Friday, November 25, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude (1971) ***
Directed by: Hal Ashby.
Written by: Colin Higgins.
Starring:  Ruth Gordon (Maude), Bud Cort (Harold), Vivian Pickles (Mrs. Chasen), Cyril Cusack (Glaucus), Charles Tyner (Uncle Victor), Ellen Geer (Sunshine Doré), Eric Christmas (Priest), G. Wood (Psychiatrist), Judy Engles (Candy Gulf), Shari Summers (Edith Phern).

Harold and Maude was pretty much dismissed by critics back in 1971, and was initially a box office failure. And then, almost immediately afterwards, it became a cult hit – playing in some theaters for years on end. Watching the film for the first time now, it’s easy to see why critics initially hated it, and why some audiences fell in love with it. It reminded me at times of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, and its influence on filmmakers like Wes Anderson is pretty clear. Yet the humor in the movie is dark and strange, and at times somewhat creepy. The whole premise of the movie – a 20 year old man falling in love with a 80 year old woman – is creepy as well (for the record, this isn’t a double standard thing – I’d be just creeped out by a romantic comedy starring Peter O’Toole and Emma Watson). Yet there is something about Harold and Maude that kept me fascinated by it – and enough of the comedy is laugh out loud funny that I have to admit, despite my reservations, that I enjoyed the film.

The best thing about Harold and Maude is Bud Cort – the talented young actor who had just made two movies with Robert Altman the previous year (MASH and Brewster McCloud). He is Harold, a 20 year, rich kid who is bored by life. His only joy is faking his own suicide again and again and again, to the point where his mother (Vivien Pickles, who is absolutely hilarious in her role) has stopped caring. His fake suicides are a running gag in the film, and provide some of the funniest moments (my favorite is when he apparently sets himself on fire, done all in one shot in the background). He is a child of the 1960s, facing possible drafting into a war that he (and the movie) sees as ridiculous. He is the classic disenfranchised youth.

Ruth Gordon plays Maude, an 80 year old Holocaust survivor (this isn’t, to the best of my recollection mentioned in the movie, but you can clearly see a numbered tattoo on her arm in the film), who is the exact opposite of Harold. She has embraced life to the fullest, and lives every day with joy, always looking to try new experiences. She will not let life get her down. The two of them meet at a funeral – neither of them knew the deceased, but both simply like going to funerals – Harold because he’s obsessed with death, Maude to remind herself of what she’s fighting against). What starts as a friendship, quickly turns into something else entirely.

There is much to like about the film. Directed by Hal Ashby (who would go onto to direct much better films like The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and a personal favorite Being There) has an interesting visual style. He films much of the movie in static long shots that he holds just a second or two longer than most directors would to allow the humor to seep in. The songs by Cat Stevens are memorable, and help to give the film that The Graduate type vibe, with only the one voice all the way through. Cort is excellent as Harold – deadpan perfection in most of his humorous scenes, though he isn’t quite as convincing when the film becomes more emotional. Vivien Pickles may in fact give the best performance in the movie as his mother – the scene where she fills out Harold’s dating service application is the best in the film. Ruth Gordon is a little more problematic, not really because of her performance, but because of how the film is written. She can become a little cloying and annoying, and some of her lines are hackneyed. The ending of the film doesn’t work at all, because it seems to fly in the face of everything that went before it.

Yet, overall Harold and Maude is a satisfying, unique comedy. It isn’t the classic that the supporters claim it is – at least not to me – but there is much to like about it. Ashby would go onto better things than this, but he continued to have to battle the studios (as he did here) to get the films he wanted to get made done. Harold and Maude is a fine film – it just isn’t a masterpiece.

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