Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #5: Harold and Maude

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Harold and Maude (released December 1971)

Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon

Here's the original theatrical trailer...


What the Queer Cinephile Says: According to my research, Harold and Maude received very little praise when it hit theaters in late 1971. Critics, including Roger Ebert (yes, the man was reviewing films way back then), were not particularly amused by this this very, very dark comedy about a death-obsessed young man and his relationship with a free-spirited 79-year-old woman. Hollywood loves to make movies that explore relationships between older men and younger women. No one ever seems to mind the fact that The Sound of Music's Captain Von Trapp appears to be about twenty years older than Maria. But flip the situation -- young man falling for a much older woman -- and people get nervous. Thankfully, Harold and Maude is a movie that pulls no punches; it's delighted to screw with you in a variety of ways.

The set-up is simple. Harold (Bud Cort) lives with his wealthy, widowed mother. His life is so meaningless that he spends his days developing and implementing elaborate fake suicide attempts to penetrate her detached obliviousness. When his psychoanalyst asks him what he does for fun, Harold pauses for a long time and then replies, "I go to funerals." So does Maude (Ruth Gordon). And neither of them even know the deceased. "I'll never understand this mania with black," she tells Harold. A friendship evolves and Maude encourages Harold to be more spontaneous and live a little. Meanwhile, Harold's mother (the fabulous Vivian Pickles in a series of hats, hairstyles and wigs), concludes, "In short, Harold, I think it is time for you to get married." She signs him up with the National Computer Dating Service, assuring him, "They screen out the fat and the ugly, so it is obviously a firm with high standards." That leads to a series of blind dates the film juxtaposes with Harold and Maude's flourishing relationship.

All of 23 when he starred here, Bud Cort strikes the right notes as the droll, morose Harold. At 75, Ruth Gordon is a quirky, uninhibited force of nature. The script gives her a surfeit of memorable lines that had me backing up the DVD to relish them multiple times. (Example: Maude, handing Harold an after-dinner liqueur: "It's organic. It has no nutritional value, but consistency is not really a human trait.") This was director Hal Ashby's second film (he went on to direct Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There), and aside from the clumsy reveal of some important information from Maude's past, I like his style, which was pretty innovative for a film made in 1971.

Now, for some trivia about the movie...

The trailer contains several shots that do not actually appear in the finished film. That leads me to believe there were plenty of alternate takes on the set and serious conversations in the editing room about the final product. I don't think any of the shots in question would have made Harold and Maude a better film. In fact, I think they would have been, at best, completely unnecessary, and at worst, overkill. There were no extras on the DVD release I watched, but for anyone interested, there's a Blu-ray version with audio commentary from the director.

Bud Cort's father died of complications from multiple sclerosis the same year he made the film. You have to wonder how that impacted his performance. He's worked steadily since Harold and Maude, appearing in over 40 films and numerous TV shows, but this remains his signature role. Ruth Gordon started her career as an extra in silent films, jumped to Broadway, and eventually made the transition back to film in the 1940s. After marrying writer Garson Kanin in 1942, the two collaborated on film scripts (most successfully for Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). She returned to film acting in the 1960s, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1968 at the age of 72 for her role as the nosy neighbor with a dark secret in Rosemary's Baby (easily my favorite horror movie of all time).

Beloved (and later controversial) 1970s pop/folk singer Cat Stevens ("Wild World," "Morning Has Broken," "Peace Train") contributed nine songs to the film's soundtrack. At first, his music feels discordant, even insipid. But as the film progresses, his sound inevitably becomes ingratiating and right. In 1976, Stevens nearly drowned off the California coast. That brush with death led to a spiritual awakening and his ultimate conversion to the Islamic faith. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam, abandoned his musical career, and devoted himself to educational and philanthropic causes while promoting peace in the world. He eventually emerged again as a professional singer in 2006, known simply as Yusuf, releasing his first album in 28 years, An Other CupA subsequent album, Roadsinger, followed in 2009. He's one of the 2014 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Stray Gay Observations: Harold and Maude was the first script from Colin Higgins, the son of an Australian father and an American mother. He went on to write Silver Streak (1976) and write and direct 9 to 5 (1980). By the 1980s, he was one of the few openly gay writers or directors in Hollywood. In 1986, he established the Colin Higgins Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organization that supports LGBTQ youth. He died from AIDS complications in August of 1988.  

Before They Were Famous: Look for Tom Skerritt, the laid-back captain of the doomed spacecraft in Alien (1979); he plays a highway motorcycle cop listed as "M. Borman" in the credits. While confronting Maude about her reckless driving, he gets some cheerful advice: "Don't get officious. You're not yourself when you're officious. That's the curse of a government job."

Should You See It? Of course! Some great things are not appreciated in their own time. It may have failed to impress many critics in 1971 (Variety's reviewer famously wrote that it "has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage"), but it has aged remarkably well and absolutely deserves its reputation as a cult classic. The central performances by Cort and Gordon are indelible and entirely credible (even when the film puts them in some fairly incredible situations). Harold and Maude deftly flits from outrageous moments to some surprisingly poignant ones. It's not going to work for everyone, but it certainly worked for me.

Next Week: Basic Instinct  (1992) 

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