Monday, September 17, 2012

Harold & Maude: An Unusual Love Story

The term “cult movie” is used to define a variety of films that have a devoted following, including the one & only The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), noir classics like Force of Evil (1948) and offbeat comedies like 1968’s The Producers. One of the most interesting films to have earned cult status (and deservedly so) is director Hal Ashby’s Harold & Maude  (1971), starring Bud Cort & Ruth Gordon as a most unlikely couple. Cort plays Harold, a young man who’s very obsessed with death. He stages fake (but realistic looking) suicides, trying to gain the attention of his socialite mother, who doesn’t understand him. She’s tried to send him to therapists, and even set him up on dates, with little or no success. But she just doesn’t get her son, or make a real effort to communicate with him.

One day, Harold meets Maude: a much older woman who has a free-spirited outlook on life. She is, in her own way, as obsessed with life as Harold is with death. The two form a bond and have a few whimsical adventures together. They also have some philosophical conversations about life & love, as Maude becomes Harold’s friend, mentor…and finally, something much more. He decides he’s in love with her, and despite their age difference, wants to marry her. But Maude has other plans, and she’ll teach Harold one more lesson before they part ways.

From that brief description you might be saying: Fake suicides? A 20-something young man falls in love with a 70-something woman? I’m sure most filmgoers back in 1971 felt the same way. The movie was not a success on its original release, but the film’s reputation grew through showings on college campuses, midnight movie screenings & word of mouth. As its popularity grew, there were stage versions mounted in several countries, and a French television remake was also produced. I actually saw the film for the first time on a local New York television station’s late night movie in the mid 1980s, and immediately fell in love with it.

This is a wonderful, quirky movie with a great screenplay by Colin Higgins, who went on to script Foul Play & Silver Streak and write & direct Nine to Five. The understated, solid direction by Ashby, who also helmed Shampoo, Bound For Glory and Coming Home, is perfect for the material. The performances by Cort & Gordon are revelatory; they really have a wonderful chemistry, and are amazing in their roles. Another factor in the movie’s success is its excellent song score by Cat Stevens. The music fits the mood of the story and adds background, color and atmosphere to the film. Stevens had just experienced his first taste of US success (with the album Tea for the Tillerman), as the movie was being made & released, and Ashby campaigned to use his songs in the movie.

The Criterion Collection has recently released the movie in an impressive new special edition on Blu-ray & DVD. In addition to an excellent new transfer of the film, extras include an audio commentary by Ashby’s biographer Nick Dawson and the film’s producer, Charles B. Mulvehill, as well as illustrated audio excerpts from interviews with the late Higgins and Ashby. There’s also a chat with Cat Stevens, and an informative booklet featuring several articles and essays related to the movie, including interviews with star Cort & cinematographer John Alonzo (Chinatown), who also did some fine work on the film.

The movie has some great scenes & dialogue; it’s about two people coming together as much for their differences as their similarities. Harold & Maude is a very un-Hollywood sort of love story; two people falling in love because of what’s in their heads as much as for what’s in their hearts, and ending up as soul mates. There are moments of black comedy, drama, sorrow & joy in this moving, one of a kind film. I recommend it to those seeking an out of the ordinary movie experience. You won’t soon forget Harold & Maude.

Here’s a link to The Criterion Collection’s page for their edition of the film:, which includes their “Three Reasons” trailer.

Harold: Maude?
Maude: Hmm?
Harold: Do you pray?
Maude: Pray? No. I communicate.
Harold: With God?
Maude: With Life.  
- From Harold & Maude (1971)

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