Harold and Maude meet for the first time at the funeral of someone neither of them knows. With this strange fondness for funerals, they were destined to meet and start a relationship. Viewers watch their incomprehensible love from the outside grow with Cat Stevens songs as the soundtrack. It could be the plot of a charming Wes Anderson movie with zenith shots and a pop aesthetic, but this is a synopsis of Harold and Maude, the 1971 film directed by Hal Ashby and based on the eponymous book by Colin Higgins. The publishing house Capitán Swing has now published it in Spain with a translation by Catalina Martínez Muñoz, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of both the text and the film.
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The film, unlike most of Anderson’s titles, was a box office and critical disaster at the time. Variety magazine wrote that: “It’s as fun and joyous as a burning orphanage.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times critic and 1975 Pulitzer winner, I think that: “Death can be as funny as most things in life, I suppose, but not in the style of Harold and Maude “. For his part, Vincent Canby commented In The New York Times that, although the film seems tremendously comical at first, it would be better to miss it. But his criticism, although it is in line with the rest, bluntly mentions the aspect that really disgusted the viewers: the age difference of the protagonists. Harold is 19 and Maude is 79. “Mr. Cort’s baby face and adolescent complexion look grotesque next to Miss Gordon’s tiny and weak body,” he states in his text.
Nor is it that it was the first film that dealt with a relationship between a young man and a mature woman at the time. A few years earlier, in 1967, Mike Nichols had released the hit The graduate, in which a mature Anne Bancroft – mythical Mrs. Robinson – seduces a young Dustin Hoffman. The film also caused a stir (in fact, it marked Higgins quite a bit), but there are key differences between the two: the attractiveness of the protagonists and the ages. According to the sensibilities of the mass public at the time, Nichols’s film was erotic. Ashby’s, grotesque.
It did not take much savvy to anticipate that the subject of sex would cause such rejection. In fact, the book itself shows the reactions that part of society could have before falling in love with the characters. Dr. Harley, Harold’s psychologist, explains that what happens to him is known as the Oedipus complex and that it is very common in society for a male child to want to sleep with his mother unconsciously but: “What puzzles me, Harold is that you want to sleep with your Grandma”. Father Finnegan, in a display of heated imagination, blurts out that: “The fact that your body … firm and young … He ran a hand across his forehead … cohabits with withered flesh, sagging breasts, and flabby buttocks of a mature woman (…) in all honesty, it makes me want to barf“.
Paramount tried to take control of the editing of the footage to eliminate the most “problematic” scenes in anticipation of the coming disaster, but Bud Cort (interpreter of Harold) confronted the production company and refused to promote the film if Ashby was not. commanding. This had won an Oscar in 1967 for the montage of In the heat of the night, so the change did not make sense and, in addition, the whole idea of the film was in his head. Paramount lost that battle and everything went as expected: fatal.
The participants in the supposed film disaster were oblivious to the fact that the scale of the tragedy was not that enormous. According to a 1983 article in The New York Times titled “12 Years Later, Harold and Maude make a profit, “not everyone hated the film when it was released. At the time that this text was published in the New York newspaper, there were people who had seen it more than 100 times.” The film was shown 92 consecutive weeks in Boston, 112 weeks in Montreal, two years in Paris and 114 consecutive weeks in a single theater in Minneapolis. ”
It had been so long that when Ruth Gordon (Maude’s interpreter) received her check in the mail for the money the film had generated at the box office, she was about to throw it away. He thought that the envelope containing the fifty thousand dollar paper was “one of those Reader’s Digest giveaways.” That had been the biggest failure of a career for which he had won four Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay for Double life (1948), best plot and screenplay by Adam’s rib (1951), Best Original Screenplay by The impetuous (1953) and best supporting actress for The rebel and the statuette for the best supporting actress for The seed of the devil (1967).
She and Bud Cort and Hal Ashby both believed in the movie as soon as the story fell into their hands. That little book of less than a hundred pages was the doctoral thesis of Colin Higgins, who was studying at the UCLA School of Film at the time. He wanted to take it to the movies and direct it himself, but while he managed to get it to the decision makers at Paramount, he only achieved the first of the goals. Fortunately, Hal Ashby was a hippie who had little to do with the Hollywood scene and did not betray the spirit of his work.
In addition, the roles seemed tailored for the actors, both for their physique and their ability to bring them to life. They worked very hard: Cort got so into his character, who pretends to commit suicide up to fifteen times, that in some scenes he came to feel that he was really losing his life. There was also a special chemistry between the protagonists that helped make that age-unbalanced love story believable (and coincidentally Ruth Gordon was married to a man sixteen years her junior).
In 2014, the actor recalled in The Guardian that when her father died, right after filming was over, she called him and said, “‘Oh, honey, let me tell you about the day my father died.’ And all of a sudden, we were the characters that we had played. From that moment on, she became one of the most important friends I have ever had. She was a great woman. [falleció en 1985]”.
The story of Harold and Maude it can be interpreted from various points of view. It is a love story between a young man and an old woman about which there can be many opinions and moral judgments, yes. But it is also a reflection on the relationship of humans with death: an inevitable fact that attracts as well as scares and that there is no single way to deal with it. It is a criticism of the established powers, a plea for freedom to choose how you want to live and the ability to overcome misfortunes and continue in the world. An idealized vision of existence – the golden age of the hippies was still in the making – that does not necessarily have to be possible in reality. That’s what fiction is for, to make the improbable credible.