Of all the priceless lives lost to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, on my personal short list of those whose deaths were a blow to American film culture was writer-director Colin Higgins (1941-1888). What a track record. There are so few in modern times I would ever say that about. But, man, that guy knew his beans.
You think I’m kiddin’? Higgins wrote the life-changing cult favorite Harold and Maude (1971), directed by Hal Ashby, followed by the two amazing comical Alfred Hitchcock homages, Silver Streak (1976, directed by Arthur Hiller) and Foul Play (1978, Higgins’ first film as director). Then came the prescient #metoo revenge fantasy 9 to 5 (1980) and the 1982 adaptation of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). He also wrote an amazing, subtly campy ABC Movie of the Week called The Devil’s Daughter (1972), which I wrote about here, and co-wrote the TV movie adaptation of Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb (1987). Overall he was responsble for some of the solidest, most successful comedy hits of the ’70s and early ’80s, with some interesting side projects besides, like a 1975 theatre piece with Peter Brook about the Ik people of Africa, and a live theatre version of Harold and Maude (co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière) that ran in France for seven years. Oh! He also had a bit part Star Wars (1977)!
Why was he so good? No idea. I know he got an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA, and lived life a little in his 20s before settling down to write. He served in the U.S. army and worked as a merchant seaman. He was an actor in the theatre. And he had an interesting background — born on the island of New Caledonia, and raised in Sydney, Australia. He was, naturally, gay.
Things I love about him: his dark (sometimes darker than dark) sensibility. The importance of music (think about it: the Cat Stevens soundtrack in Harold and Maude, the use of Gilbert and Sullivan and a hit Barry Manilow tune in Foul Play, and 9 to 5’s hit theme song. And Whorehouse was a literal musical). And somehow he managed to balance an encyclopedic mental storehouse of Hollywood history with relentless originality. (Okay, the chase at the climax of Foul Play is a little too much like the one in What’s Up, Doc? but when in San Francisco…) Interestingly, most of his movies were critically disparaged when they came out, but ultimately Higgins got the last laugh, for now most are regarded as classics. Even Harold and Maude eventually made a profit. And his movies gave their stars some of their finest moments on screen.
Most vexing to me is the stuff that was left undone due to his early exit from this life. There are scripts by him that haven’t been filmed to this day. There was one set in Paris called The Man Who Lost Tuesday that he intended to make after The Best Little Whorehouse but was stalled because the budget was considered too big (despite the fact that all of his previous films had made lots of money). And he was developing one called Washington Girls that would have featured 9 to 5 stars Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin. (I’m not sure if this is the same script as First Lady, which he was reportedly developing for Tomlin). He also had ideas for a prequel and a sequel to Harold and Maude.
Some of our questions may be answered by a new documentary called Celebrating Laughter: The Life and Films of Colin Higgins. According to IMDB it was to be released a couple of months ago, but who knows if it made it into any theatres thanks to Covid, and I can’t find it on any of my streaming platforms. But it looks to have interviews with the likes of Bud Cort, Dabney Coleman, Goldie Hawn, Arthur Hiller, Fonda, Parton, etc. Sadly so many of the others he worked with are already gone: Ruth Gordon, Shelley Winters, Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder, Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty, Burgess Meredith, Rachel Roberts, Dudley Moore, Brian Dennehy, Burt Reynolds, etc. (I wonder what Chevy Chase’s excuse is for not doing the doc).
At any rate, we’re coming up on 40 years since the last film Higgins directed. Many’s the comedy I have seen that could have used his talents in the years since. Harold might have taken grim satisfaction in the situation. Higgins seems like he was too nice a guy.
For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.