Believe it or not, there was a time when people associated with the film industry could simply phone stars up and chat. Knowing that my business partner loved Hal Ashby’s dark romantic satire ‘Harold & Maude’, I rang the Atheneum Hotel, where the industry used to put all of its stars, and spoke to Bud Cort, who was shooting in London. I asked him to a party. Cort happily turned up and presented my partner with a copy of the film. As a result, they remained friends for years. Cort had learned his comic timing from his extraordinary friendship with Groucho Marx, in the same way that George Cole had been mentored by Alistair Sim.
Looking at the 1971 film with fresh eyes now, ‘Harold & Maude’ seems downright subversive.
‘Would you like some liquorice?’ asks concentration camp survivor Maude, picking Harold up at a funeral where neither of them knew the deceased.
‘Do you stage these suicides for your mother’s benefit?’ asks Harold’s psychiatrist. ‘No,’ Harold replies softly and sardonically. ‘I would not say ‘benefit’.’
For a while ‘Harold and Maude’ was a true cult favourite, endlessly screened in rep cinemas. Harold (Cort) is a rich, spoilt, suicide-staging teenager. Maude (Ruth Gordon) is a poor, life-affirming 79 year-old. They fall in love and start sleeping together, to the horror of Harold’s society mother (Vivian Pickles), who arranges ghastly dates for her son which he continually sabotages. The beautiful Cat Stevens soundtrack became the most requested score of all time, but has never been released.
And yet the film has more or less vanished from collective recall. Hardly anyone I know has seen it. Ashby’s movie came out at a time of great upheaval in the US, and reflects this. Recruited by his militaristic uncle, Harold outgrosses the one-armed officer with descriptions that effectively amount to excerpts from Lt. William Calley’s testimony after the Me Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Maude’s cutesy folk-wisdom is repeatedly undercut by her behaviour – she constantly steals and ignores the law, sauntering on her own way through life, determined to lead a young boy astray. The skies are rain-threatening throughout, the images grainy and realistic, the writing, based on Colin Higgins’ wonderful book, is black as hell.
Writing and direction perfectly match. Harold’s mother fills in a dating questionnaire for him, slowly adding her own opinions until they eclipse his. Meanwhile, in the background, Harold is aiming a pistol at her, then at himself.
As a funeral empties out, it unfortunately coincides with a passing parade.
One of Harold’s dates waits for him to appear while we see that he’s busy setting fire to himself.
It’s common knowledge that Wes Anderson developed his style from Hal Ashby films – there’s a distancing effect at work, with humans observed from the middle ground. And there’s always something happening in the back of the scene.
Of course there are heavy-handed moments and satirical jabs that don’t work, but it was a low budget film about a taboo subject, and still offers myriad treats.