Starring: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles
Director: Hal Ashby
It has now become a cliché to say of Harold and Maude (1971) that it’s the exactly kind of quirky, personal, defiantly uncommercial movie that Hollywood doesn’t make any more. But to be fair they didn’t really make them like that back then either, and you wonder how on earth it slipped through. Bud Cort, with his preternatural pallor and his red-rimmed, rabbit-like eyes, plays Harold, a meek young man who is half in love with easeful death because he sees it as his only hope of escape from his overbearing mother. His world is opened up by a chance encounter with 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon), part-time artist’s model and the inventor of something called odorifics. A fount of opinions and stories, Maude sets about teaching Harold how to live, and they become fast friends – and yes, folks, that friends with benefits.
The film dares us to find this icky, inviting the viewer to imagine the two of them doing it with the aplomb of a waiter serving up a big, sweaty toad on a silver platter. Cort and Gordon (playing older than herself – she was only 75) are both great, but the star, really, is screenwriter Colin Higgins (who would go on to pen the excellent comedy thriller Silver Streak). His script has layers and layers. There’s an amusing running gag to do with the increasingly elaborate mock-suicides that Harold stages, and his use of them to scare off the various eligible young women his mother introduces him to. There’s plenty of witty, sophisticated drawing room comedy dialogue (Harold’s father, we learn, was arrested for “floating nude down the Seine”). And there are satirical swipes at the state of the nation, mainly in the person of Harold’s Uncle Victor, a hawkish general who is eager to pack Harold off to Vietnam (“I say you can point to the many material advantages brought about by a crisis and conflict policy”).
All of this chucklesome stuff is beautifully handled, and it acts as a kind of buffer between you and the genuine perversity and trauma at the centre of the story (boys have been known to sleep with old ladies. But how long can the idyll last when Maude is already 79, even if it’s a young 79?). Apparently, Higgins’ original script invoked Buddhist notions of impermanence, the need to resign yourself to letting go of things. In the finished film, this is softened into a more upbeat, Hollywood-friendly theme of seize the day and be who you want to be, summed up in Cat Stevens’ song “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out.” Yet even if there’s only so much life-affirming that you can take, Cort and Gordon’s abrasively oddball double act ensures that the movie remains as tart and refreshing as Maude’s old straw tea and ginger pie.
The HD transfer hasn’t been able to do much with the rather treacly Technicolor film stock – the picture is still quite soft, brown and grainy, although the occasional splashes of colour are now more vibrant. The Blu-ray comes with an audio commentary with Nick Dawson, Hal Ashby’s biographer, and the film’s producer. There’s also a very interesting 25-minute chat with film lecturer David Cairns, who talks about the cast and director Hal Ashby’s career, and about how Harold and Maude’s socially unacceptable love can be read as a metaphor for homosexuality (Higgins was gay but never dealt with that topic directly in his films).