‘Harold and Maude’ actor broods about life’s letdowns
‘A Coffee with’ Bud Cort
March 27, 2008, Austin American-Statesman
“Coffee with?” How about breakfast with? How about scrambled eggs with? More to the point: “loose, wet” scrambled eggs (with onions and a tomato on the side) with?
Breakfast with Bud. How’s that?
Bud Cort — known forever, ruefully, as death-obsessed Harold in the 1971 cult classic “Harold and Maude,” co-starring a randy and geriatric Ruth Gordon — wants breakfast on this rainy day at a big Austin hotel. He will have coffee, too. And orange juice. And a bagel. Please, take away the cream cheese. It’s not low-fat.
He’s picky and precise. And, after all these years, Harold is still gloomy.
Strike that. Cort is not Harold. About this he is adamant. That was the Paramount hype contraption, selling the owl-eyed, 22-year-old actor as the freaky, alienated teenager he played in the movie. There’s nothing odd or unusual about Cort. Nothing, and everything.
He wears disappointment nicely. His outfit is a snazzy shade of melancholy. Behind the Harry Potter glasses, those famous big eyes are moist with complaint.
There is no Cat Stevens ditty on hand to telegraph the emotions unspooling in this scene, unless he’s changed the name of “Tea for the Tillerman” to “Coffee for Cort.” Even then, it would be a tune jangling with resentment, backed by a chorus of blustery sighs.
Cort was in Austin last week to present three of his movies at the Alamo Ritz: Robert Altman’s Houston-shot “Brewster McCloud,” Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” and the only film Cort wrote and directed, “Ted and Venus,” which went straight to video in 1991.
We have no idea how breakfast started with this, but it did: the one-man Truman Capote stage show that Cort developed and was meant to star in. With a lisp and quivering high notes that create the unnerving noise of an emphysemic Munchkin, Cort warbles a snatch of “Moon River” as if sung by Capote.
It’s something he does in Kinky Friedman’s show when Friedman takes his touring act to Cort’s hometown, which will go unnamed here at Cort’s request. (He believes he has a stalker.)
Violent letdowns and reversals are the lingua franca of show biz. Choice parts are plucked by others. Plays and films never get produced. Salaries are cut, royalties withheld.
Welcome to Bud’s world.
Starting with Capote going kaputey — the play was “stolen from me”; Philip Seymour Hoffman nabbed the role in the movie “Capote” because Cort was too old — Cort ticker-tapes a litany of professional injustices with an acrid whiff of rancor, frustration and, just maybe, delusion and paranoia.
After “Harold and Maude,” Cort tried to make a movie with Marlon Brando. “Another horror story,” he says.
Hollywood today uses “gangster tactics, with actors not being paid,” while big stars are insanely overpaid.
In 1979, Cort was in a savage car accident in Los Angeles that broke several bones and smashed his bank. (“I don’t want to talk about that, if you don’t mind,” he says.) His face was so disfigured that he endured a series of plastic surgeries. He’s still unhappy with the results.
It’s getting dark in here. Hey, let’s talk about “Harold and Maude,” the movie that made your career!
“No comment,” Cort grumbles. “Let’s just say that I don’t make any money on (it) and I never have.”
But surely you got oceans of plum roles after that?
“It typecast me. I didn’t make a film for five years.”
Of course he kept making movies, 60 or so by his reckoning. We scan the list of films. Years, decades scroll by. We barely recognize any of the titles, until 1986’s “Invaders from Mars” grabs our eye. Then a few more familiar ones: “Dogma,” “But I’m a Cheerleader,” “Coyote Ugly,” “Pollock,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” television’s “Ugly Betty.” And one of our favorites, Michael Mann’s crime epic “Heat.”
Let’s talk about how great “Heat” is.
“I have made more money off that one and three-quarters scenes in ‘Heat’ than I made for ‘Harold and Maude,'” Cort says. “Every once in a while I’ll get a check in the mail for like 11 cents from Paramount. They still claim the movie hasn’t made any money. It’s insane. It’s not nice.”
A wounded ego is a big ego. Cort emanates an air of entitlement born of bad luck or bad choices or whatever it is that makes Hollywood such a torture chamber of heartache, anger and rejection.
Born Walter Cox in 1948 — he turns 60 on Saturday — Cort finds some solace in theater and live comedy, in which he’s been active since he was a teenager, well before “Harold and Maude.” He repeatedly brings up the autobiography he’s writing, and tags several topics as off-limits, such as when he lived with Groucho Marx in the 1970s.
And when he does visit a chapter in his life at length, he follows it with a retraction that makes us do mental double takes.
“I’m doing my own book,” Cort says firmly. “It’s my material. If you cannot get into the sturm and drang of everything, I’d appreciate that. I’m saving that for my book.”
Then we make a faux pas, not hard to do in this brittle setting. When inquiring about the eyebrow-jolting Groucho years — it’s reported that he would watch old movies with Marx wearing pajamas upon the elder man’s bed — we use the word “odd.”
“I don’t like that you keep using these ‘odd’ words,” Cort says.
It’s a sore spot, one of about two dozen. After creating his much-heralded Harold, journalists would ask the same thing over and over: Are you really that nutty?
“Crazy, weird, whatever,” Cort recalls. “They bought into the publicity and didn’t bother to check to see that there was an actor giving a performance.”
But it stuck, and so, even though we know better, we ask point-blank: Are you crazy and weird?
Dead air. Eye-roll. Long, tense pause.
Nervously, we chuckle.
“I won’t even answer a question like that. I have no patience for it,” Cort says finally. “That’s how crazy and weird I am.”