The famous “Oscar snub” movies tend to be those that get nominated, but beaten out by something safer - your Pulp Fictions, your Raging Bulls, your Social Networks. But while a handful of films each year miss by that much, many more great films get produced, completely ignored by Oscar and - at least in pop consciousness - forgotten. While it hasn’t been forgotten, I feel like Hal Ashby’s seminal 1971 film Harold and Maude never quite received the respect it deserved - especially given how massively influential it was to one of this year’s leading Oscar-nominated directors.
Because I do not inhabit his brain, I don’t know to what degree Harold and Maude directly influenced Wes Anderson, but it’s hard to imagine it didn’t play a significant part in his development as an artist. All the surface stuff is there: the earnest Cat Stevens folk soundtrack; the twee, self-consciously alternative wardrobes; the montage of comical faked suicides; the characters written and performed in a heightened, picture-book manner. There are even sequences couched in the same absurd kind of action that Anderson now specialises in. A touch more stylisation and Futura, and we’re in Anderson country.
But Harold and Maude resonates with Anderson’s work on a deeper level - important to note when talking about a filmmaker frequently reduced in conversation to a distinctive visual style. Its protagonist, morbidly jokey young misanthrope Harold (Bud Cort), is the very blueprint of the alienated, disaffected characters Wes Anderson would specialise in decades later. His coming-of-age story - and let’s not forget that every Anderson film is a coming-of-age story in one sense or another - is told through the prism of unlikely 79-year-old romantic partner Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude is a free spirit who both accepts Harold’s grim, inexperienced outlook on life and shows him a brighter one borne of her own personal tragedy. As tired as the term is, she’s more or less a manic pixie dreamgirl, but the age and experience of the character and actor add depth that a twenty-something would lack. That’s a notion Wes Anderson has played with on a couple of occasions, too - including in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Influence aside, Harold and Maude is a great film in its own right. Like its title characters, it often bridges both sides of the issues it touches on. It’s a film about life and death, sometimes writ in all-too-obvious neon letters, but mostly touching and human ones. It’s also really funny: its bleak, anarchic sense of humour flips the bird to authority figures and social expectations while turning a satirical mirror on its own bird-flipping. There’s counter-cultural gusto in its rejection of the Vietnam War, yet also solemn respect for the survivors of World War II. The May-December romance at its heart seems implausible on paper, but the chemistry between Cort and Gordon is magic. And its influence on today’s cinematic storytellers means it plays great in 2015. About the only thing that’s truly dated (and couldn’t be passed off as retro) is the film stock - you could produce a shot-for-shot remake today and it’d be a massive indie hit.
As with many films decades ahead of their time, Harold and Maude was completely passed over by the Academy. Cort and Gordon received Golden Globe nominations, but did not win. Gordon won a Supporting Actress Oscar a few years earlier for a similarly great performance as Minnie Castavet in Rosemary’s Baby (and was thrice nominated for Best Screenplay in the ‘40s and ‘50s), but nothing comes close to Maude.
And frankly, nothing comes close to Harold and Maude.