An Old Movie That Changed My Life

I was about twelve years old when Harold and Maude came out, in 1971. At that age I only went to the movies if my parents took us kids to see G-rated dreck. I wasn't much interested in movies, and never saw Harold and Maude, never even heard of it, until ten years later.

Fast-forward to the early 1980s: I've become an adult, allegedly, and there's a woman I'm sort of dating. It's fair to say that we're both screwed up in the head, more than moderately unbalanced but pretending that we're relatively normal. One night she's feeling poorly, has a touch of a flu or something, and cancels our date.

Well, that sucks. It's summertime, early in the evening and the sun hasn't yet gone down. I have nothing to do, no-one to do it with, I'm bored, and I start walking with no destination in mind. After a while I'm in front of something that doesn't much exist these days — an old-fashioned, one-screen neighborhood movie theater, nestled between houses on a quiet residential street. “Tonight only, Harold and Maude,” says the marquee bulging out over the sidewalk.

I've lived a few blocks from this cinema for at least a year, but never set foot inside. They only show old movies, and movies are OK but I don't care about old movies. Now, though, I'm looking at the poster in the window. Harold and Maude, eh? It looks stupid, but it's a comedy and I could use a laugh, so why not?

Bought a ticket, bought a popcorn, bought a Coke, and found a seat in the balcony. The theater is run-down and smells a little funky, and I'm not in a good mood. The lights dim, and the movie starts.

Harold and Maude opens with a 3½-minute montage that makes no sense until, when it does make sense, you realize you've just witnessed a suicide. Turns out it was only a pretend suicide, but still, this is supposed to be funny? I'm baffled, annoyed, offended, and thinking of leaving the theater. Maybe I'll go home and watch Charlie's Angels. The popcorn is good, though, so I give it a few more minutes, thinking, It's a train wreck, but that might be fun.

Harold (played by Bud Cort) is barely a man, and he's happiest when he's dead. Faking suicides is his favorite pastime. His mother is overbearing and uncaring. Everyone has expectations about Harold, except Harold, who has no expectations at all.

And now I'm thinking: This movie is about a guy who's screwed up in the head, like me. His problems and mine are completely different, but I can relate, you know?

When Harold's not faux killing himself, he likes attending strangers' funerals, and at one of these memorials he meets Maude, a delightfully daft old dame (played by the inimitable Ruth Gordon). She's four times his age, but it's true love.

With all the suicides and funerals, Harold and Maude doesn't sound like an ordinary romantic comedy, and it's not. It's uproariously funny unless you have a stick up your butt, but it's also disturbing — and sweet-natured. It's ridiculous — and thoughtful.

Harold and Maude and most of the movie's supporting characters are all sorta screwed up in the head, like I was, when I first saw the movie. And like I am, today. This movie didn't speak to me, it shouted at me, and what it shouted was, Maybe it's OK to be strange.

I laughed so hard it hurt (not the cliché but literally) and when it ended I was in tears, of course. I left the theater with a feeling I'd never experienced before, and I've never stopped feeling it, ever since: Sure, you're a little off your rocker, but that's who you are, so revel in it.

For two lousy dollars, the price of a ticket, I began coming to terms with myself. I wandered home in a daze, my mind reeling. It took a week or two and no drugs were involved, but what followed was a bit of a trip. Lots of staring out the window. Lots of introspection. Nothing earthshattering came from it; just a few low-key realizations:

I am this guy, and he's not quite normal. If you don't like it that's not my problem, but if you can handle it then maybe we can be friends. If you're a little off kilter too, that's even better. All this seems so simple saying it now, but back then, for me, this was a revelation.

It's no exaggeration, then, to say that Harold and Maude changed my life. Let me count the ways.

That girl I was dating? She recovered from her flu within a few days, and on our next date I introduced her to me, and she introduced me to her. We were no longer pretending to be normal, because what's the point in pretending? Once we knew who we were, we fell in love, and spent several delightful weeks together before wandering apart. She's still a friend.

At work one day, my boss asked me a question but didn't like my answer, and fired me. That harshed my mellow for a month, but it felt better getting fired for speaking my mind than working someplace that didn't want me to bring my brain. (They're out of business now. Just sayin'.)

At my next job, the boss was an amusing drunkard who taught me the intricacies of not giving a damn. When he became less amusing and more drunk, I wandered on to another job.

There have been many jobs; my résumé is long and varied.

Eventually I wandered away from my family, because they're nuts and I needed some distance.

Later I wandered away from my hometown, to a city and life more to my liking.

All this wandering was alone, by choice, until I bumped into someone who was herself similarly wandering. We lived happily ever after.

So yeah, that movie changed my life. Can't imagine where I'd be — or who I'd be — if I'd wandered down a different block that night, instead of into that theater. I wouldn't be me, that's for sure.

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