Appreciating Julie Harris

I never had the pleasure (and by universal account it was one) of seeing the late Julie Harris (1925-2013), on stage, her true domain. I am a huge fan of hers now, but it took me awhile to get there.

In my younger years I was not crazy about what I saw on screen. My least favorite performance of hers is in The Haunting (1963), a harrowingly high-pitched turn which by design makes you want to take tranquilizers — but I don’t want to want to take tranquilizers! For years she was typecast as nervous types and weirdos and shrinking violets: on stage and screen she played Emily Dickinson, Mary Todd Lincoln, Amanda Wingfield, Ophelia, and any number of nail-biting, shoulder gnawing bookworms. On top of that there was this off-putting finishing school accent that I felt marred the theoretical naturalism of even some of her more notable performances, as those in The Member of the Wedding (1950), East of Eden (1955), and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962).

I started to love her when I strayed off the beaten track — where she surprised me. In The Split (1968), a very cool and stylish all-star caper film that ought to be better known, she plays a hard-bitten lady mastermind of a gang of criminals. And there’s lots of TV work I’ve seen where she brings something extra. In the 1973 Columbo episode “Any Old Port in a Storm”, she plays the long-suffering secretary of heartless vintner Donald Pleasance — and has her revenge. In a 1979 episode of Tales of the Unexpected she plays the nervous wife of a sadistic dawdler — and makes him pay by starving him in a trapped elevator. She played Sally Bowles in both the stage and screen versions of I Am a Camera, where her affected, seemingly pretentious manner seemed right for once AND she stretches to play the extrovert. In the right roles, she could be sexy. I feel this is where she truly excelled, when she was swimming upstream, when you could see the gears turning behind the wall of reserve. She played the title character in a TV version of The Heiress (1961) and Nora in A Doll’s House (1958) opposite Christopher Plummer. These too were good fits. It’s always delicious to see a Mouse That Roars.

A native of Grosse Point, Harris attended fancy private schools, did a year at Yale and then studied at the Actor’s Studio. It’s a Gift (1945) was her first Broadway play of close to three dozen. Her turn as 12 year old Frankie in The Member of the Wedding (1950) put her on the map. She won Tonys for her performances in The Lark (1956, she played Joan of Arc), Forty Carats (1969, by Jay Presson Allen), and the title characters in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1973), and The Belle of Amherst (1977). (She excelled at interpreting historical characters), A 1997 revival of The Gin Game with Charles Durning was her last Broadway turn.

Other notable stuff. She played Queen Victoria in a 1961 tv movie of Victoria Regina and won one of three Emmys for it. She’s in the early Coppola film You’re a Big Boy Now (1966). She’s in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) with Brando and Liz Taylor, and the horror thriller How Awful About Alan (1970) with Anthony Perkins and Joan Hackett. She was a regular on two short-lived TV series, the sitcom Thicker Than Water (1973) with Richard Long (his follow up to Nanny and the Professor), and The Family Hovack (1975) with Glenn Ford. She was a regular on Knots Landing (1980-87) — some may know her best from this, but to this day I’ve never seen an episode! She played Charlotte Bronte in an eponymous biopic in ’83. She was the voice of Mary Chestnut in Ken and Ric Burns Civil War series (1990), then returned to the theme as Rhett Butler’s mother in the Gone with the Wind sequel Scarlet (1994). Her last role was in the gentle comedy The Lightkeeper (2009) with Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, and Bruce Dern.

Nowadays of course, if I haven’t made it plain, I’ll watch anything Julie Harris is in. Beneath her manner, there clearly lay a Method.