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Harold and Maude (Paramount Presents)
My recollection of Harold and Maude (1972) is that it much more aptly defined the ‘70s cult movie than, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), appealing as it did to a broader spectrum of introverts, eccentrics, cineastes, and other social misfits. It seemed to be screening constantly on college campuses, at revival theaters and art houses well into the early-1980s and, subsequently, airing a lot on early cable television and it was a popular early home video release. I had probably seen it 10 or 15 times by 1985 but I don't think once since then.
Looking Paramount's new Blu-ray, things about the film that bothered me only slightly then now play like fundamental flaws. Much of the film is still pretty wonderful, and with the new video transfer and remixed Cat Stevens score, one can also appreciate how beautifully the film was photographed and edited, something I'd not noticed before, and how great the music is, even if it often doesn't quite exactly compliment what's happening onscreen.
A jet-black comedy-drama, it's the story of Harold (Bud Cort), a baby-faced 19-year-old obsessed with death; and Maude (Ruth Gordon), an eccentric, almost-80-year-old who embraces life. Harold lives with his wealthy, self-absorbed single mother, Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles, in her only American film) who, largely for appearance's sake, wants Harold to find a wife. In acts of extreme passive-aggressiveness, Harold elaborately stages fake suicides (self-immolation, gunshot to the head, seppuku, etc.) which his mother mostly tries to ignore.
Harold meets Maude at funerals, which both enjoy attending. In their fleeting but intense relationship, Maude's unbridled enthusiasm for life's little pleasures gradually infect Harold, pulling him out of his dark, self-destructive shell. And, despite the extreme age difference, they fall deeply in love.
Written by Colin Higgins as a master thesis while still at UCLA film school, Harold and Maude works as well as it does in large part because of the perfect casting of Cort and Gordon. Incredibly, Director Hal Ashby first sought European actresses like Edith Evans, Luise Rainer, Lotte Lenya and, bizarrely, writer Agatha Christie for Maude, and considered Richard Dreyfuss, Bob Balaban, and nearly cast Elton John as Harold. Balaban might have worked as Harold, though Cort's unusual, timeless features, like the 2001 baby with a shock of black hair, is a better fit. On the other hand, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than Ruth Gordon as Maude. The longtime actress-screenwriter is like a Grandma Moses on the screen; she doesn't seem to be acting so much as living the part, bringing the character to vivid life.
The subversiveness of the screenplay is sometimes effective, sometimes very dated, and some ways merely perplexing and frustrating. Maude has a penchant for casually driving off with other people's cars (back when people casually left their keys in the ignition, apparently), Maude justifying this as "a reminder" to the impermanence of worldly possessions. That's a very ‘60s hippie justification of grand theft, without consideration of those owners who might need their wheels more than Maude does.
(Major Spoiler) The most frustrating thing about the movie comes near the end, when at the end of a picture-perfect 80th birthday celebration Harold has carefully planned for Maude, she casually mentions that she's taken a fatal overdose of sleeping pills. While this is carefully foreshadowed throughout the story, Maude's suicide comes off as utterly arbitrary and pointless. In an earlier scene she asserts that, past 80, one is just marking time, but Maude herself is still full of energy, completely mobile and in perfect health for a woman her age. Her suicide comes off as a complete rejection of the lust for life she's been trying to pass on to Harold. And, intended or not, Maude's endless homilies and cheerful pushiness move her vaguely into the realm of the annoying eccentric senior that just wants to hear themselves talk.
The then-in-vogue antiestablishment tone is wildly inconsistent. An encounter with a grumpy motorcycle cop (Tom Skerritt, amusingly billed as "M. Borman") is genuinely funny, but Harold's adventures with career military uncle Charles Tyner were trite and its humor forced even in 1972. Cat Stevens's lovely music throughout helps even out the tone and softens the blow of sequences that don't play, and they're in synch with Ashby's excellent cutting of the film, which is never boring and always visually interesting.
Video & Audio
A "Paramount Presents" release, this new Blu-ray of Harold and Maude, in 1.85:1 widescreen, gorgeously captures the subtleties of the cinematography. I'd never thought much of the film in this regard, but the Blu-ray really captures a visual beauty to the film only hinted at even in 35mm theatrical prints. The audio, remixed for Dolby TrueHD 5.1, is also something of a revelation. Originally mono, this new mix doesn't add much in the way of directional dialogue or sound effects, but does wonders to enhance Cat Stevens's music. A French mono track is also included, along with optional subtitles in English, French, and German on this region-free disc.
Supplements include a short featurette, "Yusef/Cat Stevens on Harold and Maude," along with an audio commentary track with admirers Larry Karaszewski and Cameron Crowe. Two different trailers are also offered.
To my mind, Harold and Maude doesn't hold up to a lot of scrutiny nor has it aged as well as other ‘70s cult titles. There's still an awful lot to admire about the film, but it's also a real mishmash of good and bad ideas. So if you want to buy it, buy it. And if you want to skip it, skip it. Otherwise, Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.