When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
The family tree of romantic comedy creators is tall and lush. At the top sit William Shakespeare and Jane Austen as the great-great-grandparents of the genre. Their descendants include Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies, Billy Wilder’s humanist romances, and John Hughes’ empathetic teen love stories. In the ’90s, Nora Ephron launched a new branch thick enough to be its own tree, from which followed everything from Richard Curtis’ British ensemble comedies to Nancy Meyers’ affluent trifles. Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle of the tree, on his own eccentrically twisted branch, is Hal Ashby, the bearded bohemian who gave birth to a whole new style of eccentric, oddball romance that’s still alive and well today.
What Ephron did for mainstream romantic comedies with When Harry Met Sally, Ashby did for quirky arthouse romances with Harold And Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next month. The DNA of Ashby’s life-affirming, opposites-attract love story lives on in Garden State, Elizabethtown, (500) Days Of Summer, Silver Linings Playbook, and many more—not to mention Wes Anderson’s entire oeuvre.
In fact, rewatching Harold And Maude today, it almost feels like a parody of the films it inspired, one that exaggerates its aimless male protagonist into death-obsessed 19-year-old Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) and its “manic pixie dream girl” into 79-year-old anarchic free spirit Dame Marjorie “Maude” Chardin (Ruth Gordon). With its transgressive May/December romance, Harold And Maude certainly practices what it preaches in terms of rejecting conventionality and embracing the unique. And it’s that boldness that makes the beloved film feel just as innovative and alive today as it did when it premiered 50 years ago.
Harold And Maude’s influence wasn’t immediate. It was a critical and commercial flop when it first debuted. Australian-American screenwriter Colin Higgins dreamed up the story at the height of the free love era, as his MFA Thesis at UCLA Film School. But by the time the movie was actually shot and released, the glory days of the counterculture movement of the 1960s were already starting to curdle in a way that made it feel out of step with mainstream tastes. Variety’s scathing review opened with the line, “Harold And Maude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.”
College students, however, embraced its sensitive portrait of alienation. The film found a second life in regular rotation at midnight screenings and on college campuses. Over the past five decades, it’s grown from cult favorite to canonized classic. Jason Schwartzman once described Harold And Maude as, “The first time that movies made me feel inside the way records did.”
As with so many of the quirky indies it would go on to inspire, however, the film’s deadpan tweeness is something of an acquired taste. You’re either a Harold And Maude person or you’re not. And a lot of that boils down to whether you find Maude annoying or endearing. The vivacious, burgeoning octogenarian brings a bright yellow umbrella to funerals, poses in the nude for her ice sculptor friend, and swipes cars whenever she needs a new mode of transportation, all while encouraging the rest of the world to embrace her carpe diem attitude too. In the most straightforward reading, Harold represents death while Maude represents life. The winking irony, of course, is that it’s an aging old woman who teaches a fresh-faced young adult a thing or two about really living.
Yet Harold And Maude strikes me, more than anything, as a movie about control. Harold’s macabre sensibilities stem less from some authentic part of who he is and more from a self-conscious desire to stand apart from other people in a way that gives him a sense of power over them. Each time Harold stages an elaborate fake suicide in front of his blasé aristocratic mother (Vivian Pickles), it’s an attempt to control her emotional reaction. He wants to recreate a moment in his youth where she briefly thought he actually had died and responded with a rare burst of genuine emotion. As Harold sees it, if he provokes other people first or frightens them away entirely, he never has to make himself vulnerable to them—he never has to give up his sense of control.
Key to that reading is the moment Harold turns directly to the camera with a smug, self-satisfied look on his face after scaring off a date his mom arranged for him. It was an improvisation from Cort, whose pitch-perfect performance is so essential to making Harold And Maude work. While Gordon excels at deepening the well-worn archetype of the “kooky old lady,” Cort has the even trickier task of bringing a much more unusual character to life in a three dimensional way. In the actor’s hands, Harold’s contradictions feel like more than just put-on eccentricities. He’s a young man who’s at once proudly fearless and deeply afraid.
It’s why Harold doesn’t initially see Maude as a kindred spirit. In fact, when she first tries to chat to him at a stranger’s funeral, Harold seems slightly terrified. Provocative as he may be, the young man limits his pranks to the safe confines of his home. Maude, meanwhile, brings her antics into the unpredictable real world, whether she’s “rescuing” an injured tree or stealing a policeman’s motorcycle. From the moment she cheerfully offers Harold a piece of licorice mid-funeral service, it’s clear that she’s someone he can’t scare away with his usual tactics. For once, Harold isn’t in the driver’s seat.
Maude, however, understands there’s a difference between control and choice. Whereas Harold’s cynical outlook is born out of frustration with his life of privilege, Maude’s philosophy is hard earned. She grew up in turn-of-the-century Austria, where she dreamed of marrying a handsome solider but fell for a bookish university doctor instead. She speaks of picket lines, rallies, and political meetings where she was dragged off by police for fighting for justice. A quick shot of a concentration camp tattoo on her arm suggests Maude survived the most hellish experience imaginable—one where her entire sense of control was violently stripped away from her. In that context, her way of living is a radical act. “[I’m] still fighting for the big issues,” she explains to Harold. “But now in my small, individual way.”
Though Harold And Maude satirizes the military industrial complex via Harold’s war-loving uncle (Charles Tyner), Ashby’s overall aim is much more broadly humanistic. Maude operates as a kind of mutual aid for the soul, inspiring others while seeking inspiration from them as well. In the film’s most moving sequence, Harold notes that if he were a flower he’d probably just be a daisy lost in a field of identical blossoms. But Maude encourages him to see that each daisy is actually unique in its own special way, whether smaller, fatter, bent, or broken. So much of the world’s sorrow comes from the way people allow their unique individuality to be subsumed into the crowd, she explains, as Ashby’s camera zooms back to reveal that Harold and Maude are sitting in a cemetery lined with identical white tombstones. It’s a breathtaking image, both tragic and poignant: a tribute to the individual lives lost to the mass stats of war at the height of the conflict in Vietnam.
Yet Maude understands better than most that death is also part of what gives life meaning. That’s why her ultimate decision to end her life on her 80th birthday still fits within her effervescent worldview. In an act of both rebellion and acceptance, Maude reclaims the choice that was nearly robbed from her during the Holocaust. And in doing so, she leaves Harold with one last lesson: Loss and sorrow are a part of life. To try to manage your existence to avoid them just means you’re not really living and growing. When Harold tries to get Maude to stay by pleading that he loves her, she simply responds, “Oh Harold, that’s wonderful. Go and love some more.”
In the end, Harold’s arc isn’t just about learning to embrace life, it’s specifically about learning to open himself up to true vulnerability and the risk of pain. He has to accept that falling in love means letting someone else impact him in ways he can’t control. It’s the central idea of most romantic comedies, quirky or conventional. Harold And Maude just exaggerates it to deadpan proportions. It’s like a more transgressive but also more openhearted riff on The Graduate, with Simon & Garfunkel’s melancholy soundtrack replaced by the more joyous tunes of Cat Stevens. If The Graduate is summed up by the plaintive chords of “The Sound Of Silence,” Harold And Maude finds its anthem in “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”—a song that celebrates choice and freedom over conformity and control.
From its earliest days, the cornerstone of the romantic comedy genre has always been the way it heightens real-world experiences to poetic proportions. What makes Harold And Maude so affecting (and so funny) is that it takes that idea to its logical extreme. It offers a blend of edginess and earnestness that’s just as intoxicating today as it was 50 years ago. “Don’t ever stop searching it,” Ashby once said of his editing process. “Make your film so goddamned good that you see something in it all the time.” With Harold And Maude, he crafted an emotionally layered love story that people never wanted to stop watching—and that rom-com filmmakers never stopped emulating.
Next time: Even without any romance, Together Together is the best rom-com of 2021.