HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)
Among the odd, risk-taking pleasures of the 1967-75 era is this eccentric developing romance between a death-obsessed 20 year old (Bud Cort) and a life affirming old lady turning 80 (Oscar winning Ruth Gordon). Based on a screenplay by Colin Higgins and directed by Hal Ashby, it has a peculiar charm all of its own and a central premise that it’s hard to believe passed a pitch meeting at Paramount – but fortunately for this film’s later cult following it did.
Harold is the scion of a wealthy family whose morbid fascination with mortality manifests in regular fake suicide attempts to antagonise his mother (Vivian Pickles), and when asked by his therapist what he does for fun replies: “I go to funerals”. At one such service, he is approached by the elderly live-wire Maude, who shares his love of them but in a more positive frame, and rejuvenates him with her spontaneity coupled with an anarchic disregard for the agreed rules of society. She is an inveterate car-thief and drives like a dangerous nutter, yet has such joie de vivre that Harold is drawn to her, begins to smile for once and gradually falls in love with her. Their romance is consummated, off-screen, and their relationship is so perfect a rounding-off of life for Maude that she happily decides to end hers whilst at this high-point. Though distraught, Harold goes on, his life enriched for having known her…
Bud Cort is a quirky, entrancing presence as Harold, possessed of a cadaverous pallor and a stare that alternates between vague and piercingly intimidating, thus rendering him totally believable as this strange man-boy. He had already proved himself as an actor in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and the lead in BREWSTER MCCLOUD and auditioned for Hal Ashby with a high confidence that came from relating profoundly to Harold. In real life, Cort had a distant relationship with his own father, a veteran of Dachau, and when introduced by Ashby to the creative team at the meeting stated simply: “I’m playing this part”. He threw himself method-style into the staged suicide bids, freaking out Vivian Pickles with his need for veracity. My favourite is during his mother’s inane interview of a dating agency candidate, where through the window we spy Harold appearing to calmly settle himself enshrouded on a bench, pouring on gasoline and then immolating himself - before somehow popping up in their room to ‘comfort’ the two ladies.
Ruth Gordon deservedly won the Academy Award as Maude for her eccentric life-force that brooks no opposition. There is a marvellous protracted scene illustrating this beginning when she and Harold are pulled over by a traffic cop (an almost obscured Tom Skerritt) during one of her car-theft jaunts. He asks for her license, which she rebuffs with: “I don’t have one. I don’t believe in them”. To compound the non-compliance, she drives off leading the officer in a merry dance along the high-way, and even after he catches up with them a second time, steals his motor-bike, giving Harold a backie.
On paper, HAROLD AND MAUDE’s tracing of a friendship becoming a sexual union across such a wide generation gap sounds like a perversely queasy premise; however, the oddball nature of this unlikely twosome still seems somehow chaste even when we see them post-coital in bed together. Ashby wisely opts not to show anything physical between them. There is no need. Their closeness is a meeting of polar-opposite views on life that connects somehow in a shared middle-ground of unconventionality. It’s hard to be offended by people who find a soulmate in any context and showing eccentricities we can’t relate to – yet whose flouting of repression we might love to emulate in other ways?
Harold and Maude aren’t the only two weird elements in the film. Charles Tyner, the creepy sadist Boss Higgins in COOL HAND LUKE, plays his uncle General Ball, a Nixon-loving war-mongerer – and Eric Christmas slavers lasciviously over his “firm young body” as his priest.
To offset the stranger ideas on display, there is a score of multiple songs by Cat Stevens, including ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ strikingly used later by Ricky Gervais later on TV for THE OFFICE.
Post-filming, HAROLD AND MAUDE was not without problems. In a July 2014 interview for the Guardian newspaper, Cort recalled that Paramount wrestled control of the edit away from Hal Ashby. Cort vowed that he would not publicise the film unless Ashby was reinstated, which the studio duly did although a filmed kissing scene was cut by paramount head Robert Evans.
Critical reaction upon release was a widespread panning, due principally to condemning word-of-mouth about the subject matter. HAROLD AND MAUDE was pulled from cinemas and disappeared from cinemas inside a week. Happily though, it has since acquired true cult status, being highly praised by Hollywood directors of a respected ‘indie’ sensibility like Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and Cameron Crowe…