Age is just a number for "Harold and Maude" and "Licorice Pizza" lovers
"If you want to be free, be free!"
— Cat Stevens, "Harold and Maude" soundtrack.
Much ado has been made of the supposedly shocking age gap between Cooper Hoffman's 15-year-old Gary and Alana Haim's 25-year-old Alana, the erstwhile couple in "Licorice Pizza," Paul Thomas Anderson's new coming-of-age comedy.
That pesky decade is nothing compared to the 60-year chasm between the title characters in "Harold and Maude," Hal Ashby's wild romancer about a death-obsessed teen and a life-celebrating senior. The 1971 film is a spiritual ancestor of "Licorice Pizza": both movies seek love without boundaries in a world that demands conformity.
"Harold and Maude" bombed upon its release 50 years ago — Roger Ebert called it "hardly worth the extra bother" of parsing the extreme ages and attitudes — but it had become a cult hit by the time of its 1979 re-release.
That's when I first saw it and loved it, the year I turned 23. I was not that much older than Bud Cort's hearse-driving Harold, 19, but I was a lot younger than Ruth Gordon's motorcycle-riding Maude, 79. Bored with his affluent but empty life, Harold stages fake but realistic suicides, in a vain attempt to get attention from his socialite mother (Vivian Pickles), who seems oblivious to her son's mental distress. All she cares about is getting him married off, to any of the horrified young women she pairs him up with via a computer dating service.
Harold meets Maude at a stranger's funeral; both treat mourning as a spectator sport. She offers Harold a hearty greeting and some licorice. He's intrigued and soon to be enchanted.
Maude is as freewheeling and full of brio as Harold is uptight and nihilistic. She plays the banjo, steals cars, liberates public trees for forest relocation and generally thumbs her nose at authority.
Bud Cort is a genuine find as the naive Harold, an empty vessel waiting to be filled. Legend has had it the part was originally turned down by Elton John, who also passed on the soundtrack duties, suggesting his pal Cat Stevens instead.
And Ruth Gordon, turning to comedy after her Oscar-winning turn as a modern witch in "Rosemary's Baby," is another casting masterstroke, bringing joy, wisdom and humanity to an otherwise absurd character.
I'm now closer to Maude's age than Harold's, yet at a recent screening I found myself identifying with both characters. The film smiles at rebellion and kicks at society's pricks but it also has compassion for the distress a young person might feel when there's no apparent reason for existence.
Director Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins, politically astute members of the New Hollywood rebellion, make Harold a disaffected totem of his time: young American males in 1971 faced being drafted to fight and possibly die in the Vietnam War, a thankless and insane conflict that few believed in. Maude, on the other hand, has reasons of her own for wanting to squeeze every ounce of living out of the time she has left in the world.
Harold and Maude draw us into their oddly endearing entanglement, which happens to be set in the San Francisco area. It breaks no secret to say that a romance of sorts develops between the two, but I'm pleased to say that it doesn't shock me in my mid-60s the way I think it might have in my early 20s (all I recall from my first viewing is laughter).
The lesson of "Harold and Maude" is to love who you are and to go for what you want. It would make a delightful double bill with the like-minded "Licorice Pizza" — and you won't manage to leave the theatre without humming the Cat Stevens tunes on the soundtrack, especially "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out." 🌓