‘Harold and Maude’: the ultimate non-event

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO this week, Paramount unveiled one of history’s most peculiar Christmas releases – a quirky, low-budget movie called “Harold and Maude.”

The opening in Los Angeles and New York of this non-event picture was heralded by a non-event campaign: The names “Harold” and “Maude” were printed in white against a plain black background. Not surprisingly, the ads had no impact whatsoever, and neither did the movie. In fact, it laid an egg. “This movie is as funny as a burning orphanage,” declared one major critic.

Of course, “Harold and Maude” went on to become a cult classic, running in a couple of theaters for as long as 15 years. Costing a mere $1.2 million, the film ended up grossing $14 million and selling more than 150,000 units in video. It spawned a hit play in Paris, and it’s about to be reborn as a Broadway musical.

“I cannot go anywhere in the world without people coming up to me to tell me how much the movie meant to them,” observes Bud Cort, who starred in the movie with Ruth Gordon.

“Harold and Maude,” in short, represents a living monument to “word-of-mouth” – words that have all but disappeared from the Hollywood lexicon. Though it opened to little business, it stayed on – and on and on. It developed shelf life – two other words that have vanished.

As the flood of movies unleashed during the current holiday season reminds us, it’s doubtful the success of “Harold and Maude” will ever be replicated. Audiences are too hypnotized by the lists of top-five grossing movies each week to pay attention to an oddball newcomer.

And “Harold and Maude” was odd – it was the antithesis of the sort of by-the-numbers, effects-laden movies currently in vogue. It was a love story, a very touching one at that. What set it apart was that the romance involved an 18-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman.

GIVEN THIS STORYLINE, THE KEY executives at Paramount decided not to talk about it with the advertising mavens until it was finished. When the ad men finally saw it, they were predictably surprised. In fact, they were so immobilized they couldn’t come up with a campaign – any campaign. Hence the movie opened with tombstone ads – the white letters against a black background.

Of course, the fact that the movie got produced by a major studio itself defies any present-day laws of reality. The script was written by a young UCLA student named Colin Higgins, who worked his way through college by cleaning pools. One of his clients, producer Edward Lewis and his wife, Millie, thought the script was a hoot and brought it to me at Paramount, where I was vice president for production.

Robert Evans and I agreed with their assessment and, fortunately, that was all it took. In Hollywood, circa 1970, there were no development committees, no script notes. Hal Ashby, then a young up-and-coming director, decided to take on the movie. Ashby was an admirer of a remarkable young rock star named Cat Stevens, and he saw a way of integrating Stevens’ tunes with some of the key scenes in “Harold and Maude.”

The initial previews of the film were astonishing. Screened for a college crowd at Palo Alto, the audience rose to give it a standing ovation.

The opening-day audiences were not similarly enthralled. As Lewis recalls, “People didn’t seem to know how to take it at first. It was culture shock.”

AND YET, THAT MAGIC PHENOMENON called word-of-mouth took hold. In an era before “Entertainment Tonight,” before top-five lists on CNN, before saturation tie-ins with McDonald’s, people exchanged moviegoing experiences just as they talked about their dates or marriages or college courses. The more people talked, the more they joined the parade to see the movie.

And they were touched. ” ‘Harold and Maude’ is one of the great screenplays of the cinema,” Sam Thomas wrote in his book, “Best American Screenplays.” “Its comedic splendors and its profound humanism are on a level which many writers aspire to but never achieve.”

“It said something very simple – that your heart is the only judge,” says Bud Cort, who is just finishing a movie in Vancouver and is writing a book about the movie.

As non-events go, the opening of “Harold and Maude” represented a memorable event. The tragedy is that it probably could never happen again.

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