Happy Birthday Bud Cort. Thanks for making last year so memorable by showing up with that sunflower.
When viewed on the big screen, Harold and Maude always makes for a memorable evening. Always. On a special night last year, I saw it at the Academy with guests Jon Voight, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Diablo Cody, Peter Bart, Cameron Crowe and Haskell Wexler presenting. Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) performed live, returning after a 30 year absence from the U.S. stage. Apatow admitted to breaking into tears while Cat Stevens sang, Jon Voight talked amiably with Yusuf Islam, and when the picture ended, a sunflower popped from behind the curtains -- out walked a nattily attired, notably touched Bud Cort. That same day, both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson tragically died, and after the movie I dined at Jerry's Deli, witnessing the wailing Michael Jackson mourners outside of the UCLA Medical Center. I'm always filled with wistful, complicated feelings post Harold and Maude (happy, sad, inspired, but with a little ennui, occupied by bittersweet memories of childhood) but that night, I felt like I was living out my own Richard Kelly movie. Mad, wild world indeed.
Some films become such a cult phenomenon that, through time, increased popularity and critical appreciation, you wonder if they should be categorized as bona fide cult films anymore. If they, for instance, make AFI's top 100 greatest comedies, ranked in between My Man Godfrey and Manhattan, do they lose their (pardon the term) quirky appeal? When it comes to Hal Ashby's charming, funny, poignant, death-obsessed-yet-life-affirming Harold and Maude (written by Colin Higgins), the answer is no, gloriously no. The cult still stands.
The next time the picture plays your local revival house, go see for yourself. The beloved movie still draws its own special audience, not an obvious one, not one dressed in costumes or yelling lines back at the screen, but a crowd of fans carrying a personal association with the picture. I once watched the movie in Portland, Ore., sitting next to a guy who cried his eyes out and cheered when Harold breaks the fourth wall (perhaps one of the most satisfying camera addressing moments in all of cinema). When the picture was over, I saw the broken up fella climb into his car -- a dog-catching truck. Though I'll see it solo, many bring friends, dates, neighbors, whomever, partially to watch a unique movie, partially to show a side of oneself, and partially to test a friend or potential boyfriend/girlfriend (in my case anyway). It's hard not to think that if someone close to you doesn't like Harold and Maude, then they might not like you.
When I first wrote about the movie, writer Max Allan Collins, who penned the excellent, powerful, noir soaked Road to Perdition (among other accomplishments) shared this lovely, poignant story with me:
"In the mid-'70s, when I was just starting out as a writer, I taught part time at a community college. For several semesters my job was to teach cops in Davenport, Iowa -- I taught with my back to the gun range and all those uniforms sitting in front of me. One class was in the morning, the other in the evening, and rather than commute back to Muscatine thirty miles away, I would stay in Davenport and go to a movie. HAROLD AND MAUDE was playing in a long run, and I saw it once a week for maybe nine months. Never got tired of it. The experience of haunting a movie theater to see a beloved film that may disappear at any moment is, I'm afraid, lost in the age of home video."
That is what I'm talking about. And I bet at least one of those cops saw the picture and loved it too. But a lot of people didn't appreciate the movie when it was first released. Viewers were weirded out, many critics didn't like it, and the studio was, no doubt, frightful of a May-December romance involving not just an older woman but an old older woman. And then there are those modern audiences that find it all so corny, hippie dippy hokum about flowers and peace and living life to the fullest. I never understand this. Since Ashby is such a sincere filmmaker, I can't read one false sentiment in one frame of this movie (and, honestly, when I think of Ashby's untimely death -- why not try to live life to its fullest?). Also, so many of the picture's moving moments aren't what is said, but what is filmed: Harold drinking an Orange Crush in a car wash, Harold waiting nervously in an emergency room, Maude with that yellow umbrella, Harold sticking his head out of the converted hearse window and letting the wind run through his hair. Ashby sees the beauty in the young, awkward and quiet, and the old, affirmative and loud, and it is, again, just so beautiful.
I first took in my shyer Holden Caulfield-esque boyfriend Bud Cort as Harold, a wealthy, death-fixated 20-year-old who haunts funerals, on VHS as a girl. I watched it so many times that I didn’t bother to return the video (sorry American Family Video). Having once poured a gruesome amount of ketchup all over myself, and laid out on the living room floor for an hour, “dead,” while my mother stepped over me to grab the vacuum cleaner, I could relate (I was five). I also pulled the Christmas tree on myself one year, after making my mother an alleged toy boat out of tampons and a paper towel roll (I was six; cut me some slack; and the presents were tossed -- I was upset). So, when Harold converts his nifty little sports car into a hearse and taxes his droll mother (Vivian Pickles) with such fantastic, elaborately staged fake suicide attempts, I was supremely impressed.
And I adored Ruth Gordon as Maude, the 79-year-old free spirit who, like an elder screwball heroine, drives any car she sees, saves sick trees and, most importantly, believes in living. I firmly believe in trying out your supposed opposite not only because (as they say) "opposites attract," but because you never know if you've actually found your twin. Harold and Maude have something in common (a death fixation), but it's deeper, more complicated. When they venture past funerals and both revel in life, their differences complement one another and, in a unique way, mirror each other. The time is now, especially when one will soon end up cold, dead on a slab. So, fall in love. Fall in love hard and fall in love fast and fall in love with the wrong person. If they love you back, it's always worth it. Down with the consternation of society!
And that could have been that, a picture created merely to shake viewers up with a coupling one never sees in pictures, much less in real life. But that soulful humanist Ashby (who on certain days, weeks, months, is one of my favorite filmmakers with his other perfect movies like The Landlord, The Last Detail, Coming Home, Shampoo and Being There) showed that he had more on his mind by crafting a small masterpiece that blends black comedy with genuine emotion without feeling cloying. And it's all so wonderfully acted, exquisitely filmed, brilliantly framed and edited (Wes Anderson had to have studied this movie) and beautifully scored (with now classic songs written and performed by Cat Stevens), that, no matter how many times I see it, I cannot resist. Yes it's about dying, but it's one of the sweetest, most life-affirming movies you'll ever see about death.
Below is one of cinema's most beautiful drives. If you haven't seen the movie, don't watch, but surely you know the end...