TED AND VENUS: Bud Cort’s lost paean to HAROLD AND MAUDE

(USA, 1991, Bud Cort)
TED AND VENUS

HAROLD AND MAUDE was initially trashed by critics and ignored by audiences before it went on to become the beloved cult classic that it is today, so why not give a second (or first) look at Bud Cort’s directorial debut, TED AND VENUS? Upon its 1991 direct-to-video release, it was dismissed by critics who uniformly compared the film unfavorably with HAROLD AND MAUDE. The irony is that these critics would have probably been the same ones disparaging that film if they had been around then. It’s fitting that many of the negative comments made by critics about HAROLD AND MAUDE upon its initial release mirror those made about TED AND VENUS — unsympathetic protagonist, lack of character motivation, too weird, too self-consciously quirky, etc. Or, to quote the Variety review, “HAROLD AND MAUDE has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.” And the resemblances between HAROLD AND MAUDE and TED AND VENUS, besides the obvious reference in the title’s male first name and female first name pairing, are not merely superficial. There’s a good reason why Cort dedicated TED AND VENUS to Ruth Gordon, Hal Ashby, and Colin Higgins — respectively, the co-star, director, and screenwriter of the film that was both a blessing and a curse for Cort.

What makes TED AND VENUS interesting is exactly what critics of the film objected to: how it sets up expectations only to completely obliterate them. I didn’t like the first half-hour of TED AND VENUS, but, in hindsight, I only disliked it because I was expecting what followed to be a far more formulaic film. Cort plays Ted, a mentally unstable poet living in 1974′s bohemian Venice, California. His only friend is the womanizing Max (played by James Brolin in one of his best performances). One day, Ted falls passionately in love with Linda (Kim Adams), a beautiful, kind-hearted social worker with a loutish boyfriend. At first, Ted’s advances charm her, but as he becomes more persistent in his attempts to win her affections, she becomes increasingly frightened by him (he begins stalking her and making obscene phone calls at all hours). No, it’s not your formulaic romantic comedy but, I expected it to be from the first half hour which has all the trappings of said genre. Cort leads you to believe that TED AND VENUS will be a trite and tiresome love-against-all-odds romantic comedy in which opposites attract and two extremely different people fall in love with each other in spite of their differences. A film in which the endless persistence of the lovelorn protagonist who refuses to take no for an answer and pursues his love interest with a single-minded, burning obsession wins the object of his affection’s heart. Instead, Cort savages this premise by depicting this obsessional behavior for what it is: not the signs of an endearing romantic but the actions of a mentally unstable individual. A fine line exists between a hopeless romantic and a restraining order. It’s completely dependent upon whether the viewer is inclined to feel sympathy for Ted or simply be repelled by him. Most would probably find him revolting, but I had mixed feelings towards him. What is so unexpected is that Cort refuses to glamorize his behavior. Unlike most films about unstable individuals, Cort refuses to make his character pitiful or endearing. He explores the creepier and darker side of romantic obsession, depicting Ted’s unrequited love as hopeless delusion. This is a brave, genre-defying move considering TED AND VENUS is a romantic comedy (just look at the video box cover). This is a scenario usually reserved for horror movies.

That said, the film has its share of problems. The tone is too uneven, a number of scenes simply don’t work, and Kim Adams (starring as Venus) is not a good enough actress for the part. Though possessing requisite model good looks, her acting is so stiff and awkward that it becomes even harder to rationalize Ted’s obsession for her. For the rest of the cast, Cort evidently called in some favors to friends and admirers as the film features a parade of cameos including Woody Harrelson, Carol Kane, Rhea Perlman, Vincent Schiavelli, Gena Rowlands, Martin Mull, and Dr. Timothy Leary. But Cort is the heart and soul of the film. As Ted, Cort gives a wonderful performance that makes me sad that he hasn’t been in more leading roles. Today, the dictates of youth rule over talent. Cort’s performance in TED AND VENUS is as good as his career-making role in HAROLD AND MAUDE. Ted is an even more challenging role, and Cort captures the instability of Ted’s behavior perfectly — one minute, he’s the shy, lovelorn romantic; the next moment, he’s rattling off a litany of obscene activities that he wants to perform on his cherished Venus. Cort brings Ted to life, turning him into a real person, warts and all. Though he still has the cherubic face and piercing eyes of his youth, Cort has grown as an actor. He brings to the role a complexity that provides no easy explanations to Ted’s behavior. It is tempting to see Ted as a grown-up Harold. If so, the youthful hope and optimism of HAROLD AND MAUDE has turned into melancholy and resignation. Harold had Maude to pierce through his lonely and isolated existence and show him that life is worth living. Ted, on the other hand, found his reason for living, only to find that she wants nothing to do with him.

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