Harold and Maude
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A box office failure upon its initial release in 1971 which slowly but surely amassed a global cult following, Harold and Maude (1971) is one of those cinematic oddities that is hard to imagine being made within the confines of today's film industry. It certainly wasn't any less unusual for the era in which it was made except that the film's quirky tone that shifted from black comedy to anti-establishment satire and the inspired casting of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon gave it a resonance for young audiences that was further enhanced by the music of Cat Stevens who was at the height of his pop music career in 1972.
A storyline in which a rich, death-obsessed young man of twenty meets, falls in love and consummates his romance with a kooky, life-affirming seventy-nine-year-old woman wasn't exactly the sort of project that had every major studio in Hollywood begging to produce it. The concept, for one thing, was too unlikely and potentially distasteful to treat as anything other than a comedy but even then, there was no guarantee that the film wouldn't end up as a crude, unfunny travesty on the order of other failed black comedies such as Goodbye Charlie (1964) and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad (1967). One can only imagine what the Farrelly Brothers (whose feature There's Something About Mary (1998) had an in-joke about the popularity of Harold and Maude) or Todd Solondz (Happiness, 1998) would do with this oddball May-December romance today. At the same time, it's also easy to consider how radically different Harold and Maude might have been if the leads had been played by say, Timothy Bottoms and Helen Hayes or Don Johnson and Katharine Hepburn. Whether it was a case of pure alchemy with all of the elements coming together at exactly the right place and time or a happy accident, Harold and Maude works because it takes a stylized screwball comedy approach to the characters but grounds them in a believable milieu - the smog-challenged city of Los Angeles in the seventies when computer dating, anti-war protests, and regular visits to the therapist were reflections of the current culture. And, more importantly, it makes the title characters' attraction to each other believable on a physical and non-physical level. Colin Higgins' quixotic script and Hal Ashby's sly, poker face direction straddle a tightrope between despair and sentimentality, occasionally breaking the third wall and acknowledging the audience with a wink. Even when it loses its balance and stumbles into maudlin territory or obvious sermonizing, it always bounces back with unexpected moments of twisted humor and the odd detail, all of it anchored by the undeniable chemistry of Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort.
It all began as a thesis film for UCLA film student Colin Higgins who first developed the idea for Harold and Maude as a twenty-minute short. When he showed the script to his landlady, Mildred Lewis, the wife of a Hollywood producer, she suggested they form their own production company and shop it around to studios. Eventually the script found a home at Paramount where Howard Jaffe was first slated to be the producer but later passed the project on to Charles B. Mulvehill. Peter Bart, the vice president of production at Paramount then, had seen Hal Ashby's The Landlord (1970) and was impressed by the way the director had handled the movie's complex racial issues in the context of a satire. On the basis of that, he asked Ashby to direct Higgins' fledging effort as screenwriter and associate producer. "To me, Harold and Maude was a symbol of that era. It would have been unthinkable in the '80s or '90s. In those days...people would walk in, wacked out, with the most mind-bending, innovative and brilliant ideas for movies. Harold and Maude was written by a pool cleaner." (from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind).
Although Ruth Gordon was always the front runner for the role of Maude, Higgins had initially written the part of Harold for rising actor and aspiring musician John Rubinstein (Zachariah, 1971), the son of conductor Arthur Rubinstein. Character actor (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) and future director (Parents, 1989) Bob Balaban also tested for the part but Ashby favored Bud Cort, a New York stage-trained actor who had recently attracted attention for his unique screen presence in such films as Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970) and Brewster McCloud (1970). When Cort finally did a trial rehearsal with Gordon (the screen tests were filmed by Haskell Wexler), it was immediately obvious he was the right choice.
In shooting Harold and Maude, Ruth Gordon recalled in her autobiography, Ashby "followed the Gertrude Stein theory: chronology has nothing to do with anything. We shot where and when and what Hal said to. Hal is his own man. Do you care about sequence? Not me. We don't think in sequence, we rarely talk in sequence, we don't rehearse a play in sequence, so why shoot a script that way?"
According to Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, "Ashby's marriage to [his wife] Joan fell apart as the production began. He started seeing a girl who was a stand-in for Ruth Gordon. She lived in a van, had a diamond drilled into one of her front teeth. But after four divorces, Ashby had learned not to marry again. He liked tall, thin, athletic girls built like boys and, as [Haskell] Wexler puts it, 'they'd usually end up with a Mercedes, if nothing else.' Luckily, the filming of Harold and Maude proceeded smoothly and generated quite a strong buzz among the Paramount executives. 'We felt it was going to be the best film of the year, it was gonna knock 'em dead,' recalls Mulvehill. 'We were gonna have control over what we were gonna do.'" Mulvehill and Ashby even created a film company, DFF (Dumb F*ck Films), in anticipation of the film's success.
The elation was short lived. When Harold and Maude was released it died a quick death at the box office and its cause wasn't helped by most of the mainstream critics. Vincent Canby in The New York Times suggested "You might well want to miss Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude." Variety wrote that it "has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage." Pauline Kael's review for The New Yorker was more favorable but faulted Ashby's eccentric direction; "The actors are often seen at a great distance and the dialogue reaches us from a great distance, too; the sound level varies so much that we keep losing the voices, and Harold's lines often fade away." The film's producer, Charles B. Mulvehill, recalled, "You couldn't drag people in. The idea of a twenty-year-old boy with an eighty-year-old woman just made people want to vomit. If you asked people what it was about, ultimately it became a boy who was f*cking his grandmother. We were devastated, couldn't believe it, and the scripts and phone calls that had been coming in just stopped. It was as though somebody had taken an ax to the phone lines. It was really a rude awakening. It was a big, big shock to Hal."
Then a strange thing began to happen. Harold and Maude "became a cause celebre among college-age moviegoers throughout the United States and Canada, breaking longevity records in cities like Detroit, Montreal, and, most memorably, Minneapolis, where residents actually picketed the Westgate Theatre trying to get management to replace the picture after a consecutive three-year run." (from Cult Movies by Danny Peary). Even if it was ignored at Oscar® time, it was nominated for Golden Globe awards for the performances of Cort and Gordon and Cort even won a Crystal Star in Paris, the French equivalent of an Academy Award®. The film began to play in heavy rotation at repertory cinemas around the world and especially on college campuses where its fans would return to it repeatedly; one 22-year-old filmgoer made the news in 1974 for claiming to have seen it 138 times.
Not all cult movies age gracefully, however, but after more than thirty-four years Harold and Maude holds up much better than other cult films of its era such as that other repertory favorite, Philippe de Broca's King of Hearts (1966), in which the inmates of an insane asylum escape and take over a French village during World War II. Although both films celebrate the unconventional and individuals who march to the beat of a different drum, King of Hearts now seems unbearably cloying and self-indulgent while Harold and Maude continues to impress with its lighthearted juggling of such usually grim themes as death, suicide and lives not lived.
Some former devotees of Harold and Maude may be afraid to revisit the film for fear of spoiling their fond memories of the experience but the film was never a masterpiece and the parts that never worked still don't. You sometimes wish there was an off button for Ruth Gordon's irrepressible Maude who is often more affecting in her quieter scenes, the Cat Stevens soundtrack, if you're not a fan, could ruin your viewing pleasure and the strangely upbeat ending sends mixed signals. Maude commits suicide after spending the entire movie encouraging Harold to live life? What's up with that? On the other hand, Ashby's slow-by-today's-standards-of-pacing, works in the film's favor, drawing you into Harold's private world to the point where you suddenly achieve liftoff into pure fantasy with the introduction of the first blind date and Harold's staged self immolation. Vivian Pickles as Harold's domineering, status-conscious mother, creates a hilarious caricature that improves on each viewing and, best of all, is Cort who transforms the pale, creepy Harold into an oddly appealing but unconventional protagonist.
Whether the film was a blessing or a curse for Bud Cort who was thereafter typecast as sickly, neurotic young men (until his career was temporarily derailed by a serious car accident in 1979), it certainly will be the movie he is remembered by and that is probably true for Ruth Gordon as well, in spite of her Oscar®-winning role as Mia Farrow's pushy next-door neighbor in Rosemary's Baby (1968). Cort had reason to be bitter about the film's success for other reasons. In a New York Times magazine article, he complained that "All the delicious moments were on the floor. Anything moving between me and Ruth was on the floor; the reason I go to bed with her was on the floor." Ashby said: "I totally agree with you. But they [the studio] won't listen to me." As a result, Cort became difficult. "I said: 'Gentlemen, until this film is recut, not only to my specifications, but to Ms. Gordon's and to Mr. Ashby's, I am not available for any publicity on this film...' From that moment on I've been persona non grata over at Paramount." Cort also grumbled that he was poorly paid for his work: "I receive a residual check maybe once every two years for $11 made out to Bob Cort for Harold and Maude."
Even Cort, however, acknowledges the film as a special time in his life. "It was a genius director and it was a genius actress and a genius script....and it was just the right combination of people at the right moment...It was a blessing." The reasons for the film's enduring appeal are still open to debate but screenwriter Colin Higgins, who would go on to become a commercially successful film director (Foul Play , 9 to 5 ) before succumbing to AIDS in 1988, had his own theory for why it had such deep resonance with younger audiences: "We're all Harold, and we all want to be Maude. We're all repressed and trying to be free, to be ourselves, to be vitally interested in living, to be everything we want." It's a message delivered with all of the excesses and enthusiasm of a young filmmaker who is still finding his voice.
Producer: Colin Higgins, Mildred Lewis, Charles B. Mulvehill
Director: Hal Ashby
Screenplay: Colin Higgins
Cinematography: John Alonzo
Film Editing: William A. Sawyer, Edward Warschilka
Art Direction: Michael Haller
Music: Cat Stevens
Cast: Ruth Gordon (Maude), Bud Cort (Harold Parker Chasen), Vivian Pickles (Mrs. Chasen), Cyril Cusack (Glaucus), Charles Tyner (Uncle Victor), Ellen Geer (Sunshine Dore).
by Jeff Stafford
My Side: The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind
The Unofficial Bud Cort Fan Site www.geocities.com/budcortfanclub/
The New York Times
All Movie Guide www.allmovie.com