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Harold And Maude: Hal Ashby's Cult Classic May-December Romance

Entertainment | January 18, 2021

Harold And Maude, starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort, wasn't a box-office hit. When director Hal Ashby's story of a May-December romance between a young man named Harold (Cort) and the 79 year old Maude (Gordon) was released in 1971, the film's gallows humor and surreal tone turned off audiences in droves. People were sickened by the very idea of a young man making love to a woman who could be his grandmother, so much so that even the soothing sounds of Cat Stevens couldn't save the movie.

Time has been kind to Harold And Maude. The film remains a cult classic, and its influence can be seen in the work of some of the most beloved directors of the '90s and 2000s. As silly as the film can be, it's got quite a lot on its mind: life, death, love. Harold And Maude deals with it all and through the tears and the heartbreak it always has a wry smile on its face.

Harold and Maude is above all a love story

source: paramount

Harold And Maude lets the audience know exactly what they're in for in the opening tracking shot of the film. As Cat Stevens sings over the opening credits, Harold Chassen sets the stage for what we're meant to believe is his suicide. The audience even sees the young boy step onto an end table and step off before the scene cuts to a wide shot of him hanging by a noose.

With an absurd sense of humor and obsession with death, Harold attempts to shake up his upper class life by attending the funerals of people he doesn't know, faking suicide, and driving around in a hearse. It's only after he meets Maude, a 79 year old woman played by Ruth Gordon who sees life (and more importantly death) as a ridiculous experience full of both cruelty and beauty.

When Harold falls in love with Maude, a woman who could be his grandmother, he doesn't just find a reason to live, he realizes that life doesn't have to be bleak, and that growing old doesn't mean that he has to grow up.

Here today, gone tomorrow, don't get attached

source: paramount

The absurdity at the heart of Harold And Maude isn't something that wears off as the film grows along, but its first act isn't just incredibly weird, it's somewhat bleak. For instance, after meeting Maude at a funeral, Harold shoots himself with a gun filled with blanks while his mother tries to get him into a dating service. That's just one of many scenes that can absolutely put people off of this picture.

Hal Ashby didn't just make a "quirky" movie, with Harold and Maude he made a meditation on death -- one that seeks to remind the audience that death isn't something to fear, it's simply a part of life. Sadly, people only understand the absurdity of life when they reach its end. The film posits that the faster we learn this fact of life, the faster we can really begin living.

Do you often get the feeling that life isn't worth living?

source: paramount

Bud Cort looks back on the making Harold And Maude as a special time in his life. He won the part of Harold by telling Ashby that he was going to be the film's star, and once on set the cast felt comfortable experimenting with one another - that's how the film got its fourth wall breaking moment where Harold grins directly at the camera.

While the cast and crew grew close, studio interference nearly torpedoed the whole show. Ashby nearly quit the film because of changes that they constantly requested, one involved cutting a kiss between the title characters, but this interference just bonded the cast and crew even more. Vivian Pickles, who plays Harold's overprotective and (rightfully) worried mother, wrote that Harold And Maude is the only film where she's felt like it came out just as it should be, fully formed like Diana out of Zeus' skull:

Harold And Maude is the only job I’ve done where I haven’t wanted to change something after I’ve seen it. Hal was so inspiring, with a most wonderful, genuine, appreciative smile of warm approval that spurred you on. He really loved my ideas—particularly for my favorite scene, where Mrs. Chasen fills out the application form for her son’s dating service... Bud, like so many young American actors of the day, was very influenced by the Method, all that warming up and getting into the role, which is not my way at all—I find it very alienating—but it was right for him and it was right for the character and right for the scene. The difference in the styles works beautifully.

I haven't lived, but I've died a few times

source: paramount

In 1971, critics and your average audience hated this movie. Producer Charles Mulvehill explained:

The idea of a 20-year-old boy with an 80-year-old woman just made people want to vomit. If you asked people what it was about, ultimately it became a boy who was f***ing his grandmother. People actually picketed theaters that were playing the film because they found it so distasteful.

Harold And Maude was too dark, too bleak, and too weird for most audiences at the time. The overall tone and concept of the film proved to be box office poison. The New York Times reports that the film didn't make a profit until 1983. Producer Colin Higgins says that he was shocked that the film took so long to make money because it cost a hair over a million dollars. He explained:

Strange the way the game is played. Harold And Maude only cost $1.3 million. That's not even the salary of a major star today. Around 1977, Hal and Ruth and I did an audit of the movie because it cost so little we were sure it must be in profit. It wasn't.

The poor reviews pretty much doomed Cort's career for a few years. The parts that he were offered were just like Harold. Hollywood wanted him to play weirdoes and freaks, but he wanted more. Even though the film essentially encased him in amber, Cort looks on the film fondly. In 2014, he told The Guardian:

I'm so proud of it. I'm so lucky that I had the break I'd been dreaming of. The material matched my life so deeply, it was like giving birth to an elephant.

L-I-V live, otherwise you've got nothing to talk about in the locker room

source: paramount

By the late '70s the surreal, tragicomic tone of Harold And Maude was all over cinema. Taxi Driver, Network, Badlands, all of these films have a similar mix of comedy and darkness as that of Ashby's film that was so maligned upon its release. By 1977, college students were flocking to the movie whenever it played on campuses. Ruth Gordon said that she never spoke to someone who saw the film just once. She told The New York Times:

I got a marvelous letter from a young fellow who said, 'I've seen Harold And Maude 12 times and I wasn't sure why. I finally realized the lesson of the film is that everybody in the world has to have someone to tell it to.' Harold with all his fears could tell anything to Maude. I've had love affairs, romances, other marriages, but my husband Garson Kanin is the one person I can tell it to.

Today, it's easy to see how Harold And Maude fits into the tapestry of film history. Filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Richard Ayoade clearly love Ashby's rumination on life and death (Rushmore and Submarine are basically alternate versions of the film), but the film has influenced more than the directors who pull directly from the movie. Ashby's use of music in Harold And Maude, not just as a soundtrack but as a way to further communicate the themes of the film with the audience has become commonplace whether you're watching Garden State or Shaun of the Dead. Hal Ashby's ageless cult classic may be a film about embracing death, but it can still teach how to sing out and be ourselves. 

Tags: Bud Cort | Cult Films | Hal Ashby | Harold And Maude | Movies In The 1970s | Ruth Gordon

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.