Harold and Maude

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Harold and Maude
Harold and Maude (1971 film) poster.jpg
1971 release poster
Directed byHal Ashby
Produced byColin Higgins
Charles B. Mulvehill
Written byColin Higgins
StarringRuth Gordon
Bud Cort
Music byCat Stevens
CinematographyJohn Alonzo
Editing byWilliam A. Sawyer
Edward Warschilka
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • December 20, 1971 (1971-12-20)
Running time91 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.2 million[1]
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Harold and Maude
Harold and Maude (1971 film) poster.jpg
1971 release poster
Directed byHal Ashby
Produced byColin Higgins
Charles B. Mulvehill
Written byColin Higgins
StarringRuth Gordon
Bud Cort
Music byCat Stevens
CinematographyJohn Alonzo
Editing byWilliam A. Sawyer
Edward Warschilka
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • December 20, 1971 (1971-12-20)
Running time91 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.2 million[1]

Harold and Maude is a 1971 American black comedy romantic film directed by Hal Ashby and released by Paramount Pictures. It incorporates elements of dark humor and existentialist drama, with a plot that revolves around the exploits of a young man named Harold (played by Bud Cort) intrigued with death. Harold drifts away from the life that his detached mother (Vivian Pickles) prescribes for him, and slowly develops quite a strong and close friendship and eventually a romantic relationship with a 79-year-old woman named Maude (Ruth Gordon) who teaches Harold about living life to its fullest and that life is the most precious gift of all.

The film was based on a screenplay written by Colin Higgins and published as a novel in 1971. The movie was shot in the San Francisco Bay Area. Harold and Maude was also a play on Broadway that closed after four performances.[2] A French adaptation for television, translated and written by Jean-Claude Carrière, appeared in 1978. It was adapted for the stage and performed in Québec, starring Roy Dupuis.

The film was critically and commercially unsuccessful on original release, but subsequently received critical and commercial success. The movie ultimately developed a cult following[3] and in 1983 began making a profit.[1] The film is ranked number 45 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Funniest Movies of all Time, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1997 for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[4] The Criterion Collection released a special edition version of the film on Blu-ray and DVD on June 12, 2012.[5]


Cover of the Harold and Maude video, with lead actors Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort

Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is a young man obsessed with death. He regularly stages elaborate fake suicides, attends funerals, and drives a hearse, all to the chagrin of his socialite mother (Vivian Pickles).[6]

At another stranger's funeral service, Harold meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), 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 own morbidity. The pair form a bond, and Maude slowly 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".[6] Meanwhile, Harold's mother is determined, against Harold's wishes, to find him a wife to settle down with. 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.

As they become even closer their friendship soon blossoms into genuine and strong romance, and Harold announces that he will marry Maude, resulting in disgusted outbursts from his family, psychiatrist, and priest. Maude's 80th birthday arrives, and Harold throws a surprise party for her. As the couple dances, 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 purposely 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' "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out".



UCLA student Colin Higgins wrote Harold and Maude as his master’s thesis. While working as producer Edward Lewis' pool boy, Higgins showed the script to Lewis's wife, Mildred. Mildred was so impressed that she got Edward to give it to Stanley Jaffe at Paramount. Higgins sold the script with the understanding that he would direct the film, but he was told he wasn't ready after tests he shot proved unsatisfactory to the studio heads. Ashby would only commit to directing the film after getting Higgins' blessing and then, so Higgins could watch and learn from him on the set, Ashby made Higgins a co-producer.[7] Higgins says he originally thought of the story as a play. It then became a 20 minute thesis while at film school. After the film came out, the script was subsequently turned into a novel then a play, which ran for several years in Paris.[8]

Ashby felt that Maude should ideally be European, and his list of possible actresses included (Dames Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Gladys Cooper, Celia Johnson) as well as Lotte Lenya, Luise Rainer, Pola Negri, Minta Durfee, and even Agatha Christie.[9] Ruth Gordon indicated that in addition she heard that Edwige Feuillere, Elisabeth Bergner, Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock and Dorothy Stickney had also been considered.[10]

For Harold, in addition to Bud Cort, Ashby considered the then all promising unknowns, Richard Dreyfuss, Bob Balaban, and John Savage. Also on his list were John Rubinstein, for whom Higgins had written the part, and then up-and-coming British pop star Elton John, whom Ashby had seen live and hoped would also do the music.[11]

Anne Brebner, the film's casting director, was almost cast as Harold's mother when Vivian Pickles was briefly unable to do the role.[12]


Hal Ashby, the film's director, shared certain ideals with the era’s youth culture, and in this film he contrasts the doomed outlook of the alienated youth of the time with the hard-won optimism of those who endured the horrors of the early 20th century, contrasting nihilism with purpose. Maude's past is revealed in a glimpse of the Auschwitz ID number tattooed on her arm as well as her talk with Harold about using an umbrella to defend herself from thugs at political meetings before moving to America.

Harold is part of a society in which he is of no importance; existentially, he is without meaning. Maude has survived and lives a life rich with meaning and deliberate choice. It is in this existential crisis, shown against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, that we see the differences between one culture, personified by Harold, handling a meaningless war, while another has experienced and lived beyond a war that produced a crisis of meaning.

Harold's "deaths"[edit]

Harold tells Maude when they are talking candidly at her house that he has "died a few times". He describes how, when he was at boarding school, he set his chemistry lab on fire and, escaping through a hole in the floor, went home, believing his school career to be at an end. When the police came to his house, Harold watched as they told his mother that he had died in the fire, and saw her collapse into the policemen's arms. As he reaches this part of the story, Harold bursts into tears and declares, "I decided then I enjoyed being dead."

Throughout the movie, Harold appears to "die" a total of seven to eight times. He tells his psychologist at one early juncture that he has made similar attempts in all fifteen times now, which he calls a rough estimate.

  1. Hanging himself in opening scene: Harold hangs himself while his mother is on the phone. She barely seems to notice this display and continues her conversation.
  2. Letting his mother find him in her bathtub, throat and wrists slit and the mirrors drenched in blood: After this act, Harold sees a psychiatrist.
  3. Floating dead in pool: Harold floats face down, fully clothed, for an impossibly long time as his mother swims laps past him. Camera shots from below establish that he has no breathing apparatus.
  4. Shooting himself in the forehead: As his mother reads the questionnaire for the dating service (and answers it according to her preferences, not his), Harold surreptitiously loads a revolver with live rounds, then wheels around and points it at his mother. When after several moments she still does not notice, he turns around and shoots himself. As the blast sends him toppling backward with a hole in his forehead, his mother snaps, "Harold! Please!" and calmly continues with the questionnaire.
  5. Self-immolation: For the first blind date, Harold sets himself on fire on the diving board in view of the horrified girl, then calmly walks in behind her with his body still apparently burning outside the window.
  6. Hand chopping: The second blind date ends abruptly with Harold chopping off an obviously fake hand. This is the incident that makes his mother decide to send him to the military.
  7. Seppuku: For the final date, Harold disembowels himself with a sword. Instead of running off like the other dates, Sunshine Doré, a would-be actress, assumes that the act was staged and eagerly joins in. Reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet, she tests the blade with one hand to see its retraction and plunges the fake blade into her chest and acts out a death scene. At that instant, Harold's mother enters and, seeing what she presumes is a dead girl, declares indignantly, "Harold! That was your last date!"
  8. Car wreck: Grief-stricken over Maude's death, Harold drives his Jaguar/hearse recklessly up a winding dirt road, sending it flying off a cliff to the rocks below. But, when the camera tilts from the wreckage up the cliff face, we find Harold standing at the top. He calmly begins to play the banjo Maude gave him and slowly dances away.


Awards [edit]

Harold and Maude is #45 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years... 100 Laughs, the list of the top 100 films in American comedy. The list was released in 2000. Two years later, AFI released the list AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions honoring the most romantic films for the past 100 years, Harold and Maude ranked #69.[13] Entertainment Weekly ranked the film #4 on their list of “The Top 50 Cult Films.”[14]

In June 2008, AFI revealed its "Ten Top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Harold and Maude was acknowledged as the ninth best film in the romantic comedy genre.[15][16]

American Film Institute recognition

At the 29th Golden Globe Awards, Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon received a nomination for Best Actor and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy film, respectively.[18]

Critical response[edit]

Harold and Maude received mixed reviews at the time of its release, with several critics being offended by the film's dark humor. Critic Roger Ebert, in a review dated January 1, 1972, did not care for the film. He wrote, "And so what we get, finally, is a movie of attitudes. Harold is death, Maude life, and they manage to make the two seem so similar that life's hardly worth the extra bother. The visual style makes everyone look fresh from the Wax Museum, and all the movie lacks is a lot of day-old gardenias and lilies and roses in the lobby, filling the place with a cloying sweet smell. Nothing more to report today. Harold doesn't even make pallbearer."[19] Vincent Canby also panned the film, stating that the actors "are so aggressive, so creepy and off-putting, that Harold and Maude are obviously made for each other, a point the movie itself refuses to recognize with a twist ending that betrays, I think, its life-affirming pretensions."[20]

The film did garner praise over time. Rotten Tomatoes, which labeled the film as "Certified Fresh", gave it a score of 86% based on 41 reviews, with an average score of 7.6/10. A consensus on the site read, "Hal Ashby's comedy is too dark and twisted for some, and occasionally oversteps its bounds, but there's no denying the film's warm humor and big heart."[21] In 2005, the Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay #86 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written.[22]

Sight & Sound magazine conducts a poll every ten years of the world's finest film directors to find out the Ten Greatest Films of All Time. This poll has been going since 1992, and has become the most recognised poll of its kind in the world. In 2012, Niki Caro, Wanuri Kahiu and[23]Cyrus Frisch voted for "Harold and Maude". Frisch commented: "An encouragement to think beyond the obvious!"


Harold and Maude[24][25]
Soundtrack album by Cat Stevens
ReleasedDecember 28, 2007 (2007-12-28)
LabelVinyl Films
ProducerCat Stevens
Paul Samwell-Smith

The music in Harold and Maude was composed and performed by Cat Stevens. He had been suggested by Elton John to do the music after John had dropped out of the project.[26] Stevens composed two original songs for the film, "Don't Be Shy" and "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out," and performed instrumental and alternate versions of the songs "On the Road to Find Out", "I Wish, I Wish", "Miles from Nowhere", "Tea for the Tillerman", "I Think I See the Light", "Where Do the Children Play?", and "Trouble" which were either on the album Mona Bone Jakon or Tea for the Tillerman. Those albums had been released before the film was released. "Don't Be Shy" and "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" were not released on an album until his 1984 compilation album Footsteps in the Dark: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2.

There is some additional non-Cat Stevens music in the film. "Greensleeves" is played on the harp during dinner. During the scene where Harold is floating face-down in the swimming pool, the opening bars of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 are heard. A marching band is also heard playing a John Philip Sousa march outside the church following a funeral.

1972 Soundtrack[edit]

The first soundtrack was released in Japan in 1972 on both vinyl record albums and cassette tapes (A&M Records GP-216). It omitted the two original songs and all instrumental and alternate versions of songs, and was generally composed of re-released material that was in the film along with five songs that are not in the film.[27]

Track listing
  1. "Morning Has Broken" (not in the film)
  2. "Wild World" (not in the film)
  3. "I Think I See the Light"
  4. "I Wish, I Wish"
  5. "Trouble"
  6. "Father and Son" (not in the film)
  1. "Miles from Nowhere"
  2. "Lilywhite" (not in the film)
  3. "Where Do the Children Play?"
  4. "On the Road to Find Out"
  5. "Lady D'Arbanville" (not in the film)
  6. "Tea for the Tillerman"

2007 Soundtrack[edit]

The second soundtrack was released in December 2007,[24] by Vinyl Films Records, as a vinyl-only limited edition release of 2,500 copies. It contained a 30-page oral history of the making of the film, the most extensive series of interviews yet conducted on Harold and Maude.

Track listing
  1. "Don't Be Shy"
  2. "On the Road to Find Out"
  3. "I Wish, I Wish"
  4. "Miles from Nowhere"
  5. "Tea for the Tillerman"
  6. "I Think I See the Light"
  1. "Where Do the Children Play?"
  2. "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out"
  3. "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out (banjo version)"—previously unreleased
  4. "Trouble"
  5. "Don't Be Shy (alternate version)"—previously unreleased
  6. "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out (instrumental version)"—previously unreleased
  1. "Don't Be Shy (demo version)"—previously unreleased
  2. "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out (alternative version)"—previously unreleased

Sequel and Prequel[edit]

It had been reported that Higgins wanted to do both a sequel and prequel to Harold and Maude.[28] Higgins wanted to work on the sequel, Harold's Story, since he wanted to work with Cort again and write a film that would focus on Harold's life without Maude. Higgins was also seriously thinking of a prequel to be titled Grover and Maude, that would focus on Maude before Harold entered her life. It would have taken place while she was learning such tricks as stealing cars from the Grover Muldoon character that Richard Pryor brought to life in Higgins' Silver Streak. Higgins wanted Pryor and Gordon to both reprise their roles.


  1. ^ a b After 12 Years, a Profit For 'Harold and Maude' By ALJEAN HARMETZSpecial to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 08 Aug 1983: C14.
  2. ^ Harold and Maude | PlaybillVault.com
  3. ^ Peary, Danny (1981). Cult Movies. Delta Books. ISBN 0-517-20185-2. 
  4. ^ National Film Registry list of films 1989-2006. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2011-09-08.
  5. ^ "Harold and Maude; Criterion Collection". 
  6. ^ a b Bozzola, Lucia. "Harold and Maude > Overview". Allmovie. Retrieved 8 March 2010. 
  7. ^ Dawson, Nick (2009). Being Hal Ashby : life of a Hollywood rebel. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 120–121. ISBN 9780813125381. 
  8. ^ Up From the Underground Harold; Maude; Wilson, John M. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 Apr 1978: g14.
  9. ^ Dawson, pp. 122-123
  10. ^ Gordon, Ruth (1986). My Side: The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon. D.I. Fine. p. 392. ISBN 9780917657818. 
  11. ^ Dawson, p. 122
  12. ^ Brebner, Anne (guest); Morrison, John (Host) (May 6, 2011). Aspect Ratio - April 2011. blip.tv. Retrieved 2011-09-08.
  13. ^ 100 Years, 100 Passions. American Film Institute. Retrieved 2011-09-08.
  14. ^ "The Top 50 Cult Films". Entertainment Weekly. May 23, 2003. 
  15. ^ American Film Institute (2008-06-17). "AFI Crowns Top 10 Films in 10 Classic Genres". ComingSoon.net. Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  16. ^ "Top 10 Romantic Comedies". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  17. ^ "AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies—10th Anniversary Edition, Official Ballot" (PDF). American Film Institute. 2007. Retrieved 18 February 2014. 
  18. ^ Actor In A Leading Role - Musical Or Comedy. TheGoldenGlobes.com. Retrieved 2011-09-08.
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1972). "Harold and Maude". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2011-09-08.
  20. ^ "Screen: 'Harold and Maude' and Life: Hal Ashby's Comedy Opens at Coronet; Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort Star as Odd Couple", New York Times review by Vincent Canby, December 21, 1971. Copyright © 1971 The New York Times Company.
  21. ^ "Harold and Maude". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 2010-10-20. 
  22. ^ Savage, Sophia (February 27, 2013). "WGA Lists Greatest Screenplays, From 'Casablanca' and 'Godfather' to 'Memento' and 'Notorious'". Retrieved February 28, 2013. 
  23. ^ http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012/voter/920
  24. ^ a b Harold and Maude at AllMusic
  25. ^ Harold and Maude at Discogs
  26. ^ Dawson, p. 124
  27. ^ From the FAQ section of CatStevens.com at the Wayback Machine (archived April 5, 2005)
  28. ^ Beck, Marilyn (August 6, 1978). "Higgins eyes 'Harold's Story'". Pacific Stars and Stripes. p. 16. Retrieved 1/30/2014. 

External links[edit]