Harold and Maude (1971) opens with young Harold, played by Bud Cort, enacting one of his elaborately staged faux suicides, part of an ongoing, splendidly morbid art project for an audience of one: his mom. Okay, two if you count Harold himself, a Goth avant la lettre, with a pale, round face and a bowl cut that makes him look like he’s 12, though Cort was 20 at the time of filming. Harold hangs himself in the parlour, but his mom barely even notices. “Try to be a little more vivacious,” Mother suggests in withering tones, speaking in one of the film’s many puzzling Transatlantic accents. (It all takes place in the Bay Area.) Given the oppressive mother-son relationship and Harold’s shyness that hides a very, very dark streak, I find it hard to go back to the film for the first time in many years (the occasion being Criterion’s handsome new DVD/Blu-ray release) and not instantly think of Norman Bates. I must not be the only one to make the connection because many years later Cort would play a mentally disturbed parent-killer who inherits Norman’s property in the TV movie (and would-be series pilot) Bates Motel (1987).
If you don’t know this story already, Harold and Maude chronicles a love affair between Cort’s death-obsessed rich kid and a nearly octogenarian, wildly eccentric, always smiling, life-loving, funeral-frequenting Holocaust survivor who lives in a train and who’s also a car thief and drives like she wants to die spectacularly and take as many people with her as possible. That’s Maude. She’s played by Ruth Gordon, who was so truly, deeply frightening, as well as hilarious, in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), for which she got the Oscar, and it’s such a curious thing to see her behave so similarly in Harold and Maude and yet be so utterly endearing. Her ongoing barrage of platitudes, most of which are of the carpe diem, elder hippy variety, stuff about singing and flowers and so forth, can grate on your nerves a little, but if you surrender to the film’s vibe it’s hard not to see how Harold could fall in love with her. Harold’s big on death and Maude’s relative proximity to it is no doubt a key part of her allure. But she teaches him to live. It’s sweet.
Hal Ashby’s second feature received a half-assed release from Paramount and didn’t do good box office at all, but it did become one hell of a cult film. By the time it reached me a couple of decades later I was in my teens and it was presented to me by an older girlfriend with the reverence one reserves for a first listen to Dark Side of the Moon or the loss of one’s teeth. People feel pretty strongly about Harold and Maude. I feel kindly enough toward it. I understand the sentiment. I still shed a tear at the end. I think it works best on the young. It’s also pretty corny, very much of its time, very much a generation gap movie, simply trading the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” mandate for “Don’t trust anyone between 30 and 75.” The result of this sensibility is that every single one of the supporting characters is a one-dimensional, one-joke, rather tedious cartoon buffoon: the mom, the priest, the shrink, the one-armed uncle in the military. Other than the two leads the only presence in the film that has any soul at all is Cat Stevens, whose songs are lovingly woven into the film’s highly memorable soundtrack and are rarely too on the nose.
Okay, actually there’s one other exception: Tom Skerritt in his un-credited cameo as a motorbike cop who tries to take Maude in on a reckless driving charge. His character is a doofus too, and for some stupid reason his gun doesn’t even work, but at least he tries to make something of his two goofy scenes and doesn’t tremble or salivate when he talks. Tom Skerritt is awesome, in case you forgot. I think Tom Skerritt should get a special award for playing more men in uniform—see War Hunt (1962), M*A*S*H (1970), Fuzz (1972), The Dead Zone (1983), Top Gun, Space Camp (both 1986), Knight Moves (1992), Smoke Signals (1998), Tears of the Sun (2003), or his roles on shows like Combat (1962-67), Twelve O’Clock High (1964-67) or Picket Fences (1992-96), and that’s just stuff I can remember—and playing them well, than perhaps any other postwar actor in Hollywood.