Thursday, February 26, 2009

Harold and Maude (1971)

The Mavericks of North Canon Drive

In 1970, at a time when across-the-board cost-cutting was a primary mandate, if not an obsession, for Stanley Jaffe, chief operating officer of Paramount, the decision was made to move the studio’s production staff, headed by Jaffe, Robert Evans and Peter Bart, from the Paramount lot to a modest four-story building at 202 North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills – not coincidentally, just a few doors down from the movie industry’s newest power restaurant, and one of Evans’ favorite eateries, The Bistro. “The entire executive entourage,” Bart recalls, “was reduced to six people. Stars were notified there would be no more perks. When you arrive at the airport, don’t even expect a limo.”

And yet, as Paramount historian Bernard F. Dick notes, this downsizing proved to be a blessing in disguise:

The move was a boon for Bart and Evans; less bureaucracy resulted in greater creativity, for it was during those five years on Canon Drive that some of the greatest films of the post-studio era were made – e.g., The Godfather (1972), Paper Moon (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), Serpico (1974), The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Nashville (1975), all of which were Paramount releases .

The decision-making process was extraordinary streamlined, and the gatekeepers were empowered to make bold, even eccentric, artistic choices (influenced, of course, by financial considerations) during the heyday of the New Hollywood era. To better understand the corporate mindset that prevailed at this time, it is instructive to consider the standard operational procedure of Arthur Krim, chairman of United Artists, another studio that was home to many daring films of the 1960s and ‘70s. Prior to green-lighting a project, Krim often would invite a filmmaker to a Sunday brunch of lox and cream cheese. "He'd look into your eyes," said screenwriter Marshall Brickman. “And if you didn't look that crazy and [the film] didn't seem that expensive, he'd say, 'Go make your movie, invite me to the opening'”

“The thing to remember,” Bart says, “is that, during the period, the studios were relatively small. Sort of fragile, under-capitalized companies that weren’t all owned by multinationals. If you liked a project, and that was generally because the filmmaker had a passion for making it, you could get it made right away. You didn’t need to go through bureaucracy. You didn’t need to go through marketing committees or get advice from the ad department and the distribution department and all that.”

In a June 1996 essay for GQ magazine, Bart described, only half-jokingly, how he managed to slip Harold and Maude, one of the most idiosyncratic of all New Hollywood movies, past a few skeptics at a studio conference. “In that era,” he wrote, “studio meetings were considerably less formal than they are today, and they were attended by a mere handful of functionaries, compared with the fifty or so who clamor to be heard at studios” in contemporary Hollywood.

As I recall [Bart wrote], the meeting went something like this:

BART: I believe we should make this movie. It’s… different, but I believe in it.

EXECUTIVE A: Different? What’s the story line?

BART: It’s what you might call a love story, only it involves an 80-year-old woman and a 17-year-old boy.

EXECUTIVE B (wincing): I’ll say it’s different! And the cast?

BART: No big stars. A young director – he’s done one picture. There’s music tied in, too – a rock star, or at least I think he will become a star off this picture.

EXECUTIVE C (mopping his brow): So far I’m carried away. At least tell me that the old lady and the kid don’t –

BART: Well, actually, there’s a scene in which the woman and the boy… I mean, the audience won’t see anything graphic… Besides, the boy is gay and –

EXECUTIVE D: Look, can we move on? I mean, we’ve got three pictures shooting that are way over budget and –

BART: Look, this project will cost $3 million tops. There’s comedy, there’s empathy, and no downside risk.

EXECUTIVE A: Tell me, at least, that a really top writer wrote the script.

BART: Actually, it was written by a kid who cleans a neighbor’s pool. He left the script on a pool chair and –

EXECUTIVE B (exasperation setting in): OK, OK. Three million bucks. We’ll make it, providing we don’t have to talk about it anymore and I don’t have to see the dailies.

BART: Seems fair to me.

EXECUTIVE D: Now, moving on to these other pictures…

(While there are strong indications in the film that Harold is asexual, and possibly a virgin before having sexual congress with his older partner, Bart’s categorizing the character as “gay” seems a bit of a stretch. This may be dismissed as Bart’s attempt to either shock the Paramount executives, or amuse his GQ readers through exaggeration. Also: In the movie, Harold is identified as 20, not 17. )

For all its tongue-in-cheekiness, Bart’s anecdote is not terribly far removed from reality. Harold and Maude is indeed the story of a cross-generational relationship between polar opposites: Harold (played in the 1971 movie by Bud Cort), a well-to-do but deeply troubled young man who repeatedly stages fake suicides to shock his oppressively proper mother, gets a shot of spiritual rejuvenation through his friendship – and, fleetingly, romance – with Maude (played by Ruth Gordon, who earned an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in Rosemary’s Baby), a feisty near-octogenarian who delights in stealing cars, planting trees, cracking wise and generally promoting the philosophy of living every day to the fullest. In short, a neurasthenic young man in love with death is fatefully affected by a hyperkinetic old woman in love with life.

(Her love for life, the movie suggests, is so strong because of her familiarity with death: A very quick shot of a number tattooed on Maude’s arm identifies her as a Holocaust survivor.)

Harold and Maude
really was only the second film directed by Hal Ashby, a former protégé of director Norman Jewison who had earned an Academy Award as Best Editor for his work on Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967). Ashby’s first directorial effort, a racially-charged comedy-drama titled The Landlord, about a wealthy young white man whose consciousness is raised while he interacts with the African-American occupants of an inner-city tenement he purchases on impulse, had not yet been released when Bart made his pitch. Pop singer-composer Cat Stevens wrote the movie’s musical score, which included several songs from his popular 1970 “Tea for the Tillerman” album.

And Colin Higgins, who wrote the script, was a 28-year-old UCLA graduate student who originally envisioned the black comedy as a 20-minute short that would be the basis for his master’s thesis. He was short on funds at the time and, in return for lodging at the home of Hollywood producer Eddie Lewis, he cleaned the pool and swept the tennis court on the producer’s estate.

Higgins showed a feature-length version of the screenplay to Mildred Lewis, the producer’s wife, who recommended it to Howard Jaffe, Stanley Jaffe’s brother, who in turn passed it on to Bart -- who immediately warmed to the scenario, thinking it would be an apt project for a promising new director named Hal Ashby.

But before he could get the movie made, Bart had to get the green light from Robert Evans. It wasn’t easy: When his right-hand man described the project to him, Evans began having second thoughts about Bart. Only when he heard of the script’s Stanley Jaffe connection did he agree to read it. And even after he read it, and found that he liked it, he suspected that the combination of “an unknown director, a pool boy writer, [and] two-impossible-to-cast parts” would ensure a box-office disaster that, during that pre-Love Story period, would be enough to get him, and Bart, fired.

Twenty-six years later, Evans recalled the exchange he had with Bart after he expressed his misgivings about the project:

Bart laughed. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll blame it on Ashby, say he went crazy.”

I looked at Bart. “Is Ashby crazy? He must be, wanting to take this on. Peter, I gotta ask you something. How come a conservative guy like you has more weird ideas than Timothy Leary?”

He thought for a moment, took off his glasses, eyed me. “Good cover, huh?”

Evans opted to trust his associate’s judgment, and green-lit the picture. “That’s called putting your ass on the line,” Evans recalls, “and very few people know how to put their ass on the line. But we didn’t care.”

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

On July 2, 2007, Harold and Maude received its long-delayed official premiere in the Czech Republic, at the 42nd annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. At the end of the screening, the audience gave the movie five minutes of sustained applause, bringing tears to the eyes of the film’s lead actor, Bud Cort, who was in attendance – and inspiring bittersweet recollections from another festival guest, Peter Bart.

The movie was shown as part of a special sidebar showcase devoted to films made during the New Hollywood period, many of which were virtually unknown in the Czech Republic due to Cold War era censorship. During a post-screening question-and-answer session, Bart joked that, along with the collapse of the studio system, the “revolutionary” New Hollywood era was accompanied by rampant drug use: “[B]etter cinema resulted from a substantial intake of very good pot.” On a more serious note, however, he added: “[I]n the end, so many, like Hal, were defeated by drugs.”

Indeed, as Peter Biskind repeatedly notes in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, drug and alcohol abuse impeded, interrupted and, in some cases, prematurely ended the careers of several major actors and filmmakers who came to prominence during the New Hollywood era. Directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper and Paul Schrader admitted to using cocaine extensively -- sometimes to stoke creativity, but mostly to party hearty at a heady time when old rules, legal restrictions and common-sense self-restraint were widely viewed as obsolete.

Among his New Hollywood contemporaries, Hal Ashby sustained one of the era’s most remarkable streaks of creative and commercial success. From 1981 onward, however, he spiraled into a personal and professional decline from which he never recovered. The poor quality of his films during this period – including The Slugger’s Wife (1985), a “dull and disjointed” (according to critic Leonard Maltin) comedy based on a Neil Simon screenplay – have been widely attributed, even by admirers, to Ashby’s increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol. Because of his unreliable behavior, films often were taken away from him during post-production and turned over to others for final editing. Long before his death from liver and colon cancer at age 59 in 1988, he was considered virtually unemployable.

As early as 1967 -- when In the Heat of the Night, the movie that would earn him his only Oscar, first hit theaters -- Ashby already had developed the image of the “quintessential flower child” (even though he was 38 at the time) and ever-mellow fellow that would define him to the end of his days. Charles Mulvehill, a Mirisch Corporation executive who resigned to serve as co-producer on Harold and Maude, recalled in Peter Biskind’s book that, when he and Ashby went to a meeting at Paramount to go over the budget line by line, they both were so stoned that they could barely read the numbers – but still managed to get the “suits” to approve $1.2 million for the movie.

Later, during the third week of filming in and around San Francisco, Peter Bart paid an unannounced visit to the set, a stately mansion in nearby Burlingame. The dailies looked great, Bart told the filmmaker. But the pace of production was unacceptably slow. The reason? Bart suspected excessive toking by cast and crew – and director – throughout every day of shooting. “Look around you, Hal,” he told Ashby, indicating the tell-tale haze wafting through the mansion. “You could smoke a ham in here.” Again, Bart rendered his recollection as a reconstructed dialogue:

ASHBY: (a sheepish grin) It’s a mellow company.

BART: I like mellow. I’d like faster mellow. No one lights up till after work – that could help.

ASHBY: Maybe not until after lunch…

I took out a packet of one-way airline tickets from San Francisco to Los Angeles and handed them to Ashby.

BART: A suggestion, Hal. If any technician lights up on the set, just hand him his ticket back to L.A. No scenes, nothing…

ASHBY: (a thoughtful nod) I guess we’ve been slowing down a little lately.

BART: But stay mellow, Hal.

ASHBY: Very mellow.

After that, according to Bart, “the pace of the shooting started picking up markedly. And the film kept getting better.” So much better, in fact, that Mulvehill figured he and Ashby were bound for glory: “We felt it was going to be the best film of the year, it was gonna knock ’em dead.” Bart and Robert Evans shared their enthusiasm, so Harold and Maude was slated to open during the Christmas 1971 season, just in time for Oscar consideration.

Unfortunately, when it did open, the movie wasn’t considered very highly.

Rise and Fall and Rise

A.D. Murphy of Variety took the first shot: “Harold and Maude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.” Vincent Canby of The New York Times chimed in: Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon “are so aggressive, so creepy and off-putting, that Harold and Maude are obviously made for each other, a point the movie itself refuses to recognize with a twist ending that betrays, I think, its life-affirming pretensions.” “And so what we get,” wrote Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, “is a movie of attitudes. Harold is death, Maude life, and they manage to make the two seem so similar that life’s hardly worth the extra bother. 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 early box-office reports were even worse than the reviews. Mulvehill recalls:

You couldn’t drag people in. The idea of a twenty-year-old boy [sic] with an eighty-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. We were devastated, couldn’t believe it, and the scripts and phone calls that had been coming in just stopped. It was as though somebody had taken an ax to the phone lines. It was really a rude awakening. It was a big, big shock to Hal.

Only gradually did Harold and Maude begin to connect with the college-age audiences that would help turn the dark comedy into a pop-culture phenomenon. The movie settled in for improbably long runs in such cities as Detroit, Montreal and, most remarkably, Minneapolis, where residents took the drastic step of picketing the Westgate Theater, urging management to replace the picture after an astonishing three-year run. Eventually, Harold and Maude became a staple of repertory theaters around the world, and continued to appear in heavy rotation on U.S. screens – often on a double bill with another cult favorite, Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (1966) – well into the 1980s.

And while Academy voters may have totally ignored the film, even in the Best Song and Original Score categories, it received Golden Globe nominations for Cort and Gordon. Two years later, Cort won a Crystal Star, the French equivalent of an Oscar, in Paris, where the movie enjoyed a long and successful run, and ultimately inspired a stage adaptation that toured Japan, Turkey, Iceland and Brazil.

Years later, Colin Higgins suggested a reason for the film’s enduring popularity: “We’re all Harold, and we all want to be Maude. We’re all repressed and trying to be free, to be ourselves, to be vitally interested in living, to be everything we want.” It’s a message that had an especially compelling relevance to the “youth market” of 1971 as the then-ongoing Vietnam War (which is subtly referenced at several points in the film) continued to dominate the news and polarize the populace.

Even as a cause célèbre, Harold and Maude took several years – by at least one estimate, more than a decade – to actually turn a profit for Paramount. But Robert Evans never held that against the film that his second-in-command had championed, and he himself had approved as Paramount’s gatekeeper. “It was an impossible dream,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The dream became the longest-playing cult picture in cinema history.”

The story of Harold and Maude – the movie and its mythos, its makers and its making – can be read as emblematic of the New Hollywood era, incorporating both the best intentions and the worst impulses, the most free-spirited risk-taking and the most wrong-headed self-indulgence, that have come to define the American New Wave.

It is also a story, Peter Bart insists, that underscores some brutal facts of life that must be faced by those who want to make movies, and those who want to decide which movies get made, in 21st-century Hollywood: Harold and Maude “could never happen in today’s studio system. For one thing, a screenplay written by a pool cleaner would never work its way up the myriad layers of studio bureaucracy. The subject matter would be deemed unacceptable, the story line could never provide the basis for a theme-park ride or a tie-in with McDonald’s, prospects in TV would be dim, et cetera.”

A sad commentary, some might say, on the New New Hollywood.