Original Harold and Maude Reviews and Other Stuff

Interested in what Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon thought about Harold and Maude? Want to read the reviews that Harold and Maude got when it was released? Below are Vincent Canby's review (which so irritated Ruth Gordon that she published a rejoinder to Canby -- also below), the Variety review (also pretty harsh), and excerpts from the Film Quarterly review by Michael Shedlin (gushing -- plus lots of good stuff about the filming of the movie). I follow up with some quotes from Ruth Gordon's autobiography, My Side, and an April 2001 Vanity Fair interview of Bud Cort (note what Bud says about his relationship with Groucho Marx).

Harold Ashby's Comedy Opens at the Coronet

By Vincent Canby

Harold is 20, very rich and very suicidal. Maude is 79-3/4, very poor and so full of a sympathetic life-force that she grieves for a small tree, suffocating in the city's pollution. Harold and Maude meet at one of the anonymous funerals they like to attend, fall in love while transplanting the tree, and marry on the even of Maude's birthday.

Even if this idea strikes you as immensely comic, you might well want to miss Hal Ashby's "Harold and Maude," a comedy that pretends to be as thoroughly in favor of life as "You Can't Take It With You," whereas it's quite as much about death as it appears to be.

Like Harold, the movie is fascinated by the mechanics of simulated suicide -- by hanging, by slashed wrists and throat, by a shot in the head, by drowning, by harakari and, most hilariously, by immolation. Harold enacts them all, not really to kill himself (gulp, guffaw) but to get a rise out of his mother. When Mrs. Chasen comes from Harold dangling by the neck from a chandelier, her first reaction is to say something on the order of "Now, Harold, I suppose you think that's funny."

Because Vivian Pickles is an actress who is particularly gifted at exaggerating understatements, many of Mrs. Chasen's reactions to Harold's bleak pranks are as funny as they are meant to be. There are, indeed, some other funny things in "Harold and Maude" (an airy confrontation between Maude and the cop who stops her for speeding in a stolen truck), but they are all terribly incidental to the movie's main concern, which is apparently that there is a time to live and a time to die (when you reach 80).

As Harold and Maude, Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon are supposed to appear magnificently mismatched for the purposes of the comedy. They are mismatched, at least visually. Mr. Cort's baby face and teen-age build look grotesque alongside Miss Gordon't tiny, weazened frame. Yet, as performers, they both are so aggressive, so creepy and off-putting, that Harold and Maude are obviously made for each other, a point the movie itself refuses to recognize with a twist ending that betrays, I think its life-affirming pretensions. These reach an embarrassed low when Miss Gordon sits down at the piano, in the railroad car where she makes her home, and sings a rousing chorus of a song that starts: "Gimme an 'l'/Gimme an 'i'/a 'v' and an 'e'/l-i-v-e/Live!" It's even worse than the scene in which Harold sets fire to himself by the swimming pool.

The movie opened yesterday at the Coronet.

Harold and Maude [Variety's Review; 12/7/71]

Tasteless offbeat comedy with Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort. Uncertain b.o. outlook.

"Harold and Maude" has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage. Ruth Gordon heads the cast as an offensive eccentric who becomes a beacon in the life of a self-destructive rich boy, played by Bud Cort. Together they attend funerals and indulge in specious philosophizing. Colin Higgins wrote it and produced with Charles B. Mulvehill, who replaced original producer Howard Jaffe. Mildred Lewis was executive producer. Director Hal Ashby's second feature is marked by a few good gags, but marred by a greater preponderance of sophomoric, overdone and mocking humor supposedly of the type that appeals to younger audiences. It's all dubious fun for the (Addams) family at Christmastide.

Miss Gordon's "Harold And Maude" marks the second film in a row in the gallows slapstick genre. Cort does well as the spoiled neurotic whose repeated suicide attempts barely ruffle the feathers of mother Vivian Pickles, whose urbane performance is outstanding. She solicits a computer dating service to provide three potential brides; Shari Summers and Judy Engles are frightened off by Cort's bizarre doings, but Ellen Geer is delightful as one who goes him one better. Cyril Cusack has a bit as an ice sculptor, while Charles tyner and his windup artificial arm provide sure-fire laugh material.

Since the hanging suicide is not real, nor the self-immolation, nor the removal of a hand by a meat cleaver, the film is of course rated GP for the domestic market. One thing that can be said about Ashby -- he began the film in a gross and macabre manner, and never once deviates from the concept. That's style for you, and certainly a definite change of pace from the promise of "The Landlord."

Cat Stevens wrote and sang some songs, and the technical credits are professional.

HAROLD AND MAUDE [Film Quarterly, Fall 1972]

Harold and Maude is one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in years. It is a love story, a sentimental black comedy, a ludicrous tear-jerker, a grisly social satire.

* * *
Harold and Maude is a film about freedom. The film makers have audaciously attempted to suggest the possibilities for achieving personal autonomy in modern society. While neither "dialectical" nor militant," Harold and Maude is in many ways a political film, and speaks directly and urgently to the audience through the character of Maude and through the comprehensive ridiculing of oppressive social elements. Maude philosophizes continuously about living life to the fullest, about rebellion and noncomformity, about individualism and spontaneity. Her speeches are in fact a remarkable compendium of libertarian attitudes, ranging from antistatism down to the most personal and immediate independence. That Maude can get away with delivering lofty messages and still remain "in character" is a triumph for the makers of this film. They have designed a character who is both a sympathetic human figure and a mouthpiece for precise cultural criticism. Maude's social and private radicalism is so integral to her personality that it arouses none of the discomfort that is commonly experienced when a movie character expounds about "life."

Potential didacticism is offset by outrageous absurdity.

* * *

What is the message of Harold and Maude? Rid yourself of all authorities, give up the ideas of power and status and private ownership, get in touch with your body: create, rejoice in the moment, forget your obsession with death. These points in Harold and Maude are explicitly stated and explicitly visualized. Maude actually says that we should liberate ourselves from private property and she "borrows" vehicles from various authorities to remind them that ownership is transient. She says, "What's the use of nations and borders and patriotism?" She tells a policeman that she doesn't believe in licenses--and promptly steals his motorcycle. When Harold says he's going to be drafted, her immediate reaction is "Well, don't go." Throughout the film, Maude replaces respect for laws with allegiance to her desires and her conscience. She dismisses conventional behavior and "aims above morality" toward a personal, independent ethic of openness, spontaneity, and generosity. Ultimately, Maude is even able to aim above fate, and manipulate the grim ferryman to suit her own wishes.

In August 1972, I spoke with the creators of Harold and Maude. Colin Higgins, 31, author of the original screenplay, made two short films at UCLA, Retreat and Opus 1, which are included in the Genesis program, and has written an unproduced screenplay for a lavish version of The Canterbury Tales. Originally, Harold and Maude was to be a half-hour Master's thesis film, but he decided instead to write a feature-length script, which was sold quickly to Paramount.

"I was supposed to be the director, and part of the deal was that I would do a test which they would approve. So I made the test, with a different cast but with a professional group of people. We shot it on the stages at Columbia for two days: three scenes, $7,500. They saw the test and they decided that they would prefer another director . . . I don't think they really wanted me to direct the film in the first place. I was going to make a half-million dollar film and they wanted to make a million-and-a-half dollar film. They didn't think I could handle it. The test itself isn't that bad, but I should have spent the two days doing one scene instead of three. I wanted to show them how quick I was . . ."

The studio brought in Hal Ashby, who had directed The Landlord, and things were smoothed out. Higgins says that Maude's philosophizing was more extensive in his original script (and in his sub-sequent novelization, which is being published all over the world), but that he is happy with Ashby's final product, which he described as "pared to the bone."

The character of the ice sculptor (played by Cyril Cusack), who appeared briefly and gratuitously in the released version, was apparently added to the script because the studio felt that the movie would be too short. (Ashby: "It was filler.") In the sequences that were shot, Cusack ploddingly chipped away at huge blocks of ice. By the end of the day, his work would always melt. Higgins's intention was "a pictorialization of existential philosophy; like Camus' Sisyphus . . . a prevelant twentieth-century style -- an individual doing one thing endlessly and without hope," to be contrasted with Maude, who is full of variety and innovation. Most of the elaboration of the character was cut.

Also cut was a sequence between Harold and his mother. "it opened up with a shot of a large, silver-plated serving dish. A hand comes in and removes the cover and there, on a little bed of parsely, is Harold's head. Two hands come into the frame and pick up the head, and we move back and there's Harold holding his head and looking at it. He sort of peels off the latex blood and walks over to his bedroom chair where a headless dummy sits. He puts the head on the dummy, but the head really isn't sitting right, and he goes into the closet to find something.

"Swing around to the door and his mother enters in an evening gown. She says, 'Now listen up Harold. Your computer date will be arriving and it would be nice if . . .' and so forth. Cut to the closet and Harold is just sitting there listening to her talk to this dummy in the chair. And then she says, 'Well, I've got to go to this ballet with the Fergusons . . .' and she turns a little. 'You're looking a little pale, Harold. You try to get a good night's rest . . .' and she leaves."

"We're all Harold, and we all want to be Maude. We're all repressed and trying to be free, to be ourselves, to be vitally interested in living, to be everything we want . . ."

* * *

Harold and Maude was made for a million-and-a-half in early 1971, shot entirely on location around the San Francisco Peninsula. It is a film of brilliant surfaces. Detail is impeccable but unemphasized. So-called plot eccentricities are acceptable because we are watching a fantasy of essences -- love, freedom, death. Ashby indulges in none of the technical flourishes that often pass for "style" -- no long tracking shots or far-out angles or whiz-bang cutting. His method is straight-forward and brisk, and his camera techniques do not detract from the human action. "I try to mold the style to suit the particular project." He is an expert film-maker and he has succeeded wonderfully.

"Inevitably, "I ran into trouble with Paramount. We had a scene when Harold and Maude started to make love: their kissing becomes more passionate, and they lie back on the bed. We didn't actually have a scene of them making love, but I wish I'd shot it. Now all we have is the shot of them together in bed in the morning, with Maude asleep. Paramount said it would be too tough for people. I said, 'That's sort of what the whole movie is about, a boy falling in love with an old woman; the sexual aspect doesn't have to be distasteful.' They said it would turn everybody off. I was crazy about the footage. But it was a losing battle."



My Side is Ruth Gordon's autobiography. It was published in 1986 by her husbandGarson Kanin, a year after her death in 1985. Here are some exerpts from the book relating to Harold and Maude, from pp. 383-418.

"Think it over and learn not to.

Did I learn not to from that wrong decision, that New York to London phone call? Something I said yes to and meant yes was Harold and Maude. Ever have a stretch when everything goes right? When you can't make a mistake? That was me, except for the Los Angeles earthquake and Vincent Canby's New York Times review. It began when Garson and Carl Klavik and I flew to San Francisco to help me be Maude. What a start to the new year! A movie I loved, my husband I love moves his work to Nob Hill to live at the Huntington Hotel, where everyone makes life easier, and with us Carl Klavik, who knows how to do everything.

* * *
Location? One day Redwood City, one day Oyster Point, Half Moon Bay, Oakland, Palo Alto, Soldiers Cemetery in Daly City, the daisy fields past South San Francisco, Cabot, Cabot and Forbes' Business Park. We were there.

* * *
When Colin Higgins wrote "Page 1, Scene 1" on a film script, what an upheaval he would cause. People left home for San Francisco, rented Wennebagos, trucks, station wagons, cinemobiles, a stretchout, a four-doored LTD, and director Hal Ashby bought a Ferrari. Colin's script said Los Angeles, but Hal Ashby thought everybody'd seen a lot of pictures of Los Angeles...He said a lot of other things. He said maybe Massachusetts, maybe some other place, then hit on San Francisco. He said Maude should live in an old Pullman car instead of the apartment the script said, that Harold should drive a hearse of his own instead of souped-up cars, that he didn't know if he wanted *me*, he'd look around.

* * *
[The Script] was sensational and so was the part. "Read it," I said to Garson. "Nobody could play it but me! It's a terrific part, she's fantastic, big acting scenes, deep and moving, then funny, and I sing a song and dance. Talk about vitality, it leaps off the page, and she's eighty ! Who could play it but me?

* * *
...Then Hal came out. Very nice, a soother. He was that way right through all those wet damp thirteen weeks. In and out of rainy cemeteries, lost in the fog, looking for Half Moon Bay, sitting around on wet daisy plants, making motorcycle shots at Dumbarton Bridge, when the stunt boy went over the rail, motorcycle and all, and the ambulance took him to Peninsula Hospital, where later we shot Maude's last scene, and all through everything he was soothing.

* * *
Certainty is not certitude,' reminded Justice Frankfurter. . . . All the thirteen weeks we shot the film everybody was certain Harold and Maude was wonderful. When did certitude surface? Was it the New York Times giving us a bad review? I don't believe it. I wrote a letter.

244 Ladera Drive
Beverly Hills
California 90210
22 December 1971

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-sex years ago today. I got a good review in the Demember 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. They said you saw it in a screening room with a dozen other critics. I you could have seen it with an audience. Maybe you wouldn't have liked it then, but then I'd feel it you saw it the way it was meant to be seen. Shoulder to shoulder with people is how a play or film is written to be seen and I wish you'd seen it that way. Maybe you think this is about as important as what Lillian Lorraine said was wrong with her life when the lady reporter came to interview her. Lillian Lorraine was old and broke and living up Broadway at 96th. Some paper sent the lady interviewer up to do a piece. 'What do you think happened, Miss Lorraine? Ziegfeld said you were the greatest beauty he ever had in the Follies. What went wrong?'

'He was right. And he was crazy about me. He had me in a tower suite at the Hotel Ansonia and he and his wife lived in the tower suite above. And I cheated on him, like he cheated on Billie Burke. I had a whirl! I blew a lot of everybody's money, I got loaded, I was on the stuff, I got the syphilis, I tore around, stopped at nothing, if I wanted to do it I did it and didn't give a damn. I got knocked up, I had abortions, I broke up homes, I gave fellers the clap. So that's what happened.'

'Well, Miss Lorraine,' gasped the lady reporter, 'if you had it to do over would you do anything different?' 'Yes,' said Lillian Lorraine. 'I never shoulda cut my hair.'

Well, seeing Harold and Maude in a projection room may strike you as no more relevant than she shouldn't have cut her hair. Forgive the letter. Maybe it's all right to do if you only do it every fifty-six years.

Ruth Gordon

* * *
Harold and Maude for the next five years would be shown in New York, Boston, Dayton, Paris, Minneapolis, Edgartown, you name it; people would come up to me and say they saw it two times, nine times, thirty times, and when last heard from Doug Strand of St. Paul, 'two hundred and one.'

* * *
There's a lot to think of, making the first shot of a movie. It isn't easy and doesn't get easier when you don't know how to drive a car and are driving. Good that Maude was a crazy driver.

* * *
Scene 70 was the first shot in Redwood City; tonight it was a rap with Scene 78. In between, all Colin Higgins' scenes got shot, everybody got a cold but me, Cathie Blondell touched up my hair at the Holiday Inn, Santa Cruz, Hal bought the black Ferrari [she means Jaguar! -- ed], the stunt man went over the fence and into Peninsula Hospital, Bud had to cry without letting his nose run, Garson and I lived thirteen weeks on Nob Hill, went to New York for Avedon to take my picture for Vogue, and came back to Beverly Hills for the earthquake!

'It's a wrap. As soon as you can make it, wrap-up party is at Sy Silver's [note: this is the late Steve Silver, creator of San Francisco's Beach Blanket Babylon - ed] family's house, 2221 Presidio Parkwaay. See you there,' announced assistant Bob Enrietto. Everybody looked dazed. It was over A way of life was over. The breakup.

At the Winnebago, Bud knocked. 'Can I come in?'
'Come in.'
'Here, Ruth.' Bud put a square package in my hand.
'I love you. See you at the party.'

He was gone. The blue leather box from Shreve's in San Francisco opened, on a white satin cushion was a violet pansy with a diamond dewdrop set on a petal. I pinned it on my sweater.

Sy's party looked as though he's planned it for thirteen weeks! As we went in, Carl in a Santa Claus suit scattered snow over us, reminder of our chilly schedule when we were mostly cold for three months. The house was strung with icicles., snowbanks in every corner, wet slickers and umbrellas here and there. A sign said, 'Over here for your ginger pie and oat straw tea.' What Maude served Harold the first time he paid a call. 'Organic hashish,' said another sign. A hookah puffed smoke like Maude's. A tape played Cat Stevens' song that we'd just done for the closing shot. Everybody and wife or husband or girl or feller showed up.

'Look,' I said to Bud, and pointed to my beautiful flower with the diamond dewdrop pinned on my sweater.
'You know what it's supposed to be?'
'A daisy.'
'They didn't have daisies. I knew you'd know.'
'I did.'
'Did you read what it says?'
'The card?'
'The pin.'
I took it off. 'Where?'
'There.' He pointed to the back.
Why put on glasses at such a moment? Garson understood. 'Read it, Bud,' said Garson.
'I love you, Maude. Harold.'

Too bad the New York Times didn't love Maude or Harold or Harold and Maude. At the Coronet or the Baronet it opened and closed. The first time; then it got its second chance. Does everything? Some get it before others, but I bet if we hang around long enough we all get it. For some it's a long, long wait."


Bud Cort was interviewed by George Wayne in the April 2001 issue of Vanity Fair. Here are some exerpts from the interview:

George Wayne: In 1971 you starred in what cineasts consider a masterpiece of moviemaking,Harold and Maude. You've called the film's success a blessing and a curse. Why?

Bud Cort: Because it's all anybody wants to talk about. I've made so many films and done so much theater since, and it's just one of those parts that's so identifiable that it's hard to lose that identity no matter what I do.

G.W. Why does it continue to resonate?

B.C. There are so many important life issues addressed in it. The right to love, the right to choose whom to love. There is the whole teen-angst thing.

G.W. You say that you and Ruth Gordon almost became the relationship you both portrayed in Harold and Maude.

B.C. During the making of the film, she was very standoffish. Then, the day my father died, the first call I got was from Ruth, saying 'Let me tell you about the day my father died.' And suddenly we became the characters pretty much that we were in the film. We really became friends the night my father died. Oddly enough, he died waiting for me to show up on This is Your Life , Ruth Gordon.

G.W. How did you end up living with Groucho Marx?

B.C. One day, through our mutual friend, Erin Fleming, I got invited to a party at Groucho's. I took a cab up there, and the second my fist connected with the door, there stood Groucho in a beret. Simultaneously we both gaspec, and he slammed the door in my face. When the door opened again, Groucho said 'I'm sorry, I thought you were Charles Manson.' [It was just after the murders.] Then it turned out we had the same psychiatrist, and he started dropping these ideas that I should live with Groucho.

G.W. Was Groucho in love with you?

I used to say he was my fairy godfather. He did love me, and I loved him. I'd sit on his bed in pajamas and watch his old films with him. It was like getting a Fulbright education in comedy.

G.C. What advice do you give to actors who gain fame at a young age?

B.C. I would say that if you're typecast, just do it Don't turn anything down.

G.W. Thank you, Bud Cort.

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