Fresh from being charmed by odd couple black comedy, Harold and Maude, Caitríona O’Malley casts an eye over some of cinema’s stranger relationships
I feel obliged to say that there will be some spoilers ahead, so beware! For anyone who’s seen Pixar’s Up, they’ll remember the closing credits with wilderness explorer, Russell, and old man, Carl, doing things like going for ice-cream and playing with Dug. Mismatched as they are, they fit together, and it works, and it makes you feel all gooey inside. Theirs is not the only relationship outside the ordinary that fits in cinema.
Harold and Maude is a romantic comedy injected with a healthy dose of black humour. Here is surely one of cinema’s most bizarre love stories. Harold is a young man weary of life. He frequently carries out fake suicides, to the despair of his mother. He is infatuated with death, and enjoys attending the funerals of strangers. It is at one such funeral that he meets Maude. Maude is an octogenarian with an insatiable appetite for fun and adventure. And so this skinny, withdrawn young man and this impish old woman become inseparable. Maude helps Harold to see that life is as enjoyable as you make it, and one of their more hilarious escapades involves roaring away on a stolen motorbike. Cat Stevens’ gentle melodies soundtrack this sweet story of an elderly woman capturing the imagination of a disillusioned boy. Age, as Harold and Maude demonstrate, is no obstacle.
Two struggling actors in 1969 London are the focal point of Withnail and I. They are vastly different people, and this serves as a catalyst for many of the most entertaining scenes. There’s Withnail, played with much relish by Richard E. Grant. But then, who wouldn’t love playing a booze-soaked, foul-mouthed degenerate, knocking back lighter fluid and getting to spout such gems as ‘I’ve only had a few ales’? Then there’s ‘I’, whose name remains a mystery (although hawk-eyed fans claim that you can see it briefly on a letter in an early scene). He’s driven to distraction by Withnail’s feckless ways. He’s highly-strung and skittish, and his anguished inner monologues are a delight throughout. Withnail and I are bound by failure and frustration. Their acting careers aren’t exactly blossoming. They live in squalor. And yet there’s sincerity there, and we know that there’s love, too. No matter how much you’ve messed up in life, you can be sure you’ll have an equally pathetic friend there to prop you up at rock bottom!
Moving to less comedic fare, Scent of a Woman is the story of Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade’s time in New York with his young minder, Charlie Simms. Like Harold and Maude, their connection is forged despite the vast age gap. However, Slade has none of the warmth of Maude, at first. He is gruff, cantankerous, impatient and hot-tempered, and Charlie is bewildered when he takes him on a flight to New York. Charlie is a poor boy amidst a sea of wealthy, obnoxious brats in a prep school. Sensitive, conflicted and morally torn, Charlie learns a lot from Frank during their time in the city. Indeed, Frank thaws and becomes his mentor and closest ally. For his poignant and heartfelt defence of Charlie alone, Al Pacino earned that Oscar. They start off wary of one another: a blind, resentful veteran, and a student struggling with a huge decision, but by the film’s end there is mutual respect and admiration, and a friendship that will endure.
There is a classic scene in John Hughes’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles where Steve Martin’s Neal launches a litany of abuse at a car rental woman. He averages ‘fucking’ around every second word. It’s an impressive feat. Neal is very much the uptight one of this affair. He’s edgy and withering, and contemptuous of his unwanted travel companion, John Candy’s likable but careless Del. Del frays every last one of Neal’s nerves as they lope across the country in a desperate bid to be home for Thanksgiving. The disdain is largely on Neal’s end. Del is mostly eager to please and in fairness, he tries his best. Del brims with positivity. Like a drooling Labrador bounding towards you, he’s hard to resist. And when his mask begins to slip, Neal understands, and is there for him. It’s a funny farce, but it has heart.
For me, it’s the relationships that seem the most unlikely that are often the best in films. From Harold and Maude, to Charlie and Frank, Withnail and I, Neal and Del, Carl and Russell in Up, and more, cinema has so many fine examples of odd connections forged between people who couldn’t be more different. As Angela Hayes says in American Beauty (another unusual friendship there: Lester and Ricky, anyone?), there’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.