Harold and Maude: From Flop to Cult Classic Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Harold and Maude: From Flop to Cult Classic

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TRIGGER WARNING: This Entry contains references to suicide. In fact, it is the point of the movie.

Legs and feet of a man hanging, with an overturned footstool, and the words Harold and Maude
Dear Mr Canby,
What a disappointment to read your review. I know people aren't supposed to write a critic and the last time I did was fifty-six years ago today. I got a good review in the December 22, 1915, Times and wrote the critic. It was my first time on the stage and I didn't know you shouldn't. Today I know, but I'm doing it. I wish you'd liked Harold and Maude.

– Ruth Gordon, My Side, p399

Vincent Canby, the New York Times film critic, had made it clear that he found Harold and Maude distasteful, even for a black comedy. He particularly did not like the main characters, writing1 that they 'are so aggressive, so creepy and off-putting, that Harold and Maude are obviously made for each other.' Ruth Gordon, who played Maude, gave him a piece of her mind in a letter – which is probably exactly what her character Maude would have done.

Critics didn't like Harold and Maude, a love story between a 19-year-old man and a 79-year-old woman that involves suicide, faked and real. They panned it. Audiences stayed away in droves and the movie was a box-office bomb. But like the characters' ideals, Harold and Maude refused to die. Instead, it became a cult favourite2. Harold and Maude might not be for everyone, but the life-affirming film finds its own audience.

The next section of this Entry explains the plot in some detail. If you haven't seen the film and prefer to be surprised, please skip it.

The Plot [Major Spoilers]

Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is 19 and lives with his widowed mother (Vivian Pickles) in an elaborate mansion somewhere near San Francisco. Mrs Chasen is a society hostess who is mainly interested in her parties and personal appearance, and is vain and self-centred. Harold continually annoys her by staging elaborate fake suicides: a hanging in the study, drowning in the pool, a blood-(beet juice-)soaked corpse in her multi-mirrored dressing room, self-immolation in the garden... She responds with weary sighs and wry comments.

When not tormenting his mother, Harold drives around the Bay Area in his personal hearse and watches demolitions or attends the funerals of strangers. It is at the funerals that he runs across Maude (Ruth Gordon), a diminutive 79-year-old ball of fire who is full of joy and the spirit of adventure. Maude lives in an old railway car furnished with an eclectic mix of memorabilia, such as the banjo she gives Harold. She frequently 'borrows' other people's cars with the help of a burglary kit she got from a man named Sweeney. She drives like a maniac.

As Harold and Maude form an intimate friendship, it becomes obvious to the audience that the two characters have something in common: both have suffered personal traumas. Maude's is hinted at when Harold catches a glimpse of the tattoo on her arm. Harold explains his obsessive harassment of his mother by telling a story: in high school, Harold blew up the chemistry lab (by accident) and went home to change. The school authorities, believing Harold to have died in the explosion, informed Mrs Chasen of this: the society hostess put on a melodramatic performance of grief for her guests. Harold witnessed this and is having trouble forgiving his mother.

Mrs Chasen orders up prospective brides for Harold by means of filling out the computer questionnaire herself. Harold's suicides chase away the dates3. Mrs Chasen also attempts to get her brother-in-law, Uncle Victor (Charles Tynan), to have Harold inducted into the army. Harold pretends enthusiasm – and then pretends to murder Maude in front of his uncle. This is too much even for the bloodthirsty army man, so Harold is safe from the military (and the military from Harold).

At an amusement park, Harold inscribes a disc with 'I love you, Maude. Harold.' Maude is delighted and throws the disc into San Francisco Bay so that 'I'll always know where it is.' Harold and Maude have sex.

Harold's announcement that he plans to marry Maude causes consternation in his mother, his priest, and his psychiatrist. He offers her a ring as they celebrate her 80th birthday. Maude is touched – but explains that she has 'already taken the pills' and will be 'gone by midnight.' She feels she has lived long enough.

Rushing Maude to hospital fails to save her. Harold says, 'But I love you!'

'Go and love some more,' urges Maude.

After Maude's death, we see Harold's hearse going over a cliff. Harold, however, is still on the cliff, holding the banjo. He walks away, playing.

Film History

Nobody could play it but me!
- Ruth Gordon

Australian-American screenwriter Colin Higgins (1941-1988) first conceived of Harold and Maude as part of his MFA4 thesis at UCLA5's film school. It began when he rented a dolly6 for a day at the rate of $50, he said later in an interview. The dolly could go really low or high or wide, and he wished to impress his instructors with his versatility. So he shot a short film of a man's feet and legs. It soon becomes clear that the man is committing suicide by hanging himself. Higgins planned to end the segment with a woman coming in and screaming, but he had more film stock than expected. So he added a wider shot of the woman ignoring the performance except for the arch comment, 'I suppose you think that's very funny, Harold.' This sequence was re-enacted as the title scene for Harold and Maude, with the addition that Harold first puts on a record: the song 'Don't Be Shy' by Cat Stevens, whose music is featured throughout the film.

When Higgins offered the film to Paramount he had specific actors in mind and a specific director: himself. Paramount gave the young director $7,000 to film an audition and then hired the more experienced Hal Ashby. Ashby made Higgins a producer and let him assist and learn. Veteran US actress Ruth Gordon (1896-1985), still renowned for her appearance in Rosemary's Baby, was keen to play the part, but Ashby had a European actress in mind. He flew there to interview several, but when he spoke to Edith Evans he got a surprise. She read the dialogue and burst into laughter.

'That's doesn't sound like me, ducky. Why don't you get Ruth Gordon?' With this recommendation from a friend, Ashby gave up and hired Ruth Gordon, whose ebullient personality was indeed a lot like the fictional Maude's. Ruth Gordon auditioned with the prospective Harolds, and Bud Cort was chosen. He, too, was exceptionally keen on the part.

Not so actor Tom Skerritt, who stepped in at the last minute to play a motorcycle cop when another player was injured. Skerritt is listed in the credits as 'M. Borman,' a reference to an infamous Nazi leader who went missing after the Second World War and could theoretically be working as a motorcycle cop in California at the time. It was 1971: the counterculture really didn't like policemen.

Filming took place around San Francisco. A good time was had. At the wrap party, Bud Cort gave Ruth Gordon a flower pin with an inset diamond and the inscription, 'I love you, Maude. Harold.'

Cult History

Although Harold and Maude failed to do well at the box office initially and was loathed by critics, the film eventually found its audience. Notably at the Westgate Theater in Minneapolis, where it ran for three full years before the locals revolted and picketed the cinema to change the bill. Although at the time, Variety's reviewer groused7 that 'Harold and Maude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage,' there turned out to be an audience that didn't find the philosophising 'specious', as he claimed. Perhaps the old-time anarchists and the Sixties counterculture had more effect on the cultural sensibilities of the 21st Century than would first appear.

Harold and Maude exists in novel form and has been translated into other languages. There is a bilingual French/English edition. The story has fared particularly well in France: a theatrical version played for seven years in Paris in the 1970s, earning its author a considerable income.

The film version of Harold and Maude has received delayed recognition: the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress has preserved it as a significant film. British film magazine Empire listed Harold and Maude among its '500 greatest movies of all time.' The best recommendations of all come from its audience, who leave remarks at the bottom of Youtube clips like: 'Not many movies make a person feel the way this one does.'

1Vincent Canby, 'Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort Star as Odd Couple', New York Times, 21 December, 1971.2A cult film is one that has a limited but devoted following.3Except for wannabe actress Sunshine Doré, who is a little too enthusiastic about the play-acting. Sunshine is played with verve by Ellen Geer, daughter of Will Geer.4Master of Fine Arts degree.5University of California at Los Angeles.6A dolly is a platform on wheels that filmmakers use to move cameras around. Using various types of 'dolly shots' allows directors to achieve an array of visual effects, such as zooming in and out on a subject or travelling with the action.7Variety, 16 December, 1971.

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