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Of all the great screen romances, there has never been one less likely — or more touching — than that of 1971’s Harold and Maude, which turns 50 on Dec. 20. (Paramount is marking the occasion with a remastered Blu-ray release Dec. 7.)
The unlikely couple at the center of Hal Ashby’s offbeat comedy are a 19-year-old rich kid obsessed with death (Bud Cort, then 23) and a 79-year-old woman with a lust for life (played by Ruth Gordon, then 74, three years after winning the Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby). The two meet at a funeral, and love blossoms as they teach each other about living life to its fullest. The film was written by Colin Higgins, then 28, who devised a 20-minute version as a master’s thesis for UCLA’s screenwriting program. While working as a pool boy and chauffeur for Spartacus producer Edward Lewis, Higgins — at the urging of Lewis’ daughter and wife — expanded the script into a feature.
Impressed, Lewis passed it to Paramount chief Stanley Jaffe, who bought it and attached Ashby, then 41 and coming off his first film, 1970’s The Landlord. Maude was an amalgam of three women from Higgins’ life: his grandmother; a bohemian woman from his youth in Australia; and an older woman he met when he settled in America who, despite being a concentration camp survivor, always maintained a sunny outlook.
Shot in and around San Francisco for $1.2 million ($8.5 million today), the film features a soundtrack by Cat Stevens, having been recommended by Elton John, who was offered the role of Harold on the condition he write and perform the score. (John passed.) Stevens recorded two original songs for the film and appears briefly as a bearded man in a funeral scene. Ashby also shows up in a bearded cameo at an amusement park arcade.
The film bombed but turned into a huge cult favorite, programmed at repertory cinemas for years at a time. Higgins, who was always open about being gay, went on to write and direct such hits as 1978’s Foul Play and 1980’s 9 to 5 before dying of AIDS in 1988 at age 47.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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