Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Harold and Maude

Directed by Hal Ashby and written by Colin Higgins, Harold and Maude is the story of a 20-year old death-obsessed young man who meets a 79-year old lively woman as they forge a unique relationship. The film is an exploration into love as a young man deals with his own posh surroundings as he falls for this old woman who has lived a full life. Starring Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, and Vivian Pickles. Harold and Maude is a joyful and heartwarming film from Hal Ashby.

Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is a 20-year old rich kid with an obsession for death as he tries to create fake suicides and drives a hearse much to the chagrin of his mother (Vivian Pickles). Harold also attends funerals for fun where he notices an upbeat and lively 79-year old woman named Maude (Ruth Gordon) attending these funerals and do all sorts of things like stealing cars and such. Harold’s mother decides that Harold should get married as she tries to get different women to meet Harold where the results have Harold do all sorts of strange things. Harold spends a lot of time with Maude as he is amazed by her energy and enthusiasm as she helps Harold out with his issues while having him to learn how to play the banjo. When Harold tells his mother his intentions to marry Maude, all sorts of trouble occur as everyone in Harold’s family wonder about this strange relationship.

The film is essentially an unconventional love story between a 20-year old young man with an obsession for death and a very lively 79-year old woman who lives a very bohemian lifestyle. It’s a strange premise for a love story but what makes it work is the fact that these two people are very unique individuals who like to attend funerals for people they don’t know and do all sorts of strange things. For Harold, it’s to rebel against his mother by staging fake suicides and drive a hearse as a way to get her attention. Particularly as he doesn’t feel like his mother really cares about what he wants rather what she thinks he should do with his life. In Maude, Harold finds someone to connect with as she is someone who has lived a long life as well as presenting something that could give Harold meaning in his life.

Colin Higgins’ screenplay isn’t just a film about these people trying to defy the conventions of the world but also try to live their life without compromise and be happy. For the young Harold, he always has to answer to his mother, his psychiatrist, and his one-armed uncle who is a general in the army. Harold’s mother isn’t a complete heartless woman but someone who really doesn’t understand her son at all. In Maude, Harold can find someone to talk to as she is this very vivacious woman who is very eccentric in terms of what she does as well as the fact that she’s lived a very long life and with a very unique point of view on things. Higgins’ script doesn’t have much of a traditional structure though the scenes where Harold meets his three dates do contain a lot of humor as the moments become more outrageous in what Harold tries to do.

Hal Ashby’s direction is very engaging for the way he presents the film as it’s set entirely near the Bay Area in California where it’s at the center of a world still coming out of the 1960s counterculture and its social movements. Ashby creates some amazing compositions and wide shots to display this world that is filled with imagery that has references to death. Some of which includes this large shot of a cemetery where Harold and Maude are just walking around or more intimate shots at a funeral at a cemetery or in a church. Ashby creates something where death is quite prevalent to establish the mood that Harold is in as well as the fact that he drives a hearse and later a Jaguar that he re-modeled into a hearse.

Things get much looser as the film progresses where Harold starts to become more lively as Ashby let things play out more naturally including the humor. The humor is a key part of the film that makes it so interesting from the scenes where Harold creates these elaborate suicide attempts. The way Ashby frames them are very interesting as it indicates not just how outrageous his attempts are but also how inattentive his mother is. Towards the end of the film where Harold and Maude become a couple and the people in Harold’s life are very baffled by this but it is followed by a very poignant ending that would eventually have Harold make a big decision with his life. Overall, Ashby creates a truly splendid and majestic film about love and life.

Cinematographer John Alonzo does lovely work with the film‘s colorful cinematography from the lush look of the locations to the low-key lighting schemes for some of the interiors including the opening scene of the film. Editors William A. Sawyer and Edward Warschilka do great work with the editing to play up with the rhythm of the humor as well as some nice montages to exude the feel-good vibe of the film as well as some of its drama. Production designer Michael Haller does wonderful work with the look of the posh home Harold lives as well as the more bohemian world that Maude lives in.

Costume designer William Theiss does nice work with the costumes from the suits that Harold wears to the more stylish clothing of Maude and Harold‘s mother. The sound work of William Randall is terrific for the atmosphere it creates in some scenes such as the carnival that Harold and Maude go to as well as the junkyard where they have a picnic. The film’s soundtrack largely consists of music by Cat Stevens that plays to not just Harold’s state of mind but also the joy he later feels with Maude as it features an array of great songs like Don’t Be Shy, If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out, Trouble, and several others as the soundtrack also includes a few classical pieces as it’s a very outstanding soundtrack.

The casting by Anne Brebner is brilliant for the ensemble that is created as it features some notable small roles from Tom Skerritt as a motorcycle cop, Eric Christmas as a baffled priest, G. Wood as Harold’s psychiatrist, Cyril Cusack as a sculptor friend of Maude’s, and Charles Tyner as Harold’s one-armed uncle General Victor Ball who is truly a hoot to watch. In the roles of the three women Harold’s mother offers to Harold, Candy Gulf and Shari Summers are very good as the first two dates who are freaked out by Harold’s antics while Ellen Geer is superb as the third date who does her own take on death. Vivian Pickles is great as Harold’s mother who doesn’t really understand her son as Pickles has some funny moments that showcases the sense of neglect she has for her son.

Finally there’s the duo of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in their respective roles as Harold and Maude. Cort brings a very captivating performance as a young man lost in the world as he is unable to find some kind of happiness as he finds himself drawn to death as a way to deal with his mother’s lack of affection towards him. Gordon brings a lot of excitement to her role as Maude as this woman who has the energy of someone in her 20 or 30s as she is so full of life and is also very charming in the way she deals with situations. Cort and Gordon are the heart and souls of the film as they definitely have great chemistry together and bring a lot to the film that makes it so much fun to watch.

The 2012 Region 1 DVD/Blu-Ray release from the Criterion Collection presents the film in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio with 5.1 Surround Sound in optional stereo and mono. With a new pristine transfer, the film looks as gorgeous than ever as it is supported by amazing packaging and menus that add to the film’s quirky tone.

The first special feature is a commentary track on the film from Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill. Through separate commentaries, the two do discuss the film and its importance to 1970s American cinema. Dawson discusses a lot about Ashby’s work and how this film would be a springboard for the films he would do throughout the 70s as it all explored men living in a world where they’re na├»ve and out of sorts with things. Dawson also reveals about Ashby’s relationship with director Norman Jewison who Ashby had worked for as his editor for a few years and Jewison was his mentor. Mulvehill reveals a lot about the production as well as the film’s writer/producer Colin Higgins who wanted to direct the film but Paramount wasn’t sure as Ashby was called in to direct. Ashby was the reason Higgins became a producer for the film that Higgins can see things.

Mulvehill revealed that Ashby originally wanted Elton John to play the role of Harold as well as do the music but John wasn’t interested as Ashby later went for Bud Cort. Mulvehill reveals that the producers wanted a European actress to play Maude but ended up going with Ruth Gordon who ended up being the right person for the role though she never knew how to drive a car. Mulvehill also expresses how disappointed the film was received upon its release and wondered where were the people who ended up liking the movie as he felt he needed them so it would’ve done well in the box office. The overall commentary tracks are informative but also quite entertaining for what is revealed.

The next two special features are two 13-minute audio excerpts from American Film Institute seminars from Hal Ashby and screenwriter/producer Colin Higgins that features several photographs on set and such to accompany the audio. Ashby’s audio excerpt from January of 1972 where Ashby talks about his early career into the world of film and the film itself as he discusses about his approach to filmmaking, working with actors, and the importance of collaborators. Ashby also talks about the use of Cat Stevens’ music as well as into why it didn’t do well initially when it first came out. Higgins’ audio piece from January of 1979 has the writer talking about the creation of the story and how it got sold. He also reveals a lot about the production and the subsequent play versions of the film that he was involved in as he thinks it’s one of his best works.

The 11-minute interview with Yusuf/Cat Stevens has the famed singer-songwriter discussing about his background in music and the intentions he had as a singer-songwriter during the 1970s. Yusuf also reveals how he got involved in the film as he read the script and decided to have some of his songs used though he had reservations at first. The two songs he recorded in Don’t Be Shy and If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out were actually demos of songs he had hoped to properly recorded but the demos were used for the film as admitted to be upset about it at first. It’s a very engaging interview to see the man formerly known as Cat Stevens discuss his music and the film as he always felt his music should be in more films.

The DVD set also includes a booklet that features a lot of text material that relates to the film. The first is an essay from film critic Matt Zoller Seitz entitled Life and How to Live It where Seitz discusses about the film’s influence on the works of filmmakers like Wes Anderson and the early films of Paul Thomas Anderson as well as the fact that the film imbued a lot of the 60s idealism into the film was seemingly lost in the early 70s. Seitz also reveals what made the film so different from the other films of the New Hollywood era that was emerging and how it would fit into many of the films that Hal Ashby would make in the 1970s from The Landlord to Being There.

The next piece text is a 1971 New York Times article called A Boy of Twenty and a Woman of Eighty by Leticia Kent about actress Ruth Gordon who talks about her acting career as well as her unique take on life where she believes age is just a number as it’s definitely a great read to a woman who is truly full of life. The next piece of text is a 1997 conversation between actor Bud Cort, cinematographer John Alonzo, and James Rogers of the Colin Higgins Trust where Cort and Alonzo talk about their memories of the films as well as various tidbits about Ruth Gordon and Hal Ashby as it’s definitely a fun conversation to read.

The last piece of text in the booklet is an excerpt of a 2001 interview with executive producer Mildred Lewis, her husband Edward, and their daughter Susan about screenwriter Colin Higgins for a documentary about Higgins. Lewis and her family talk about how they met Higgins and how his script got into her hands where Edward Lewis took the script to the then-heads of Paramount in Robert Evans and Peter Bart who were intrigued by the script and had it green-lit. It’s a fun, short little piece that explores a lot about the late Higgins who would helm such films as Foul Play, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and 9 to 5.

Harold and Maude is a sensational film from Hal Ashby that features a superb script by Colin Higgins and exhilarating performances from Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. Along with a spectacular music soundtrack from Cat Stevens, the film is definitely one of the great romantic films of the genre as well as a film that isn’t afraid to be quirky and off-the-wall. In the end, Harold and Maude is a triumphant film from Hal Ashby.

Hal Ashby Films: The Landlord - The Last Detail - Shampoo - Bound for Glory - Coming Home - Being There - Second-Hand Hearts - (Lookin’ to Get Out) - (Let’s Spend the Night Together) - (Solo Trans) - (The Slugger’s Wife) - 8 Million Ways to Die

© thevoid99 2012


Anonymous said...

Good review Steve. Not one of my favorite indies of all-time, like so many other people say, but it's still sweet, weird, and pretty touching.

David said...

I love those extended DVD reviews, man, I got it myself but didn't watch the extras, interesting to know that Elton John was gonna play Harold. I fell in love with Ruth Gordon and Cat Stevens immediately after seeing this film.

thevoid99 said...

@Dan-It's a film that gets better with each viewing and it's truly magical.

@David-It's one of the DVDs I got for my B-day and I just needed to have this. It's truly one of the great films of the 70s.