Inevitable Remakes: Harold and Maude
Harold and Maude is a 1971 comedy-romance directed by Hal Ashby and featuring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, respectively, as the title characters. Despite receiving poor critical and commercial reception upon release due to its intensely dark humor and almost funereal pall, the film has gone on to achieve a cult following, an association with the counter-culture, and been recognized as a black comedy classic (it ranks at #45 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list of the greatest American comedies). It is currently ranked #234 on the global Flickchart rankings. From its unconventional yet winning central relationship to its morbid, joyful tone, Harold and Maude’s fingerprints on contemporary, mainstream indie’s sense of quirk, sincerity and spirit from the top of the scale (Wes Anderson) to the bottom (whatever Zach Braff does).
COULD IT BE MADE?
Yes, with some caveats. As indicated above, Harold and Maude provided a lot of the DNA for what has come to be understood as IndieWood, the rapidly disappearing mid-range of modestly-budgeted, artistically-oriented films that gained real traction in the 90s. By virtue of this influence, a remake would fit snugly into the scene that the original film had a part in creating, and could trade on the goodwill of its cult following. All this would be contingent, however, on the producers’ ability to cast and market the film. What exactly would they need to do to head off the eye rolls/outrage that the announcement of a remake would inevitably bring?
CAST A BELOVED NEW HOLLYWOOD ACTRESS AS MAUDE
Ruth Gordon had been appearing in films since the 1920s and had an Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby under her belt by the time she was asked to bring her pep, verve and spunk to the role of Maude. A second go at the story would similarly require the casting of a beloved or even revered actress, and thanks to the interceding decades (and the film industry’s severe allergy to letting women over 40 get steady, significant work) there are plenty of New Hollywood era stars who are in dire need of the sort of rejuvenation that this role could bring them. Lily Tomlin has been on a strong resurgence kick, doing fantastic work in last year’s Grandma, and proving consistently funny in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. She marries the pure energy and fire required for a Maude with the ability to delicately infuse levity into moments without disrupting the very specific tone that a film like Harold and Maude requires. Shirley MacLaine would also be a wonderful choice, but at 82 (and based on her performance in Linklater’s Bernie) she might not be able to deliver the almost transcendent physicality that Gordon brought in 1971 at age 75.
CAST AN UP AND COMER AS HAROLD (OR HARRIET?)
Unlike his renowned screen partner in the film, Bud Cort was a relative unknown when he appeared alongside Ruth Gordon. While a repetition of this dynamic would in all likelihood lend itself to a more interesting final product, the built in aversion to a remake from the audience and fear of uncertainty on the part of financers/studios would most likely require an actor with at least a mid-level profile as Harold to get the project off the ground. While there are a few men who come to mind (Asa Butterfield has the pallid, wide eyed look of the original Harold, and he’s dropped off enough that he could benefit from a comeback role without stealing the hype train from Tomlin, but I can’t recall any proof of his ability to do solid deadpan work), I think it would be an interesting update to the film to gender swap the role for a Harriet and Maude take on the story. While it would inevitably inflame certain segments of the internet, transitioning the original existential stakes of “learning to be happy living your own life” which, while poignant, was at the time (and still tends to be) an almost exclusively white male arena. By casting a woman as the younger half of the love story, the same broader philosophic outlook of “learning how to be happy” can be articulated through the filter of “coming to terms with her identity.” The dynamic underpinnings of the plot and set pieces can all remain intact while updating the cosmetics to reflect a more diverse, thoughtful approach to media representation. Natalia Dyer is a relatively unknown actress (she starred in last year’s indie darling I Believe in Unicorns) who has the exact balance of charm, wonder and intelligence to pull of the swap with style and defy the criticism that would inevitably come her way.
HAVE COURTNEY BARNETT DO THE SOUNDTRACK
One of the most striking features of Hal Ashby’s original film was Cat Stevens’ exclusive dominion over its soundtrack, giving Harold and Maude a singular and cohesive feel that distinctly expressed its time, place and attitude. Australian singer songwriter Courtney Barnett’s low-fi, insightful and bitingly clever approach to song-smithing is an exact aesthetic match for what a contemporary version of the story would look and feel like, injecting a vibrant energy that speaks more directly to the early 21st century than Stevens (totally wonderful) late 60s style folk strumming. Plus her cover of If You Want to Sing Out would be unbelievable.
UPDATE THE SETTING TO PRESENT DAY
Given the prominence that youth and age play in Harold and Maude, keeping the film contemporary is essential to making it feel relevant a really bring out the clash between the morbid, backward looking outlook of the early film and the optimism and joy that eventually break through. Luckily, because the film is so heavily episodic, this is not only doable but offers opportunity for updating some set pieces to find new and specific wells of comedy. The two main characters stealing a city tree and transporting it to the forest will be a touching, hysterical adventure regardless of when its set, but replace Harold’s mother filling out a mail-in dating form with her explorations of OK Cupid or, maybe stretching a little too far, Tinder, and the counter-culture spirit of the original is retained and molded into a form the 2010s can recognize.
DON’T SOFTEN THE SUICIDE HUMOR
Given that the film opens with one of the many staged suicides that Harold performs throughout, the fact that the way American culture looks at and talks about mental illness has changed greatly since 1971 has got to be addressed. Please don’t take this as anti-PC griping or anything. The more compassionate, open and thoughtful way that suicide and mental illness are being discussed is a terrific step forward, and should continue to grow more considerate and careful. However, in the case of Harold and Maude, so much of the emotional and dramatic weight of the finale rests on the relative levity that self-annihilation is treated with by Harold early on that to soften or remove those scenes would irreparably harm the climax of the motion picture. The film as a whole isn’t callous or uncaring in its treatment of suicide; rather, it’s deeply felt, sympathetic to people who struggle with depression/self-destructive impulses, and works through these issues in a way that’s honest both with its characters and its audience. While having one of the two main characters routinely pretend to kill themselves as a source of comedy may prove upsetting or triggering for some viewers, the ultimate catharsis that it allows the film to reach requires it, and means that it absolutely cannot be removed from the story without compromising the entire piece.
COULD A REMAKE BE GOOD?
Frankly, pretty easily. It wouldn’t clash too sharply with the mid-level independent film scene as it stands while still having enough reasons to exist that it could excite audiences (and turn more filmgoers onto the wonderful original film). Its episodic nature allows it to respect Hal Ashby’s take while tweaking those things that need tweaking for a remake to be worthwhile in the first place, and it offers a wonderful canvas for truly counter-culture filmmaking.