention the names Harold And Maude, that it can only refer to the delightfully dark and enduring classic film starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon.
The 1972 film was, in many ways, the perfect companion to the cultural phenomena of the 1960s and our rather skewed sense of humor most people had developed by the early 1970s. But of course at the time, the mainstream film critics pretty much savaged the film, calling it grim and gruesome and humor only of the most gallows variety. Luckily over the years and following decades, the film has had many rethinks and reassessments. And subsequent viewings (by way of the Midnight Movie circuit, a cultural touchstone of the cineaste) have gone from savage to celebratory to finally being considered one of the 100 Funniest Movies of all time (#45) by The American Film Institute.
For those of you not familiar, here’s a thumbnail sketch of the plot (SPOILER ALERT: don’t read the following five paragraphs if you haven’t seen the film and are planning to):
Harold Chasen is a young man obsessed with death. He stages elaborate fake suicides, attends funerals, and drives a hearse, all to the chagrin of his socialite mother. His mother sets up appointments with a psychoanalyst, but the analyst is befuddled by the case and fails to get Harold to talk about his real emotions.
At another stranger’s funeral service, Harold meets Maude, a 79-year-old woman who shares Harold’s hobby of attending funerals. He is entranced by her quirky outlook on life, which is bright and excessively carefree in contrast with his morbidity. The pair form a bond and Maude shows Harold the pleasures of art and music (including how to play banjo), and teaches him how to make “the most of his time on earth”. Meanwhile, Harold’s mother is determined, against Harold’s wishes, to find him a wife. One by one, Harold frightens and horrifies each of his appointed dates, by appearing to commit gruesome acts such as self-immolation, self-mutilation and seppuku. She tries enlisting him in the military instead, but he deters his recruiting officer uncle by staging a scene in which Maude poses as a pacifist protester and Harold seemingly murders her out of militaristic fanaticism.
When Harold and Maude are talking at her home he tells her, without prompting, the motive for his fake suicides: When he was at boarding school, he accidentally caused an explosion in his chemistry lab, leading police to assume his death. Harold returned home just in time to witness his mother react to the news of his death with a ludicrously dramatized faint. As he reaches this part of the story, Harold bursts into tears and says, “I decided then I enjoyed being dead.”
As they become closer, their friendship soon blossoms into a romance and Harold announces that he will marry Maude, resulting in disgusted outbursts from his family, analyst, and priest. Maude’s 80th birthday arrives, and Harold throws a surprise party for her. As the couple dance, Maude tells Harold that she “couldn’t imagine a lovelier farewell.” Confused, he questions Maude as to her meaning and she reveals that she has taken an overdose of sleeping pills and will be dead by midnight. She restates her firm belief that eighty is the proper age to die.
Harold rushes Maude to the hospital, where she is treated unsuccessfully and dies. In the final sequence, Harold’s car is seen going off a seaside cliff but after the crash, the final shot reveals Harold standing calmly atop the cliff, holding his banjo. After gazing down at the wreckage, he dances away, picking out on his banjo Cat Stevens’ song “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”.
That’s it, and you can see where things got misconstrued. At the center of this cultural skirmish was writer Colin Higgins, whose screenplay for Harold and Maude started off as a UCLA Film School thesis, quickly became a feature film, became a novel and a stage play and kicked off Colin Higgins career in true Hollywood rags-to-riches fashion.
He would eventually turn Harold and Maude into a play as well as novel, in addition to developing his career as a director, making the films Foul Play (1978) and 9 to 5 (1980).
Higgins, who was openly gay, died of an AIDS-related illness at his home on 5 August 1988 and was buried in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery.
Colin Higgins’ influence was widely felt. His writing is said to have inspired filmmakers like Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Wes Anderson and Paul Feig.
He is being interviewed by Casper Citron for his regular radio series broadcast from The Algonquin Hotel in New York, broadcast in February of 1972.