Why Is Harold and Maude Considered a Cult Film?

Cinematic film, the art form that came into its own in the 20th century, is not only familiar to all of us, but is likely the form that lodges most clearly in memory. Like music—and the music employed in a film—scenes come back, often carrying emotion as well as remembrance.

One such film is Harold and Maude, the 1971 production that brought Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon to what are possibly their most memorable roles, and the film that locked so many Cat Stevens songs in mind. A cockeyed love story that stretches the definition of a May/December romance, it reveals the fact that love can indeed be blind to matters of age or appearance.

Heidi Greco's Glorious Birds: A Celebratory Homage to Harold and Maude takes us back half a century to when this one-of-a-kind film was released—a time with its own kind of turmoil, but a time as well of a different kind of innocence—one worth exploring again. Fifty years, traditionally a golden anniversary, is surely an appropriate time to celebrate.

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So, why is Harold and Maude considered a cult film? When it was first released, it was hardly a success. Barely two weeks after its release, it closed down. It took over a decade for it to make any profit. The critic Roger Ebert dismissed it with a measly one and a half stars. Variety claimed that “It has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.” Yet, it shows up on "best-of lists" of nearly every kind: romance, comedy, and cult films.

Trying to pin down a definition of "cult" is circuitous. Most film writers seem to mostly talk around the idea. While there’s no single definition, I like the approach to this question taken by Christopher J. Olson in his delightful compendium, 100 Greatest Cult Films. He too talks around the issue, and in doing so suggests several reasons why certain films may become considered cult classics and why they “...attract a small [though not necessarily small] but passionate audience, like the one that grew up around The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He points out that these audiences often consist of “...people who consider themselves outsiders and reject prevailing cultural norms.” He goes on to add that “...cult films should challenge mainstream sensibilities in some way and transcend typical ideas about good and bad taste.” It’s clear—not only from early reviews, but also from dialogue within the film itself, that both of these objectives are met. Think about the psychiatrist who considers Harold’s “abnormal desire to sleep with his grandmother” or the priest who, imagining the “commingling of flesh,” states that “the very idea makes me want to vomit.” Even Uncle Victor has deemed Harold’s proposed marriage “abnormal” and a matter he considers to be in very bad taste.

The critic Roger Ebert dismissed it with a measly one and a half stars. Variety claimed that “It has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.” Yet, it shows up on ‘best-of lists’ of nearly every kind: romance, comedy, and cult films.

Heidi Greco

Olson also says that while “...cult films encompass all genres...they frequently mix several genres in a single movie.” Rocky Horror serves as an example of this, stretching the genre of the traditional musical (Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music) into something nearly its opposite—by adding elements of horror in its parodying of Frankenstein and that film’s offshoots, as well as components of science-fiction, “...tacky B movies of yore” and even the occasional flashes of soft porn. The fact that Harold and Maude shows up on lists of so many kinds confirms that it too blends genres. While it’s primarily a romance, it’s certainly tinted with too many shades of very dark humour to stand as strictly that genre. And a comedy, yes (even in the traditionally classical sense as defined in Ancient Greece, with what appears to be a positive outcome)—no laugh track is required for an audience to respond with laughter of their own.

The film also certainly challenges many ideas that are considered mainstream, the biggest of which is the age difference between the two lovers. Maude is just about four times Harold’s age, and therein lies the problem. Yet there’s a societal contradiction implicit in this. The idea of a wealthy "sugar daddy" with a much younger woman as his companion—or "trophy wife" as such females are often characterized—may be frowned upon, but is much more socially acceptable than would be the case if genders are reversed. Why this attitude remains is a question for someone else to answer; I only point it out as a reminder of yet another lingering difference between our culture’s perceptions of behaviour that is acceptable for men, but not for women.

In many ways, Harold and Maude was ahead of its time in the topics it took on. Not only was it among the earliest to point its finger at war, it was one of the first to give us a full-on philosopher/environmentalist in the character of Maude who believed in rescuing a frail little tree from its precarious existence in the city’s smog. The year 1971 was just the beginning of wide-scale conservation movements. Filming for Harold and Maude had wrapped in March of that year, and it was in July that Greenpeace was officially founded in Vancouver.

 

In many ways, Harold and Maude was ahead of its time in the topics it took on.

Heidi Greco

Another novel idea (for the time) was the concept of computer dating. For one thing, in the early ’70s, outside of organizations such as NASA, the army, and universities, hardly anyone had access to a computer. Most computers were still big enough that they occupied warehouse space, or at the very least needed a very big garage. While there apparently was an invention in 1971 of an item referred to as a personal computer, it certainly bore no resemblance to any computer we know today. In appearance, it would have blended nicely into some of those early episodes of Star Trek. An invention with a fascinating history, the Kenbak-1 had a memory of only 256 bytes—not even megabytes. If my math isn’t too far wrong, comparing a memory of that size to what today’s laptop buyer might expect—8GB—bears a magnitude of over 30 million. No wonder Harold’s mother had to use a pen to fill out the questionnaire with his personality profile.

Excerpt of Glorious Birds Copyright © 2021 Heidi Greco, published with permission of Anvil Press.

March 22, 2021
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