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On December 20, Hal Ashby’s now cult-classic, Harold and Maude, will turn 50.
Ruth Gordon, such a wonderful actress in so many roles, is remembered by most people either as Maude or for her turn in Rosemary’s Baby1. Bud Cort likely had difficulty disassociating himself with his turn as death-obsessed rich kid Harold. I recall seeing him here and there in later roles and thinking, “Hey, it’s Harold!”
My introduction to Harold and Maude was back (and I’m dating myself here) in the days when it was a rare and precious event to find it was on the TV schedule. These were also the days when “recommendations” were not given via Netflix but by the two guys who owned the neighborhood video store. With an air of extreme sadness, they told teenage me that it wasn’t available on video. Then, fortunately, recommended The Producers. Fast-forward to its 50th anniversary, and you can stream Harold and Maude on Amazon Prime any time you want. Something’s been lost, but something’s gained!
Harold and Maude isn’t everyone’s cup of oat straw tea. I’ve met those who don’t appreciate the film’s morbid humor and Harold’s (faux?) suicides. But amid all that dark humor is much light. It’s been atop my list of favorite films since I first heard Maude’s whisper of “Psst. Want some licorice?” during a funeral.
But, back to quotes.
Harold and Maude has quite a few quotable moments. And many of them occur in one particular segment of the film.
The microcosm of the “flower scene” condenses the macrocosm of the entire film into two minutes. Harold’s disjointed preoccupation with only the death and destruction part of the big picture, and Maude’s pointing him toward the creation side of things.
Maude points out her pleasure in watching things grow at the same time that she acknowledges the necessity of destruction. After all, it’s what makes change possible. We need both the nursery and the wrecking ball.
Things changing into other things: the nature of the universe. She, Maude points out, would like to change into a sunflower.
I think, perhaps, that Maude was my first Zen teacher. She seems to have a grasp on the Buddhist concept of emptiness; the constant, fluid nature of what our mind makes into static “things.”2
I feel reasonably confident that, someday, I will be a sunflower. At least a small part of one. Finally! An achievable goal!
Harold’s conjecture that he would like to be one of “these” (daisies) “because they’re all alike” leads to another teachable moment.
“Oh, but they’re not!” Maude observes. “Look! See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this yet allow themselves to be treated as that.”
Who hasn’t felt, at some point, that they were being treated as that when they’re actually this? Perhaps the reason this scene seems to have struck a nerve with so many people?
A Zen teacher/psychologist3 I know commented that we tend to like people whose ideas and treatment of us accord with our own self-image. But when they don’t–as sometimes happens for whatever reason–what do we do with that? Do we counter that by being the person we know ourselves to be, or do we decide that their external view is probably the right one? It’s like knowing you’re a tiger, but everyone sees you as a kitten, so you learn to meow. Until one day, maybe, you unexpectedly let out a roar. And, even though nobody around you likes it (What’s wrong with you? We always appreciated the friendly way you purred!), it feels good!
But that was a diversion. Rawr!
Again, Maude is pointing out two sides of a whole, and both are true. We are that, and we are, particularly, this. You ARE special and unique…just like everybody else. And I don’t say that to be cynical. We can cherish both our individuality, peculiarities, and eccentricities. At the same time, we can celebrate our unique talents (and unique neuroses) and affirm the common ground of being human that connects us all.
This is a “quotes” post, but not a movie review. However, I’d give Harold and Maude five stars if I were reviewing the film as it’s one of the few I’ve watched again and again.
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- I’ve read that she was even considered for the lead in the film version of Cabaret over Joel Grey. I think Ruth Gordon was a great actress, but I’m glad that one didn’t happen
- Though I can’t agree with what Maude does at the end of the film.
- There seem to be a lot of those.