Young Harold (Bud Cort), who lives with his rich mother in their huge mansion, is unsure of what do do with in life. In fact, he's more interested in death: he drives a hearse, visits funerals of people he doesn't even know, and is fond of staging his own suicide. Then he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a free spirit who will soon celebrate her 80th birthday, and she teaches him how to enjoy life...
Colin Higgins scripted this touching black comedy that is something of a period piece from the last days of the hippy dream. The film offers us an anti-war (specifically anti-Vietnam War) statement, Cat Stevens' whimsical songs, nonconformist and anti-establishment high spirits, and even a little free love across the age barrier.
At first the film seems morbid, with Harold's inventive suicide games, where he pretends to hang himself, slash his wrists, drown in the swimming pool, and immolate himself by fire in the manner of the news footage of the Buddhist monk's self sacrifice. As the film progresses, it turns out that the dour but innocent Harold is merely playing games with the idea of death. And then the cheerful Maude enters his life (though why she visits funerals is never clear), a little ray of sunshine to chase away his clouds.
While supposedly a comedy, it is never more than gently amusing. Maude's rebellious nature leads her to steal cars, but she also mischievously steals a tree from the middle of the city so she and Harold can replant it in the forest (they cause trouble for the police along the way, of course). She encourages Harold to be an individual - a lesson about a field of daises is contrasted with the white gravestones in a war cemetery.
This devil-may-care, be-who-you-can-be attitude all comes across a little too studied, but the film can catch you off guard with small, moving, moments such as the reason behind Harold's death obsession, or the glimpse of a concentration camp tattoo on Maude's wrist. Maude's joie de vivre goes against her actions at the end of the film and smacks of plot convenience to make Harold (who has never really known true hardship like Maude has) realise what he has to live for by making him experience real loss. However, the film has its heart in the right place; the two leads are excellent; and Harold's sports car hearse is great.
Cult American director who started out as an editor, notably on such works as The Loved One, In the Heat of the Night (for which he won an Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair. Thanks to his friendship with Norman Jewison he was able to direct his first film, The Landlord, and the seventies represented the golden years of his career with his sympathetic but slightly empty dramas striking a chord with audiences. His films from this period were Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. But come the eighties, Ashby's eccentricities and drug dependency sabotaged his career, and he ended it directing a forgotten TV movie before his untimely death from cancer.