If over the years since its initial release in 1971, Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby’s portrait of, if not the most controversial love affair to hit the big screen, certainly one that belongs in the top three or so, has grown in reputation exponentially, its current release as part of the Criterion Collection is a clear justification of that growth. Back then, the very idea that there could be a romantic relationship between a woman of 80 and a youth of 20 was at best farfetched, at worst perverted. Times have changed. Many of those, I suppose, who would have been horrified by the idea of a marriage between an 80 year old woman and a 20 year old boy are now so busy defending marriage from the gay attack that their horror might have dissipated. Many of those who would have found it farfetched may well have come across contemporary examples on the internet. At any rate what was shocking in the 70s has lost much of its shock value in the new century.
The romance between the octogenarian survivor of the Holocaust with an almost insane passion for living every moment and the youthful loner who can only express himself in elaborately staged suicide attempts has become for many an emblem of the victory of the counter cultural values of the ’60s over conventional social values. Ruth Gordon’s performance as the vibrant Maude is masterful, and the baby faced Bud Cort matches her as the depressed young man who blossoms under her influence. There is an on screen chemistry between the two that makes the May-December relationship not only credible, but inevitable. That an introverted young man obsessed with death might well be seduced by the intensity of her life force is not even strange. She is a dynamo charging everything and everyone in her path.
The Criterion Collection’s DVD is a new digital restoration with an optional remastered stereo soundtrack. Bonus material includes an audio commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill, a 2011 interview with Yusuf/Cat Stevens whose songs, including two new ones, were used in the film, and audio excerpts from American Film Institute seminars with Ashby (1972) and screenwriter/producer Colin Higgens (1979). Both are illustrated with candid still shots often from the set of the film. The Ashby commentary focuses on his general ideas about filmmaking, but he does talk about the casting of Cort and the film’s central relationship. He also talks about the Cat Stevens music. The Higgens commentary talks about how he managed to sell the script and has quite an interesting discussion of the how he got the idea for the film’s opening sequence, surely one of the most creative film openings you’re likely to come across.
There is also a booklet with a critical essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, a 1971 profile of Ruth Gordon from the New York Times, and excerpts from interviews with Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo in 1997 and executive producer Mildred Lewis in 2001. The Seitz essay is an impressive piece of film criticism that attempts both to explicate themes and ideas and to locate the film in the social context of the period. The Gordon profile emphasizes the quirkiness of the actress, a quirkiness that shines through on the screen.
If only for Gordon’s enchanting performance, Harold and Maude remains a film to be savored, and Criterion’s DVD offers the best way to do so, absent access to the big screen.