Studio:The Criterion Collection Year: 1971 Cast: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles, Ellen Geer, Judy Engles, Shari Summers, G. Wood, Charles Tyner, Cyril Cusack, Eric Christmas, M. Borman Director: Hal Ashby Release Date: June 12, 2012 Rating: PG for (nothing objectionable) Run Time: 01h:31m:44s Genre(s): comedy, drama
"It's best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. If you apply that to life you're bound to live it fully." - Maude (Ruth Gordon)
Harold and Maude wears its distinctly offbeat look at life, love and death proudly, and this one has not lost a step in the 41 years since its release.
Movie Grade: A-
DVD Grade: B+
It may not have been met with critical acclaim when released in 1971, but Harold and Maude has - over the decades - settled rather comfortably into a realm of cult status that has probably done more to keep it in the collective memories of film fans than if it was a "hit". It's a film - directed by Hal Ashby (Being There, The Last Detail) and lensed by John Alonzo (Scarface, Norma Rae) - that seems to resonate loudly to anyone who has ever felt lost or alone, or adrift in the maws of the big bad world. This is a sweet yet dark comedy about a lonely, wealthy death-obsessed 20-year-old (Bud Cort) and the relationship that develops when he meets a 79-year-old free-spirited firebrand (Ruth Gordon) and it probably arched a few eyebrows back in the day. While some of the inherent shocky quirk of Harold and Maude has been tempered over time there's hasn't been any loss in the emotional impact of the Collin Higgins-penned story or the way the music of Cat Stevens becomes its own living, breathing character here.
Cort's Harold spends his free-time creating elaborate mock suicide tableaus and attending funerals of people he doesn't know. Gordon's Maude also has a penchant for funerals, and when they cross paths it becomes an eye-opening experience for Harold, as Maude imparts her unique perspective on how to live life to the fullest. What may sound hokey and maudlin is actually beautifully life-affirming, even as the friendship between Harold and Maude treads boldly upon taboo perceptions of love. Maude's brazen approach to personal property and authority is counter-culture to everything Harold has ever known, and the transformation of Harold under Maude's seemingly scattershot outlook on life, death and everything in between becomes the centerpiece.
While Cort and Gordon carry the film gracefully, too many of the supporting players operate under overwrought stage play dramatics and line reads. If I have to nitpick that is probably one of the biggest age-related weaknesses of Harold and Maude (that and the use of stock elements like inept cops and braggadocio military men), but those moments are saved repeatedly by the likeable appeal of Gordon's blunt honesty and Cort's gloomy persona. Their scenes onscreen together outweigh all of the potential low points, giving filmgoers two polar opposite characters who both have something to give the other, and at the same time impart some of that onto the viewer. We see Harold's growth as our own in a small way, and Cort and Gordon deliver that message with eloquence and humor.
The first time I saw Harold and Maude was when I was in college in the late 1970s. It made me think about things differently for a long while afterwards, and I've always thought that a late teen/early twenties crowd is the perfect audience to see this, at least initially. It's a wake up call to "aim above morality" and I can't think of a better message to convey. The problem is that in most cases the strict boundaries of everyday life can force one to tow the line, and we lose so much of the boundary-free Maude spirit. I think it is necessary to revisit Harold and Maude from time to time, to get another dose. One of the lines that has always stuck with me was Maude's reminder on living:
"A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They're just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt even. But play as well as you can. Go team, go! Give me an L. Give me an I. Give me a V. Give me an E. L-I-V-E. LIVE! Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room."
Note for the curious: yes, that is Tom Skerritt as an exasperated motorcycle cop, appearing in the credits under the pseudonym M. Borman.
The new 1.85:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer was created in 2K resolution from a 35mm interpositive, wetgated from the original negative. What all that means for you is that Ashby's film looks terrific, sporting a consistent veil of original film grain in a clean presentation that does not reveal any measurable compression issues at all. Colors rendering is well done, especially during outdoor sequences, where things like a cloudless blue sky or Ruth Gordon's yellow jacket are vivid. What probably impressed me the most about this new transfer was the level of detail of facial closeups, which at one point was so revelatory early on that Bud Cort's pasty white makeup was almost a distraction.
Audio is provided in the form of a pair of lossless PCM tracks, available in either 1.0 mono or 2.0 stereo. The differences between the two are marginal, with both providing clear voice quality , but the recommended choice would have to be the 2.0 stereo, as it gives the frequent Cat Stevens songs a bit more substance and weight.
Supplements consist of a 36-page booklet containing two articles on the film: Life and How To Live It by Matt Zoller Seitz and A Boy of Twenty and a Woman of Eighty by Leticia Kent. Also included are a pair of text excerpts - referred to here as "condensed conversations" - entitled Bud Cort and John Alonzo (focusing on the actor and the cinematographer) and Meeting Colin Higgins (centering on the film's writer).
On the disc itself there are three extras, consisting of two "illustrated audio excerpts" (aka audio interview with pictures) with director Hal Ashby (13m:17) from January 1972 and writer Colin Higgins (13m:09s) from January 1979. A 2011 interview with the onetime-Cat-Stevens-now-Yusuf-Islam entitled Seeing Songs (11m:05s) has the singer/songwriter discussing music, writing and how his songs fit in the film.