Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is a repressed 16-year-old whose main outlets are attending funerals of people he didn’t know and the staging of elaborate pseudo-suicides, much to the annoyance of his wealthy and controlling mother (Vivian Pickles).
In the opening sequence he puts on the Cat Stevens record Don’t Be Shy, lights a candle, walks over to a stool and hangs himself.
Moments later his mother walks in and, entirely used to his faked suicides, casually uses the phone to cancel a hair appointment and leaves, informing Harold that dinner will be served promptly at eight.
On other occasions, Harold smears himself with fake blood and allows his mother to find him in her shower, and floats face-down in the family pool as she takes a leisurely swim.
One day, Harold meets Maude (Ruth Gordon) at one of the funerals he frequents. The 79-year-old is an eccentric nonconformist with no drivers licence and no car of her own – she “borrows” cars to drive herself around, and to remind the owners that “stuff is here today, gone tomorrow”.
What follows is one of the funniest and most touching pairings in screen history, exploring love, death and the importance of living. To free-spirited Maude, existing is not the same as living, and ‘not living’ is a fate far worse than death.
Harold announces to his mother that he is marrying Maude. There follow scenes of advice from a therapist, an army general uncle, and – most memorably – a priest who declares “this fills me with revulsion” and refers to Maude’s sagging breasts and “flabby buttocks”.
Harold surprises Maude with a party for her 80th birthday – at which Maude informs Harold she has “already made plans”. Namely, she has already taken pills to commit suicide.
The strains of Cat Stevens‘ Trouble glide over subsequent scenes of Harold rushing Maude to the hospital, the staff trying to save her, Harold weeping as he drives his hearse to the cliffs and sends it over, crashing to the rocks below.
In the final scene, Harold walks away from the clifftop playing the banjo Maude had given him.
The characters in Harold and Maude are all top drawer: Charles Tyner’s performance as Uncle Victor is a fantastic walking (only just) indictment of the US military mindset in the late Vietnam era, and Vivian Pickles should have been nominated for an Oscar for her priceless portrayal of Harold’s mother.
Harold and Maude screened for three years continuously at the old Westgate Theatre in Edina, Minneapolis, during the 1970s. The theatre then closed its doors. At the 1,000th screening, Ruth Gordon visited in person. She passed away in 1985.