#446) Harold and Maude (1971)

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#446) Harold and Maude (1971)

OR “My Old Lady”

Directed by Hal Ashby

Written by Colin Higgins

Class of 1997

The Plot: Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) feels isolated living in a large manor with his superficial mother (Vivian Pickles), and has developed a morbid outlook on life, staging suicide fake-outs and attending funerals. At one funeral he meets Maude Chardin (Ruth Gordon), a free-spirited woman pushing 80. Despite the vast age difference, Harold and Maude connect with each other, and spend time together every day. Through his time with Maude, Harold learns how to truly live and love, all with an incessant Cat Stevens soundtrack.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites the film’s “warm humor and big heart that lies beneath the darkness” and traces the film’s cult following.

But Does It Really?: “Harold and Maude” can be a bit divisive, but thankfully I was charmed by it, thanks to the work of Cort and Gordon, who find a convincing balance between the film’s dark comedy and lighter sweetness. Time has been kind to “Harold and Maude”, aided by the onslaught of quirky indie rom-coms inspired by it. “Harold and Maude” isn’t an untouchable classic, but it is an influential movie with a devoted cult following, and that’s good enough for a place in the Registry.

Everybody Gets One: Colin Higgins became interested in making movies after seeing a film exhibit at Montreal’s Expo ’67. His master thesis at UCLA would serve as the inspiration for “Harold and Maude”. Higgins wanted to direct “Harold” once it was optioned by Paramount, and shot a “screen test” to get the job, but Paramount opted for Hal Ashby, fresh off his directorial debut “The Landlord”. Ashby hired Higgins as a co-producer so that Higgins could be on set and learn how to direct.

Wow, That’s Dated: “Songs composed and performed by Cat Stevens”. Other than that, be alert for references to the sexual revolution, wife-swapping, and then-President Nixon.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Harold and Maude” wasn’t successful with critics or audiences (with a few exceptions, see “Legacy”), and was completely ignored by the Oscars. Cort and Gordon did, however, manage Golden Globe nominations for their work, losing respectively to Topol for “Fiddler on the Roof” and Twiggy for “The Boy Friend”.

Other notes

  • Bay Area residents like myself should enjoy spotting all the local spots used for filming “Harold and Maude”. Look out for San Francisco’s Sutro Baths, Colma’s Holy Cross Cemetery, San Bruno’s Golden Gate National Cemetery, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
  • Bud Cort somehow looks both 12 and 40 years old at the same time. For the record, he was 22 during production.
  • Shoutout to Vivian Pickles as Harold’s appropriately distant mother. A veteran of English cinema, this was Vivian’s only American-based film.
  • In yet another case of Hollywood casting a younger woman, 73-year-old Ruth Gordon played 79-year-old Maude. Very disappointing. That being said, it’s fun watching Ruth Gordon’s natural feistiness being put to use for something other than helping sire the spawn of Satan.
  • Technically there’s a 51-year difference on the Michael Douglas scale, but there’s definitely a double standard at play.
  • Cat Stevens’ soundtrack will forever be associated with this movie, but for me, “Tea for the Tillerman” belongs to “Extras”.
  • This film may include the first instance of computer dating. Even back then it was the worst.
  • The chase between Harold & Maude and the motorcycle cop is certainly one of filmdom’s most unique car chases. Fun Fact: The cop is played by Tom Skerritt, credited as “M. Borman”, a riff on ex-Nazi Martin Bormann.
  • Extra Fun Fact: Ruth Gordon couldn’t drive in real life.
  • “L-I-V-E, Live!” Maude is a walking Facebook post.
  • Unsurprisingly, this film is well edited. Ashby got his start as the editor for such films as “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Thomas Crown Affair”. This film’s editing team was William A. Sawyer and Edward Warschilka, Ashby’s associates from “The Landlord”.
  • My favorite shot in the movie is Harold’s reaction to the question, “What’s hari-kari?” Bud Cort takes a comic pause that would make Jack Benny proud.
  • Director Hal Ashby makes a cameo as the long-haired bearded fellow mesmerized by the train set on the boardwalk.
  • Cort and Gordon are lovely together, but the implication of their last night together is more than enough. Any more visuals and I would have sided with the priest on this one.
  • And Ashby leaves us with an ambiguous ending that still leaves them guessing 50 years later. I say it’s no different than having your lead walking on water.

Legacy

  • “Harold and Maude” turned most people off on its initial release (Vincent Canby called it “creepy and off-putting”), but it was a surprise hit in Detroit and Minneapolis, playing for several years and developing a cult following. Screenings continued throughout the ‘70s, and by 1983 the film had turned a profit.
  • Post-“Harold”, director Hal Ashby helmed a string of successful ‘70s character studies including “Shampoo”, “Bound for Glory”, “Coming Home”, and future NFR entry “Being There”.
  • Colin Higgins spent the ‘70s and early ‘80s as a successful screenwriter, and eventually director. His filmography includes “9 to 5”, “Silver Streak”, “Foul Play”, and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”.
  • Higgins had plans for a sequel called “Harold’s Story” (which would have ruined this movie’s ambiguous ending), as well as a prequel in which Maude teams up with Grover Muldoon, Richard Pryor’s character from “Silver Streak”. What could have been if the Higgins Cinematic Universe had gotten the green light.
  • A 1973 stage adaptation by Jean-Claude Carrière became an unexpected hit in Paris for ‘30s film star Madeleine Renaud, who later toured the U.S. as Maude. An American adaptation starring Janet Gaynor opened and closed on Broadway in February 1980 after four performances.
  • Among the filmmakers influenced by “Harold and Maude”: Wes Anderson, Cameron Crowe, and Judd Apatow, who named his daughter after Maude.
  • As for Harold and Maude themselves; Ruth Gordon spent her remaining years playing variations of Maude on film and TV; and while a car accident in 1979 threatened to derail Bud Cort’s career, he has continued to work steadily. He even had his own courtroom show around 2006!

Listen to This: There’s no Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam on the National Recording Registry? That seems like an obvious oversight.

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