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HAROLD MEETS HAROLD

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Could these two men have less in common: the slight, kinetic Russian, with chiseled cheekbones and regal bearing, and the older guy sporting sunglasses and a black leather jacket, his receding thatch of hair dyed platinum, emanating a major whiff of irony?

Meet Vladimir Malakhov, international dance sensation, and Bud Cort, the actor who shot to cult status 27 years ago in the film classic “Harold and Maude.”

The duo are conversing animatedly, both chain-smoking and dropping ashes in a water-filled vase in Malakhov’s flower-festooned dressing room backstage at the Met. The dancer has just given another virtuosic performance in the 19th century spectacle “La Bayadere” with American Ballet Theatre.

In the audience, watching his first dance matinee in many a moon, Cort had likened the ABT production, with leaping gold idol, opium smoking and doomed love, to a creaky C.B. DeMille opus. When it was pointed out that Malakhov executes backbends like no other male dancer, Cort nodded sagely. “At least not in public,” he deadpanned.

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But plies, arabesques and fish-dive partnering is not the topic today. Instead, this is a bit of cross-cultural diplomacy: hands across the art forms.

Malakhov, an ardent movie buff, has commissioned a ballet based on the 1972 film Cort is most famous for, choreographed by Jean Christophe Blavier for the Stuttgart Ballet. Malakhov, 31, hopes to bring the brooding, faux-suicidal Harold to balletic life in a 35-minute, one-act dance. His Maude? The great Stuttgart ballerina and onetime artistic director Marcia Haydee.

Cort weighs the appropriateness of it all. No, no, he tells Malakhov, Haydee, at 62, is too young for the part Ruth Gordon etched into the world’s cinematic consciousness.

“When I met the director, Hal Ashby,” Cort recalls, “and he asked me who I wanted to see as Maude, I told him I liked Greta Garbo. Hal said, ‘I hear she doesn’t want to work.’ ”

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“With makeup, Marcia can be 100,” Malakhov rolls out the number, tossing his model-perfect hair.

“Ann Miller, Marge Champion, they’re around,” Cort offers, “and they want to work. I don’t know if they’re at the barre every morning, though.”

The dancer, swathed in a purple dressing gown, puffs on his Marlboro Light and picks at a callus on the bottom of his foot. He says he initially asked Natalia Makarova to be his Maude, but she refused.

“She doesn’t want to put on the pointe shoes,” he says with a shrug. “She is scared to go back on stage.”

Cort nods sympathetically. “The part of Harold was written for another actor, John Rubinstein, he points out, “the pianist’s son. But I fought for it like a pit bull.”

In his fractured English, Malakhov reverentially cuts in: “I cannot imagine to see another person.”

“I’m sure they’ll remake it some day,” Cort counters. “The nice thing about the movie was that it was subversive. Today they would homogenize it, but if I were going to do the part today, I’d do it like a Goth. Vampire makeup, capes. . . .”

Malakhov’s brows, still heavily powdered from his performance, rise in puzzlement. He sees the work as it was originally set--in the ‘70s, with Harold wearing “the pants with wide legs"--he indicates bell-bottoms by drawing circles with his hands around his ankles.

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The Stuttgart costumes, it turns out, have yet to be finalized. The same goes for the choreography, and even the music, which, according to Malakhov, will probably be a pastiche. “Some Rachmaninoff, some Schnittke and some Tchaikovsky. Of course, we hope to find some Cat Stevens,” the ‘70s pop songster whose music was featured in the movie.

“You might have to look under a burnoose for him,” Cort cracks. “But maybe there could be a little music where Maude would teach you dances from the old days. Like the Charleston.”

”. . . and the waltz,” interjects Malakhov, swooping an arm through the air. Ballet classicism may flow in his veins--he graduated from the Bolshoi Academy in 1986--but he clearly covets the role of Harold.

“I saw him as a juvenile delinquent,” Cort confesses. “He’s straitjacketed and dying to rebel. He’s attracted to Maude, because of the outrageous, but in the end he really does fall in love with her.”

Malakhov agrees. “The story is much about love, and that these two people find themselves together.”

The Harolds Learn a Bit About Each Other’s Art

Cort, who lives in Los Angeles, has made 50 films (he’s in New York to shoot Ed Harris’ “Pollock,” which explains the platinum hair). Only one of Cort’s films gives him any link to the rarefied ballet world: “She Dances Alone,” a 1981 quasi-documentary, directed by Robert Dornhelm and narrated by Grace Kelly, about Kyra Nijinsky, daughter of the legendary dancer.

Malakhov, who has been compared to Nijinsky, has never seen the film. He grills Cort rapid-fire: “What was her behavior? She was difficult? How much of her father was she like?”

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“She was a sacred monster,” says Cort, promising to send a video. “On camera she’d get mad and then do all these Nijinsky gestures. Robert gave up the idea of a pure documentary, and had me play him in the movie instead.”

The meeting is winding down; a photographer waits outside the door. The two Harolds compare likes and dislikes: Makeup removal? Malakhov uses Almay hypoallergenic pads; Cort prefers Handi Wipes. TV? Malakhov loves the Discovery Channel and “Golden Girls”; Cort doesn’t even own a set.

Outside in Lincoln Center Plaza, with waning light banking off the buildings, they sit, head to head. The camera clicks, the moment is captured.

Cort hands his alter ego a silver feather bolo tie, a trinket from the other movie he’s working on now, a Dwight Yoakam-directed western.

“For luck,” he tells the Russian.

Then he offers a final thought: “ ‘Harold and Maude’ was an amazing experience,” he says. “It was about peace, love, tolerance and a disdain for the materialistic, but I really don’t like living in the past.”

Malakhov whispers something to his manager, who has followed the proceedings closely. He turns back to Cort.

“Would be wonderful,” the dancer says in his mellifluous rolling consonants and swollen vowels, his eyes gleaming, “if you could direct ballet.” Cort muses a moment.

“How much?” he asks. “Call my manager.”


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