Little-known Facts About Hal Ashby’s 1971 Cult Favorite Harold and Maude

Harold and Maude. Photo courtesy the Criterion Collection

Valentine’s Day has reappeared on the horizon, and among the many themed events taking place in its honor will be nationwide screenings of the 1971 classic Harold and Maude. An atypical romantic comedy, it’s an unlikely film to have developed a resurgence in the past few decades, especially since it bombed at the box office upon its release. But the fact that it has had a massive cult following of fans who have flocked to see it in outdoor screenings and arthouse cinemas whenever possible—among them Cameron Crowe and Judd Apatow—suggests that it’s a precious, if misunderstood, film, whose themes of selfless love and having a lust for life have only grown stronger with time.

This, perhaps, is the crux of why the movie still holds up. So, in the spirit of giving even more love and appreciation for a film that has taught so many how to open up and enjoy life, here is a collection of interesting tidbits about the making of the film, provided by its director’s biography Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel and Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, two fascinating tomes to explore if you want to learn more about some of the most fascinating movies to come out of the New Hollywood decade.

Diff’rent strokes: Title actors Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon didn’t vibe too well on set because of their different acting chops. Cort had previously tried his hand at standup comedy, so he wanted to do some improvising, while Gordon, an Oscar winner, was adamant about sticking to the script. Cort, however, was also extremely method about his performances. He really put himself through many of the fake death scenes, including the opening hanging scene. He also fully expected to have sex with Gordon.

Musical intervention: Cat Stevens was brought on to do music at the suggestion of Elton John. During production, Stevens changed his mind and asked the director to be released from the project. Ashby flew to Paris to meet with Stevens and was able to convince him to allow the music he had already cut to be used for the film.

Groovy: The crew were mostly hippies who were selected by Ashby personally, so the tone of filming was mostly relaxed and calm. One of the team members was Michael Haller, who had previously worked with George Lucas on his THX 1138. Haller created Harold’s Jaguar mini-hearse, Harold’s uncle’s artificial arm and Maude’s railway-car home.

Bad reputation: Not surprisingly, Ashby and Paramount producer Robert Evans would butt heads several times in pre- and post-production. Despite his stellar run as a director, Ashby had a bad reputation as a producer killer. He originally backed down from directing Harold and Maude when he learned the screenwriter, Colin Higgins, sold the film to Paramount under the impression he was going to direct it. “Why the hell don’t you just let Colin make this film?” Ashby asked Evans. “He sees it, and he wants to make it.” Evans’ response was “Hal, if you don’t do it, Colin is still not going to do it; someone else will direct it.” Ashby obliged, but only with Higgins’ blessing, and then he made Higgins a co-producer so the then-MFA student could learn how to direct.

Love isn’t in the air: Another contentious disagreement between Ashby and producers was the love scene between Harold and Maude. Evans’ then-wife, actress Ali MacGraw, liked the movie but felt the scene wouldn’t go over well. “That’s sort of what the whole movie is about, a boy falling in love with an old woman; the sexual aspect doesn’t have to be distasteful,” Ashby said. The actual scene was far from pornographic, yet Evans said it would disgust most audiences. The scene was cut, but Ashby had promo god Pablo Ferro put the footage in the film’s trailer. Evans was not pleased.

Box-office bomb: Audiences at early test viewings in Palo Alto loved it, but the movie was ravaged by critics. The film was slated for a Christmas release, which possibly led to the film’s poor box office run: It opened and closed within a week. Plus, Paramount supposedly marketed the film poorly as a touching flick about a friendship between a young man and an older woman, removing any romantic aspect of the film.

Cult status: Among youthful markets, the film did amazingly well and gradually earned an audience—so much so Paramount rereleased it in 1974 and 1978. Ashby also earned some fans, with many people writing to him until his death in 1980 about how Harold and Maude helped them through tough emotional times and taught them to enjoy life again.

Harold and Maude screens at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org. Thurs., Feb. 14, 1:30, 3:30, 6 & 8 p.m. $7-$10.

Aimee Murillo

Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.

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