Released in late 1971 Harold and Maude portrayed the relationship between the 20-year-old death-obsessed Harold (Bud Cort) and the 79-year-old life-loving Maude (Ruth Gordon) who meet while attending the funerals of strangers for fun.
It was director Hal Ashby’s second film following 1970’s The Landlord. The movie, while unpalatable to a lot of viewers’ tastes on release has over the years transcended cult classic status to become simply a classic.
Here are fourteen points of interest in the film’s history.
The Script Was Written by a Pool Cleaner
Speaking to Peter Biskind for his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls vice-president of production for Paramount Pictures Peter Bart said, “To me, Harold and Maude was a symbol of that era. It would have been unthinkable in the 80s or 90s. In those days [the late 60s] people would walk in, wacked out, with the most mind-bending, innovative, and brilliant ideas for movies. Harold and Maude was written by a pool cleaner.”
Colin Higgins had written Harold and Maude for his twenty-minute UCLA MFA thesis film. Around this time he began working for Edward Lewis, producer of films such as Spartacus and Grand Prix.
He did odd jobs around Lewis’s house such as sweeping the tennis court, driving Lewis’s daughter to school and cleaning the pool. In return, he was allowed to live in the chauffeur’s quarters at the back of the house.
One day Higgins showed the script to Lewis’s wife Mildred, who told him he was “crazy to blow this great idea on a twenty-minute job.” Higgins rewrote it as a full-length screenplay and Mildred passed it on to her husband. The script took third place in the 1970 Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing Awards at UCLA, by that time Lewis had already sold it to Paramount.
“Paramount was the first and only studio I gave the script,” Lewis told the New York Times. “I knew Peter Bart well, and I figured Bart would dig it. I also felt the script was very commercial. So did Paramount. We could have sold out our share for a lot of money before the picture was released.”
Higgins Intended To Direct the Film Himself
The deal made was that Higgins could direct so long as he did a test shoot of which Paramount would have to approve. Higgins shot with a cast on stages at Columbia for two days, shooting three scenes for a cost of $7,500.
After the studio reviewed the scenes Higgins was told Paramount would prefer another director. With hindsight, Higgins reflected that he should have spent the time doing one scene instead of three, but he wanted to show off how quickly he could work.
Hal Ashby took on the role of director and he ensured that Higgins was made a producer. The two worked together on the film’s development.
Higgins would go on to direct Foul Play (1978), 9 to 5 (1980), and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982).
Elton John Was Offered the Part of Harold
It’s well known that Elton John was asked to provide the soundtrack, turning the chance down, but suggesting Cat Stevens instead. However, he was also in the running for the lead role.
John told Charles Shaar Murray in New Musical Express, 8 March 1975, “I was offered the lead part. I didn’t take it because at the time we were just beginning to happen as a group, and it would have meant six months of my life without the group. Because we’d been trying musically for two or three years, I felt that we had to do it musically first.” In 2019 Elton wrote in an article for The Observer, “ I loved the script, but it seemed like the wrong thing to do at the time.”
Actor Tom Skerritt recalled in a conversation with Film Comment, “I remember after Elton left the room, I was in another room, saw him leave — Hal came by and said they’d had a nice time, a lot of laughs, and all that, and he looked at me and said, ‘He’s too English.’ And I had worked with Bud Cort in M*A*S*H and I threw that out to him.”
The part had been written for an actor named John Rubinstein, who at the time had made a few appearances in TV shows. Ashby had seen Bud Cort in Brewster McLoud and liked him enough to want him in the role. Paramount insisted on doing some screen tests. Cort tested alongside Rubinstein, Bob Balaban, John Nielson, Todd Sussman and Dan Fortas. Cort was the stand-out telling Ashby, ‘I am Harold.’
Ashby’s Belief That Maude Should Be European Led to Him Finding Harold’s Mother
In the script, it’s mentioned that Maude was a young girl in Vienna. This led Ashby to draw up a long list of English and European actresses he felt might be suitable including Mildred Dunnock, Mildred Natwick, Elisabeth Bergner, Edwige Feuillère and Dorothy Stickney.
Ashby travelled to London and set up interviews in a penthouse suite at the top of the Dorchester Hotel with British actresses Patience Collier, Edith Evans, Cathleen Nesbitt, Silvia Coleridge, Bessie Love, Isabel Jeans, Gladys Cooper, Wendy Hiller and Peggy Ashcroft. Back in America, the studio pushed for New York native Ruth Gordon, while Ashby found that some of the actors he spoke to about the role also suggested Gordon over themselves.
Fellow director John Schlesinger had given Ashby a name to look up while he was in London. Vivian Pickles had worked for Schlesinger on Sunday Bloody Sunday. When Ashby met with her he realised that she would be perfect for Harold’s long-suffering mother.
“Harold and Maude is the only job I’ve done where I haven’t wanted to change something after I’ve seen it,” Pickles told Criterion in 2012. “Hal was so inspiring, with a most wonderful, genuine, appreciative smile of warm approval that spurred you on. He really loved my ideas — particularly for my favorite scene, where Mrs. Chasen fills out the application form for her son’s dating service.”
Having met Ruth Gordon once in his New York hotel room before departure Ashby couldn’t shake the feeling that Maude should be American. He called and asked Gordon for a second meeting, this time in her Hollywood home. “Now I was sure the part was mine,” Gordon told the New York Times.
Tom Skerritt Appeared in the Film Under a Pseudonym as a Favour to Ashby
Beau Bridges had introduced actor Tom Skerritt to Hal Ashby. Skerritt saw the director and Oscar-winning editor as a mentor. He appears in the film briefly as a motorcycle cop. He told Film Comment how he landed the role.
“Hal was doing Harold and Maude and I was on the phone with him almost every night to see how it was going. And one day he said the motorcycle cop drove out of the shot, and he didn’t put the kickstand up all the way, and it triggered just out of the shot, and it threw him off, and he broke his leg, and Hal was very upset about the poor guy breaking his leg. Understandably. And it gave me an excuse to go up there; I paid my way up there, to be mentored again and see how he shoots.”
If Skerritt isn’t noted for his brief role it may be because he chose to be credited as ‘M. Borman’.
“And at the end of it, we’re finished shooting, and we’re in Hal’s office and the producer’s there — Charley Mulvehill — he says, ‘Do you want to take credit for this?’ I said ‘Oh, let’s not bother about doing credit, I just came up to spend some time with you guys.’ Then I said, ‘Wait a minute’— we did silly things in those days, and we still do — and I said, ‘You know, Martin Bormann, second in command to Hitler, nobody ever found out what happened to that guy. Everyone else they were able to trace, but that guy just vanished.’ I said, ‘You know, I think he went to Oakland and became a motorcycle cop.’ So he gave me billing as Martin Bormann. Just fun.”
The Reviews Were Mostly Terrible
The most widely quoted review comes from Variety, where A.D. Murphy opened by writing, “Harold and Maude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.” In closing, he wrote, “One thing that can be said about Ashby — he begins the film in a gross and macabre manner, and never once deviates from the concept. That’s style for you.”
In the New York Times Vincent Canby wrote, “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’s 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 hurt Ruth Gordon sat down in her Ladera Drive, Beverly Hills address and wrote Canby a letter, which began:
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-six years ago today. I got a good review in the December 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 wish you could have seen it with an audience. Maybe you wouldn’t have liked it then, but then I’d feel 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.
In the Cleveland Press, Tony Mastroianni hated both leads and summed the film up by writing, “Harold and Maude is the movie to see when you get tired of pulling the wings off of flies and chopping off puppy dogs’ tales.”
Roger Ebert awarded the film one a half stars saying:
“The visual style makes everyone look fresh from the Wax Museum, and all the movie lacks is a lot of day-old gardenias and lilies and roses in the lobby, filling the place with a cloying sweet smell.”
The film’s initial run, timed for Oscar consideration in the strongest box-office week of the year, ended after one week. “You couldn’t drag people in,” producer Charles Mulvehill told Peter Biskind. “The idea of a 20-year-old boy with an 80-year-old woman just made people want to vomit. If you asked people what it was about, ultimately it became a boy who was fucking his grandmother.”
The Los Angeles box office that week registered $210,000 for the reissue of Disney’s Lady, and the Tramp, $75,000 for Fiddler on the Roof, and $40,000 for Dirty Harry. Harold and Maude took in $8,500.
Harold’s Jaguar Hearse From the Film Was Made by the Same Person Who Made the Batmobile
In the movie, Harold fits out an E-type Jaguar to become a hearse. In 2012 Ken Roberts set out to build a car just like it. He told Petrolicious:
“Most people think George Barris built that Batmobile. He did not. He owned the title to it, and sold it for a handsome profit. He didn’t even design the Batmobile. He contracted that out to another builder in Hollywood, and he was just a teenager at the time. They built the Batmobile in three weeks, and a few years later, the same person built the Harold and Maude Jaguar, not knowing it was for a movie company. He built it simply for a client, which ultimately was the production company that was operating out of Europe for some reason, perhaps to throw people off. But it took him six months and $32,000 to build it.”
The Jaguar hearse was destroyed both on screen and in real life at the end. Only one was constructed for filming.
Cat Stevens’ Soundtrack Inspired Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder
In 2009 Eddie Vedder was asked in Uncut magazine what inspired him to write the music for Sean Penn’s film Into The Wild.
“When I was 12, I remember seeing the movie, Harold And Maude, a film that is accompanied by several Cat Stevens songs. Cat’s voice represents the interior voice of the character throughout the movie, and he does it absolutely perfectly. It’s a perfect synergy between film and music, and it really inspired me to try writing for film. Take the final scene, where it looks like Harold is going to drive off the cliff, with the rain hitting the windshield, and you know how he feels. Suddenly they play Trouble by Cat Stevens, and it’s utterly overwhelming, heartbreaking. So seeing it work there made me think I could give it a go.”
Penn told Time magazine that he had written the movie structured for songs. “I love that kind of thing in movies. I was born in 1960, so you can do the math and figure out that I was just coming into my own with Harold and Maude, and earlier than that, Simon and Garfunkel and The Graduate, and Coming Home.”
The Harold and Maude soundtrack was also the inspiration for Sondre Lerche’s 2007 soundtrack for Dan in Real Life.
The Film Led to Numerous Movie Roles for Bud Cort — Which He Turned Down
Despite critics not liking the film, Bud Cort found no shortage of movie offers. However, he felt that they were all of a similar type to Harold; oddballs and outcasts. Feeling he would be typecast he turned them all down. One, in particular, that he began to regret was the part of Billy Bibbit in Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“I should have done it,” Cort told the LA Times in 1996. “I should have done everything that I was offered. . . . [But] I didn’t want to be [a character type like] Tony Perkins, Maynard Krebs or Peter Lorre.”
Cort would later say he turned the part down before Jack Nicholson was attached. “Later on, after I’d turned it down, I found out Jack was now playing McMurphy. I flew to the phone to call Miloš and [producer] Michael Douglas. But it was too late. Billy Bibbit had been cast with Brad Dourif who was great.”
Cort didn’t make a film for five years, working instead in the theatre where he found that no one attempted to typecast him.
Asked in 2001 what advice he would give to young actors Cort said, “I would say that if you’re typecast, just do it. Don’t turn anything down.”
After the Film Ended Bud Cort Moved In With Groucho Marx
Shortly after wrapping on Harold and Maude Cort met Erin Fleming who was managing Groucho Marx. One day Cort found a message in his mailbox inviting him to a dinner party at Groucho’s mansion. He eagerly got a cab to the address. Cort explained what happened next to Dana Shapiro in the New York Times Magazine:
“I was really nervous. I took a deep breath. And as I went to knock on the door, just as my fist connected with the door, the door opened, and there was Groucho in a beret. I looked at him, he looked at me and we both at the same time gasped and he slammed the door in my face. Well, now I’m standing there, ’cause my cab had left, and I’m thinking, Now what am I going to do? And then the door opened again, and it was Goddard Lieberson, who used to be the president of Columbia Records. He said: ‘Groucho, this is Bud Cort. He just made a film with Ruth Gordon.’ And Groucho looked at me and said: ‘Ruth had the hots for Harpo. I’m sorry, I thought you were Charles Manson. Come on in.’”
Cort told George Wayne in a 2001 interview with Variety: “Then it turned out we had the same psychiatrist, and he started dropping these ideas that I should live with Groucho.”
At the 1983 court case disputing Groucho’s estate Cort testified in support of Erin Fleming’s claim she was at the comedian’s bedside when he died in August 1977. The Bank of America, as executor of Marx’s estate, accused Miss Fleming of fraudulently obtaining more than $400,000 from the comedian and using physical force to intimidate him. The jury found in the Bank of America’s favour.
Fan Power Revived Harold and Maude and Turned It Into a Success
The people who paid to see the movie not only loved it they wanted to see it again and again. It began to play at film societies, midnight screenings, and repertory theatres around America.
On March 20, 1972, Harold and Maude opened at the Westgate Theater in suburban Minneapolis. It was still playing there two years later grossing over $500,000. The theatre manager Ralph Watschke told the New York Times that on any given night at least half the audience had seen the film before.
It wasn’t only in Minneapolis. Harold and Maude also played for 112 weeks in Montreal and 72 weeks in Detroit.
Paramount had seen so many rentals of existing prints that they realised they had to re-release the film into movie theatres. Harold and Maude returned to New York in May 1974, where it opened at the Thalia, close to Columbia University.
Charles O. Glenn, Paramount vice president in charge of marketing said at the time, “For years, in cars going to and from airports, we’ve said to each other, Harold and Maude was a good film.” He remarked that he couldn’t ever recall before bringing back a film that was a failure in its initial run.
“The story goes that Harold and Maude ran in a Paris theatre for 10 years. I think it was a great foreign film made by American money.”
Tom Skerritt in The Huffington Post
Harold and Maude was released once again to theatres in 1978. The film eventually turned a profit in 1983.
“Truthfully, it’s success came from the people,” Cort said in 2012. “The groundswell of word of mouth dropkicked it over so many goalposts both here and abroad that Paramount had to re-release it.”
Despite the Film’s Eventual Success, Cort Hasn’t Seen Much Money
When Ashby and the cast saw the original cut of the film they weren’t happy with it. Paramount invited Cort to a meeting to explain the film’s promotional strategy. Cort took the opportunity to demand a re-cut. He told New York Times Magazine that he said:
“Gentlemen, until this film is recut, not only to my specifications but to Ms. Gordon’s and to Mr. Ashby’s, I am not available for any publicity on this film. Thank you very much. Good day.”
Cort claims that at that point Paramount wanted no more to do with him.
“Harold and Maude has grossed over $350 million,” Cort said to the Tampa Bay Times in 1993, “and it cost only a million to produce. And two months ago I got a check for $28 made out to Bob Cort.” The amount was, Cort claimed, residuals for 18 months of television showings.
Feeling that the film would be a hit Cort had asked for points, so he would benefit financially long term. His agent told him he should just do the film for the $30,000 fee.
In 2008 Cort told Chris Garcia, “I have made more money off that one and three-quarters scenes in Heat than I made for Harold and Maude. Every once in a while I’ll get a check in the mail for like 11 cents from Paramount. They still claim the movie hasn’t made any money. It’s insane. It’s not nice.”
Cort would eventually work on a Paramount movie again when he provided a voice for 2015’s The Little Prince.
Higgins’ Broadway Stage Adaptation Closed After Four Performances in 1980
Higgins adapted the screenplay into a play which played in Madrid, Copenhagen, Berlin and London in 1974. Elisabeth Bergner, who was one of the original considerations for the movie role played Maude in the Berlin production.
It opened on Broadway on 7th February 1980. Janet Gaynor, the former silent-film star and winner of the first Academy Award for Best Actress played Maude, with Keith McDermott as Harold. The New York Times review called it a “multi-scened mess” and “downright grisly.” The closing notice went up on 9th February, and the play had its last of four performances that night.
Despite its lack of success on Broadway, the stage adaptation has been revived many times over the years.
Ellen Geer who played Sunshine Doré, Harold’s third computer date, in the film played the part of Maude on stage in 2000. “What does work in this production is Geer’s transcendent portrayal of Maude,” wrote Variety’s review.
The Film Is Now an Established Classic
Although there were no Academy Award nominations the film still gained recognition. At the 29th Golden Globe Awards, Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon received a nomination for Best Actor and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy film, respectively. Cort was also nominated for a BAFTA. Harold and Maude has been recognised by the American Film Institute several times over the years including being placed 45th in the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs in 2000 and 9th in 2008’s AFI Top 10 Romantic Comedies.