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One doesn't have to look very hard to find embarrassing 1960s and '70s movies about hippies and the counterculture movement. Hollywood's Easy Rider revolution consisted mostly of ersatz tales of campus revolution and satires about Tuning In and Dropping Out on the level of the Peter Sellers flower-power comedy I Love You Alice B. Toklas. American features that truly questioned the status quo -- say, Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool -- were vastly outnumbered by clueless exploitation efforts: Three in the Attic, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, etc. Even Richard Rush's well-meaning campus satire Getting Straight comes off as superficial and strained.
One of the most interesting directors of the 1970s, Hal Ashby was neither a film school wunderkind nor an instant genius auteur. He had spent fifteen years working his way up the industry ladder, eventually serving as Norman Jewison's editor on big hits like The Cincinnati Kid and the cleverly constructed The Thomas Crown Affair. Ashby's first feature as director was The Landlord, a critical success that didn't see much theatrical play. An odd story about a rich kid (Beau Bridges) who tries to be pals with the tenants of his newly acquired tenement house, The Landlord was unusually sensitive to the issues of class and race in society.
Hal Ashby's second film Harold and Maude is a fairly original slice of black humor, morbidity, alternate lifestyles, and sentimentality. Writer Colin Higgins' script was an extension of his MFA Thesis at the UCLA Film School. The story opens with a series of grim Charles Addams cartoons come to life, before proceeding to statements against the war and for embracing life to the fullest. Young Harold Chasen (Bud Cort of M*A*S*H), a rich kid living on a lavish estate near San Francisco, has taken his antisocial eccentricities to the limit. The tolerant Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles) does her best to ignore the faked but outrageously realistic suicides that her son stages in and around the mansion. Mother sends Harold to his one-armed Uncle Victor, an Army Officer (Charles Tyner) who tries in vain to interest Harold in a tour of military duty. Neither does an appointment with a psychiatrist (G. Wood) produce positive results. Mother also invites several possible romantic partners to meet Harold. One young woman panics at the sight of Harold's faked self-immolation, and exits screaming. An assertive actress named Sunshine Doré (Ellen Geer) annoys Harold by analyzing his ingenious (and bloody) guignol illusion.
Harold also has a habit of attending funerals. When his mother gives him a sporty Jaguar XKE, he uses a blowtorch to convert it into a custom sports-hearse. At one funeral he meets his equal in eccentricity, the octagenarian Maude (Ruth Gordon). The lively Maude disregards the law and personal property by frequently "borrowing" other people's cars to run errands. Driving like a maniac, she either outruns the police or confuses them by a sheer force of personality. Maude's home is a disused railroad coach. Its eclectic contents fascinate Harold, who is even more attracted to the woman's constant stream of ideas about friendship, non-violence, and getting the most out of life. Their relationship deepens as the couple pursue liberating daily adventures, until it becomes obvious that their attraction will result in an unforeseen but humanly logical end -- a physical love affair.
As can be guessed, Harold and Maude was not a film that studio executives of 1971 could be expected to understand. It's likely that the theme of the young Harold having an affair with the senior citizen Maude raised more than a few eyebrows. The oddly charming little show was in danger of making a quick exit to obscurity when it suddenly achieved cult status in special midnight screenings. By 1972 it was a film known to most every college student in the country.
Although not as radical as it seemed when new, Harold and Maude is still a pleasant surprise. Young Harold isn't under-aged but actor Bud Cort could easily pass for 14. Although he couldn't be called a proto-Goth he does have a lot in common with sheltered, emotionally insulated kids that adulate horror stars like Vincent Price. Bud Cort's Harold realigns his outlook through Maude's influence. Previously comfortable in his eccentric complacency, Harold's growing investment in another person is quite endearing. This makes the emotional shocks of the final reel all the more traumatic.
The most surprising thing about Harold and Maude is that it doesn't come off as trite or terminally "cute". The movie asks us to accept a kid obsessed with funerals and suicide as the height of cleverness. Was the 13 year-old Tim Burton perhaps somewhere in the audience? With his delicate facial features, Burton's frequent actor Johnny Depp seems an extension of the Harold Chasen character.
The astonishing writer-actress Ruth Gordon was by this time well into a major third act in her stellar career. She played a brash caustic eccentric for laughs in George Axelrod's Lord Love a Duck. She won an Oscar playing a frightening neighbor in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Interestingly, Ruth Gordon's husband and major screenwriting partner Garson Kanin (Adam's Rib, A Double Life) was sixteen years younger than she. Gordon puts her forceful personality behind the starring role of Maude, giving heft and meaning to Colin Higgins' well-chosen homilies about taking charge of one's opportunities and living life without regrets. We're not surprised that Maude brings Harold out of his shell, because Ms. Gordon does the same for us.
The film's anti-Vietnam War sentiment now seems a little facile, even if well intentioned. The clownish Uncle Victor gives Harold a pep talk about the Army while Higgins and Ashby overlay the sound of a firing squad outside his office. Victor wears a silly rig that makes the empty sleeve over his amputated arm rise in a salute. Some of the other satirical content hasn't aged as well. Good action direction makes Maude's ridiculously hazardous driving habits quite funny, despite the fact that they now seem a writer's concoction to give the old lady an edge of excitement and unpredictability. In a more general sense Maude's disregard for the safety of others seems inconsistent with her positive philosophy.
One aspect of the film that has only gotten better with time is the gentle and melodious music of Cat Stevens. The composer-performer's songs of self-affirmation are such a good fit that the movie seems to have been built around them. Many pictures from this era, even Easy Rider, can be uncomfortable to revisit. Harold and Maude is a nostalgic charmer that appeals to new audiences as well.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Harold and Maude is a handsome encoding of Hal Ashby's offbeat movie fairy tale. John Alonzo's images capture the Northern California greenery under overcast and cloudy skies, often with telephoto lenses. Cat Stevens' music is used liberally throughout the picture, and sounds fine on the Blu-ray's soundtrack. Criterion is offering a DVD release as well.
Accompanied by producer Charles B. Mulvehill, Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson contributes a full feature commentary. Audio lectures by Hal Ashby and Colin Higgins are used as the backbone of two featurettes. Given his own interview, Cat Stevens (who now goes by the name of Yusuf) is as mellow and contented now as he ever was. The insert booklet contains an essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, an article on Ruth Gordon's career, and two text interviews with Bud Cort, John Alonzo and producer Mildred Lewis.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Harold and Maude Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.