Doodad Kind of Town

The Road from May to December
September 18, 2010, 6:26 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I recently saw Harold and Maude for the first time in my life.  I suspect I came to it about 30 years too late.

Many people in my acquaintance treasure this darkly comic May-December romance between a baby-faced, death-obsessed teenager (Bud Cort) and the saucy septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) who teaches him how to embrace life. I think it’s notable, however, that most of these enthusiasts were teenagers or very young adults at the time of the film’s 1971 release.  Even from my fussbudgety, middle-aged perspective, I can easily appreciate how the film’s broadly drawn caricatures of “establishment” types (Harold’s socialite mother, war hero uncle, psychiatrist and priest) and its breezy, Cat Stevens-scored exhortation to “sing out/be free” may have spoken powerfully to rebellious youngsters of the Nixon/Vietnam era.

But, seriously, this movie is not aging well.

Sure, it’s fun to watch the transition in Cort’s sad, jittery Harold, his frightened, watery eyes gradually taking on a glint of subversive mischief as Maude draws him out of his shell.  And Gordon’s Maude may have a few lines on her face, but she moves and smiles with the extroverted confidence of a natural-born flirt.  She so good that you completely buy into Harold’s attraction to her, and she almost manages to rise above ridiculous lines like “Give me an L! Give me an I! Give me a V!  Give me a E! LIVE!” 

In the space of its brief 90 minutes, though, Harold and Maude managed to wear me out completely.  Call me cranky, but a woman who routinely steals other people’s cars isn’t a free spirit, she’s a thief.  (In her mind, Maude is merely delivering a “gentle reminder” to the cars’ owners that they shouldn’t be attached to their material possessions.  That may have gone down with the aspiring flower children of the day, but doesn’t play so well in our economically stressed times.)  Maude’s tendency to collect anything and everything and stuff it all into her cozy home may have brightened Harold’s face into a beacon of delighted wonder,  but nowadays I think we’d just call her a hoarder.   And bad, reckless driving really isn’t a cute, attractive character trait in anyone, not even for Annie Hall and certainly not for an almost 80-year-old nutjob. 

The other adults in Harold’s life are so exaggeratedly awful and Maude is so exaggeratedly in love with life (she’s a senior version of the stock character who would come to be known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) that the deck is heavily, defiantly stacked in favor of the improbable (and doomed) couple from the get go.  It might have been fresh and startling 39 long years ago , but seen from this backward perspective – years after the Cat Stevens theme song was co-opted to sell iPhones – Harold and Maude seems like nothing so much as a relic of a bygone and irretrievable era.

Another May-December romance film of the era, which is far less remembered but holds up much better for me is Alan Pakula’s Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing.

It starts in uncomfortably quirky, Harold and Maude-like territory, but gradually and gracefully evolves into something sweeter and wiser – and more enduring  – than its better-known predecessor.

When we first meet Walter Elberston (Timothy Bottoms) he’s listening to his Pulitzer-Prize winning father lecture him about his lack of initiative and direction, and – inexplicably – clutching a small turtle and an Almond Joy bar.  We never learn what’s up with the turtle and the candy bar, but soon Walter is packed off on a group cycling trip of Spain.  Unable to master either bicycle riding or speaking Spanish, the hapless Walter hops onto a tour bus, in the process spilling water from his canteen into the prim, spinsterly skirt of Lila (Maggie Smith).  Lila is herself a bit of an eccentric, given to reciting lyrics from Gilbert and Sullivan to calm herself when she is lonely or stressed, and shocked to find herself fighting off the advances of numerous Spanish men (though she manages to do so with icy propriety.)

Walter follows Lila around like a bewildered but devoted child, and Lila takes a schoolteacherly approach to him, exhorting him to work his Spanish.  Eventually, after a night of flamenco dancing and a botched suicide attempt by Lila (she has troubles I can’t expound on without delivering a huge spoiler), the two stumble their way to an awkward romance, and take off on their own trip to LaMancha in a Volkswagen Beetle with a beaten-up trailer clattering behind.

I like that the film doesn’t wallow in May-December clichés.  Lila does let her hair down and swaps her fussy suits and starchy blouses for jeans and t-shirts, but she resolutely remains her prissy, snippy, schoolteacherly self.  For his part, Walter remains sweet, inarticulate and open-hearted, and ultimately grasps the concept of love in a wholly mature, clear-eyed way.  “You’re a real pain in the ass, but I love you!” he rails at Lila (and who among us has not said as much to our own spouse or significant other?)  Pakula has a nice, sympathetic touch with misfit characters who find love, as demonstrated in his directorial debut The Sterile Cuckoo.  Here, he gives Smith and Bottoms the time and space to evolve the delicate balance of their characters’ stumbling path to genuine love.

Smith, of course, is delightful (as I once noted, I’d pay good money even to watch her take out the trash), and displays  a sadly underused flair for physical comedy.  The scene in which she rolls out of bed and into a floor lamp, making repeated unsuccessful attempts to right both herself and the lamp, is worthy of Lucille Ball, if not necessarily Chaplin. Bottoms’ performance has a quiet, earnest quality that builds into confidence over the course of the film, nicely capturing the trajectory of Walter’s emotional journey.

If Harold and Maude was a rallying cry for the young and the disaffected, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is a love story best appreciated by grown-ups. If it occasionally veers onto too-broad comic side roads or tends towards the heavy-handed (it can’t be insignificant that the two lovers are headed to LaMancha), those missteps can easily be forgiven – it’s ultimately too wise and too well-acted to be so little seen. 

7 Comments so far
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I’m with you on H&M. I really didn’t like it that much when I first saw it – I was in college, I think, but even then, not likely to fall for stuff like this. I found Ruth Gordon’s character (which she would play variations of throughout her later life) insufferable. This live, live, live stuff was condescending and myopic when Roz Russell said it in Auntie Mame, and it just never gets better.

I haven’t seen the other film, but I’m with you on Maggie Smith. She’s probably our greatest living actress in any language.

Comment by Marilyn

Marilyn –

Funny, I was thinking about Auntie Mame myself while watching Ruth Gordon in action. That kind of character – inevitably presented as bubbly and full of life, but really just eccentric and irresponsible – rarely works for me either. Nathan Rabin of The Onion coined the phrase ‘manic pixie dream girl’ to characterize these sorts of roles, and Maude is definitely a prototype.

“Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing” played on TCM over Labor Day weekend. I’m not sure how often they air it, but it is definitely worth watching for.

Comment by pat0105

Maggie Smith’s performance in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE is one of the most extraordinary in movie history, and a rare moment when Oscar shined.

I’m sorry and embarrased to admit, Pat that I haven’t yet seen the Pakula film, though I enjoyed your essay here, and have marked it down. I was a fan of HAROLD AND MAUDE from the very start and found it a breezy and uplifting black comedy, which has held up remarkably well as a cult film, (and is to boot one of Ashby’s most popular and enduring films). While the anachronistic aspect is undeniable, I myself suspend this, and am always engaged by the outrageous humor. But as you eloquently relate here this is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Comment by Sam Juliano

Sam –

Thanks for stopping by!

“Love and Pain…” strikes as me being somehwat obscure and not often seen. I think the recent TCM airing was the first and only opportunity I’ve had to see it. If you a fan of Dame Maggie, you should seek it out. (I do believe it is available on DVD.)

As for “Harold and Maude,” I think you are in excellent company. Many good friends of mine love it, and, in fact, only last night my boyfriend informed me that it is one of his all-time favorite movies (he first saw it while in high-school.) As I note, it’s a film for the young, but I can completely understand how if you loved when you were young, it will always be special to you.

Comment by pat0105

[…] Pat covers a few films in her latest post at the revamped Doodad Kind of Town, including Harold and Maude, which she admits doesn’t resonate with her:                        […]

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[…] Pat covers a few films in her latest post at the revamped Doodad Kind of Town, including Harold and Maude, which she admits doesn’t resonate with her:                        […]

Pingback by ‘Waiting For Superman,’ ‘Buried,’ Woody Allen and Ozu on Monday Morning Diary (September 27) « Wonders in the Dark

[…] Pat covers a few films in her latest post at the revamped Doodad Kind of Town, including Harold and Maude, which she admits doesn’t resonate with her:                        […]

Pingback by ‘The Social Network,’ ‘Never Let Me Go,’ Let Me In,’ ‘Easy A’ and Ozu on Monday Morning Diary (October 4) « Wonders in the Dark

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