Written by: Jim Smathers
A Buddy Comedy involves two characters with two individual outlooks on life and how they take lessons from both of them to become better people. Movies like Tommy Boy, Blues Brothers, or The Odd Couple, do just that. Hal Ashby’s cult classic Buddy Comedy, Harold and Maude, takes this ideology but applies it to something more grave than simply smart and dumb or neat and messy. The two titular characters build upon each other’s initial outlooks on life: Harold, a wealthy 20-something, is addicted to death, while Maude, a 79 year-old Holocaust survivor, is addicted to life. While in a traditional Buddy Comedy, the two characters might influence each other more equally, in Harold and Maude, Maude seems to have a much more profound effect on Harold than vice versa.
Harold is initially presented in the movie as a directionless teenager addicted to death. His various attempts at suicide, be it through hanging, seppuku, or through self-immolation. However, over the course of the movie, Maude changes his outlook on life. She passes on her love of music by teaching him to play the banjo, educates him on the beauty of nature by transplanting a dying tree into the forest, and even provokes a romantic nature in him despite his rejection of the notion of marrying any of his mother’s candidates. Whereas in the beginning he has to be instructed to “try and be a little more vivacious,” by the end of the movie he dances and sings and openly expresses his love for a fellow human being. Most importantly, Maude teaches Harold to let go. Upon one of their first interactions, when she is showcasing her various trinkets, Maude says “it’s all memorabilia, but incidental and not integral, if you know what I mean.” Even when Harold professes his love at the end, Maude’s last lines, as well as the last line of the film is “that’s *wonderful.* Go and love some more.” By way of traditional buddy comedy elements, a character’s bleak outlook on life has been altered by the sunny disposition of another.
It is harder to determine Harold’s effect on Maude. Maude, as a character within herself already has the ideal disposition. A Holocaust survivor, her outlook on life has been shaped by the depressions and atrocities in her younger years. However, it would be fair to say that Harold had inspired Maude to more greatly enjoy her final year in life, especially in the company of another. More importantly, he perhaps inspired Maude to pass on her outlook on life so Harold can really “go and love some more.”
In my own personal opinion, Harold and Maude is perhaps one of the greatest movies cinematically ever produced. It achieves many of its goals symbolically and without over-explaining characters in the process. For example, during one of the funeral scenes, Maude is seen with the only colorful umbrella. The color non-coincidentally, is yellow, which is a color symbolic of happiness. During the scenes where Harold is dissuaded from loving Maude, the three characters, Harold’s hawkish uncle, a psychologist, and a priest, all have pictures of the people they are supposed to identify with (Richard Nixon, Sigmund Freud, and the Pope, respectively). This is symbolic of the variations of God, country, and man’s inner feelings, telling Harold how wrong this love supposedly is. In fact, knowing part of the plotline, I was skeptical as to whether or not the movie would make me believe their love for each other. While some audiences groaned when finding out the two characters had made love, I was satisfied with the scene as it was both tastefully done (fireworks symbolizing the big event itself) and the movie had spent enough time convincing the audience that they loved each other. More importantly, the movie did not bother itself with an elongated love scene, not necessarily, I believe, because it would have been dissatisfying to the audience, but because it was unnecessary. The film is very succinct in that way.