January 20, 2009
By Robert Avila
Among the eye-popping cavalcade of talent that is this year’s eighth annual SF Sketchfest (hands-down the Bay Area’s premier comedy showcase these days) is a salute to Bud Cort at the Castro Theatre, where the actor will appear together with a screening of perennial jewel Harold and Maude. Cort actually has deep roots in stand-up comedy: He was discovered by Robert Altman while performing in New York in a comedy duet with pal Judy Engles (Harold’s blind date #1, for those seeing the film), which led to his being cast in MASH (1970), followed swiftly by more work, including two rep house faves back-to-back: Altman’s whimsical Brewster McCloud and Hal Ashby’s evergreen Harold and Maude.
I wondered if Cort’s own background in stand-up had played any part in the decision by SF Sketchfest founders David Owen, Cole Stratton, and Janet Varney to feature him. But they confirmed that, while they knew he had started out in sketch work, it was Cort’s 50-plus film career — naturally including his singular performance as the death-obsessed, hearse-driving rich kid opposite Ruth Gordon’s vital octogenarian and free-spirit in Ashby’s poignant, pitch-perfect 1971 comedy — that had long attracted them to the man. The fact is, cinema is something SF Sketchfest takes seriously.
“Film was always in our minds when we started expanding the festival [in 2003],” explains Varney, who like colleagues Owen and Stratton is a comedic screen actor in her own right, as well as host for the past four years of TBS’s Dinner and a Movie. “We started doing film screenings really early on. We were interested in all things comedy, and [cinema is] for us a really important component.”
Having already partnered successfully with the palatial Castro Theatre (most recently for an off-season salute to Gene Wilder), Varney says they were keen to do something there again, and Bud Cort was someone they had been talking about for a while. “This year, just through various channels — people who had performed at the festival, and friends and contacts in L.A. — we were able to talk to and invite him, and he was delighted to come. We’re delighted it happened.”
The salute honors the entirety of Cort’s inimitable contribution to screen comedy, but the decision to screen Harold and Maude is hardly incidental, as David Owen’s reflections on the movie make clear.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with my dad but he showed that film to me when I was 4 years old,” he remembers. “It’s kind of odd to show your 4-year-old son a film about a guy obsessed with faking his suicide and in love with an 80-year-old woman. But I loved it. It’s one of the films that informed my sense of humor, my love of black comedy. There are a handful of films that have shaped us, our taste in comedy, our taste in film, and Bud Cort’s performance in particular has been such an inspiration; [he's] someone who has affected our entire creative lives.”
A surprise to audiences for nearly four decades, Harold and Maude is something of a perfect film. Despite its slow-mounting success, following an initially poor critical reception, it’s now regarded as a priceless specimen from a storied decade for American independent film (and gold to some lucky rights-holder — a bounty in which Cort is, incredibly, not included. The actor notes he has actually earned more from his brief and uncredited appearance in Michael Mann’s Heat.)
Screenwriter Colin Higgins and director Hal Ashby’s small masterpiece is also an ur-text, visible behind Wes Anderson’s pop-infused musings on the hilarity and heartbreak of family, or Fight Club’s darkly blooming romance between two serial voyeurs at medical support groups (or for that matter Joey Price’s tortured teen treat Emo! The Musical, which also features in this year’s Sketchfest lineup). It’s entwined, as Owen suggests, in a whole sensibility it helped to channel and influence. It’s even possible to say, without diminishing the equally potent work of Ruth Gordon, that Cort’s performance achieved its own separate status in the iconography of dissenter culture: The wide-eyed, devilish innocence of this prince Hal is an emo avant la lettre, a figure deftly drawn as if by the hand of Edward Gorey.
Cort has worked consistently over the years on stage and screen, despite some consuming projects that never made it to fruition (most famously a multi-year endeavor to develop a film with Marlon Brando), and a serious car accident in 1979. Still, his film output has been erratic. (In an effort to avoid being typecast after Harold and Maude the young actor eschewed roles he now wishes he had taken, Cort has since said.) Recently he enjoyed a turn as a well-intentioned Tagalog-fluent bank stooge in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a part tailor-made for him by director and fan Wes Anderson. In addition to his appearances in films and plays, he famously lived for five years as the houseguest of Groucho Marx. He made his debut behind the camera as a writer-director with the 1991 film Ted and Venus (in which he also starred). He’s even toured internationally as a lounge singer (a latent musical inheritance from his father, who died young, and whose orchestra initially drove Bud the child from both his father’s in-home rehearsals and his own mandatory piano lessons, both of which he saw as nothing but intimidating nuisances).
With so much else to talk about, Bud Cort is, at first, understandably elusive on the inevitable subject of Harold and Maude, if graciously so: Speaking by phone from his home in Southern California, he suggests it would be better to leave the best and bulk of the questions for the Castro audience. Otherwise a ready and affable conversationalist, Cort says he genuinely enjoys the Q&As at screenings of the film. He has a vast supply of stories from an intriguingly unexpected life and career and launches into them enthusiastically (he’s been working on his memoirs for years, but says they’ve lately gathered serious steam). Still, there’s no hiding the impression that H&M is an otherwise tiresome subject, at least when approached head on. As the conversation wanders over his memories of San Francisco, however, which are considerable and begin with a 1970 film called The Strawberry Statement (set against the backdrop of student unrest on the SF State campus), he naturally begins reveling in the city’s myriad associations.
“It was a trip, because I’d just made MASH and I was kind of on a roll, so they just put me in a bunch of pictures and off I went to San Francisco. Bert Remsen, who was an Altman regular, had cast [the film], and he showed me around the city. He had a cane, so it was very leisurely, very nice. That was my first trip to San Francisco. I think that was the time that he recommended that I have a massage at this Japanese massage place.” Here the memory becomes more fraught as Cort, then a slim youth, recalls being walked on by a very large woman. “I didn’t know what to think. It was the first time I’d ever had a massage.” I ask if it proved at all relaxing in the end. “It was panic inducing, actually.”
This memory glides into another, more felicitous one from his next film shoot in the city.
“Steve Silver was assistant art director on Harold and Maude. He was a wonderful guy. He did my portrait on an egg. There was a little hole in it, and when you looked inside, there was a portrait of Ruth Gordon. I don’t know how he did it, but he was a fantastic painter. With Mike Haller, the production designer, they worked miracles on this film. Steve designed the wrap party, which was called ‘An Evening in the Snow,’ why I don’t know but he got real snow there. Just a magical kind of a guy. He told me about these plans he had for a show in San Francisco. I remember when the show was opening, he invited me to come up, and of course it was the dazzling Beach Blanket [Babylon]. I’ve seen it probably 25 times in the ensuing years. That was a big blow to lose both Colin [Higgins] and then Steve, because they were two really dear friends. I know his wife Jo is doing a wonderful job running the show still and I plan to see it when I come up there.” (Silver reportedly asked Cort to join the long-running revue at one point, although Cort was too busy making films to oblige.)
Still another San Francisco memory involves 1980′s Die Laughing, made while Cort was recovering from severe injuries sustained in the car accident the previous year. Weirdly, it involves another woman climbing onto him unbidden, this one very diminutive, actor-singer and dwarf Tamara De Treaux. Apparently, this was a blind date arranged by mutual friend Armistead Maupin.
“Armistead said I got a date for you and took me to this nightclub. ‘Well, who’s my date?’ I asked, and I felt this little tug on my pant leg. I looked down and it was Tammy. She leapt on me and said, ‘I love you, I love you!’ I said, ‘Madame, I’m on crutches, my leg’s in a cast, please get off me.’ But we became great friends and she ended up being in my nightclub act.”
The following year, 1981, Cort was back to shoot what he calls one of his very favorite films, She Dances Alone, about Kyra Najinsky, daughter of the great Russian dancer, which Cort made with director Robert Dornhelm. He also refers to Dornhelm as one of his favorite directors. I ask him his others.
“Well, obviously Altman. I had such respect for Bob. We had a big breakup after Brewster McCloud because he wanted me to do McCabe and Mrs. Miller and I turned it down to do Harold and Maude. I explained to him that I had already accepted it, but he wanted me to come up to Canada and see this whole village that he had built and everything. I think it really hurt him deeply that I wouldn’t do this part. Anyway, we had a big rift. Luckily, over the years, just by being thrown together socially so many times, we really got back to the original relationship that we had, but more adult. To me he was the father I never had, but after this I just accepted him and he accepted me. We really had a fun together in the last years, just hanging out.”
“And Wes Anderson I think is just wild. I get such a kick out of him. He’s such a throwback. He reminds me of George Cukor. He’s just so fastidious, but his visual flair is very original, and I really liked working with him.”
As an afterthought, Cort rings back with an anecdote about director Ivan Passer. “I did a faerie tale for Shelly Duvall with Mick Jagger [The Nightingale, an episode in a series Duvall originated and hosted in the mid-1980s]. Ivan Passer gave me one of my favorite pieces of direction. He called to me, and he just said, ‘Run slower!” He laughs heartily at the memory. “I just always thought that was one of the best pieces of direction.”
“Does that even make sense? It does and it doesn’t. But that’s showbiz, you know? Run slower.”
And with that, Cort dashed off to his next appointment.