Friday, August 5, 2011

The urban neurotic Garbo: Barbara Harris

While I always enjoy celebrating the careers of performers and artists who’ve left this mortal coil, I also do want to salute those who are still with us. And this week, on the occasion of a very nice discovery (two very nice discoveries) on YouTube, and apropos of nothing at all (fortunately not a demise), I am happy to salute the work of an actress who has been forgotten by most folks, but who gave us a handful of wonderfully indelible performances.

This fascination began when I first saw one of my favorite films, A Thousand Clowns (1965). It's possible to "fall" for that film in several ways: devotions can be developed to the super-charismatic Jason Robards, the gorgeously epigrammatic writer Herb Gardner, the manic Gene Saks, or the the wonderful BH. Harris was cast in the film instead of Sandy Dennis (whom I also love, but that’s a story for another post), who had played the female lead onstage. Harris's performance in the film causes one to wonder, “who is this adorable woman, who can be cute but not cloying and impish but not off-putting?”

If you climb with me on the relatively small bandwagon of diehard Barbara Harris fans (not to be confused with the bandwagon for the lead singer of the girl group the Toys, or any of the many other Barbara Harrises who’ve worked in show biz in the last half-century), you’ll discover a small number (18) of terrific performances in both landmark movies and ones that only the true aficionado of late-night TV (or, these days, obscure old VHS tapes and the occasional TCM airing) knows about.

At various points in the Sixties and Seventies, Harris was perched on the brink of superstardom, but didn’t have much interest in it (in that regard, she is a “legit” theater, less sex-kittenish version of the wonderfully hesitant Tuesday Weld). The only trace of a recent interview with her on the Net, from 2002, finds her saying she didn’t have an impulse to keep acting, and she has in fact been an acting teacher for the past few decades — before, during, and after the final flourish in the Eighties and Nineties where she played a few moms onscreen.

So who is this “mystery” performer who was marvelously endearing onscreen, but deliberately forsook fame and wealth at just about every turn? The basic facts of her life are available in the usual places online. She was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1935, and found her first great foothold as a performer in a troupe called the Playwrights Theatre; other members of the troupe included Ed Asner, and Nichols and May. She graduated from there to the Compass, which is best known for serving as a springboard for both the aforementioned comedy team (whose three LPs never, ever go outta date) and Shelley Berman (whose wonderfully paranoid visions also never, ever date). The group was run by her first husband, Paul Sills, one of the true legends of American improv comedy.

The first cast of the Second City.
The Compass, in turn, grew into a troupe called “The Second City,” with Barbara being one of the two women in the initial ensemble (Mina Kolb was the other). The troupe brought its sketches to the Broadway stage in 1961 (in From the Second City), and Harris distinguished herself in a number of roles, including a housewife seduced by a beatnik (Alan Arkin) in a sketch called, simply enough, “Museum Piece.” A video exists of this sketch and appears in a CBC documentary about the history of the two Second City troupes (it is time for someone to get the full sketch online!).

The Second City's Broadway run was Barbara's ticket to fame in legit theater. She appeared in the off-Broadway hit Oh Dad, Poor Dad… in 1962, then costarred in Mother Courage on Broadway in ’63, and wound up having the distinction of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane writing her a musical — On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (pictured) was written explicitly for her. Her big number later became an AM radio staple for singers like Eydie Gorme, “What Did I Have That I Don't Have?”

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Barbara repeated her off-B'way role in Oh Dad, Poor Dad... in the wildly uneven 1967 film adaptation (her sole overtly sexy role, with even a bikini scene thrown in, to wake the audience up) and won a Tony for her next musical, the critically hailed three-part show The Apple Tree ('66-'67) with Alan Alda and Larry Blyden.

At this point, the story gets a little fuzzy — I distinctly remember looking her up in the Lincoln Center Library to find out where she “went” after the big films of the Seventies and discovering an article in a theater magazine that mentioned that she had scuttled her Broadway career by having a night where she went “dry” onstage and abruptly left a show in mid-run (I believe the show was Apple Tree). I’m told by many people that “everything you need to know is available on the Net,” but the name of that particular show is mentioned nowhere online, nor is her supposed “nervous breakdown” confirmed or denied anywhere.

The cast of The Apple Tree.
Whatever troubles she had in the late Sixties were totally wiped away by her successes in the Seventies. She came back with a one-two punch, two roles in two very significant films, both of which feature finales that pivot entirely around her. The first is, of course, Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), and the second is Alfred Hitchock’s Family Plot (1976). Hitch thought enough of Barbara to end the film (and thus, unwittingly, his career) with her winking at the camera. An adorable gesture in a very enjoyable but not perfect film.

Family Plot
It’s almost inconceivable that Harris didn’t go on to instant fame after those two films. Imagine — to have Altman’s critically-lauded tapestry end with a performer absolutely nailing a killer song by Keith Carradine (which pretty much sums up what Altman was trying to say about America and apathy in a few verses), and then for that same performer to be the very last person seen in the very last Hitchcock film, winking at the camera (Hitch himself winked at his audience in the Family Plot poster, meaning Barbara was most definitely his surrogate). And then the lady appears in one very popular film — the first (and much-too-copied) modern-era “body-switch” comedy Freaky Friday (1976). She follows this with a few more umemorable movies, withdraws to teach somewhere along the way, does a few more supporting "mom" roles (and a scene in the, again, wildly uneven, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)), and is never heard from publicly again (unless you took her classes, of course).

Harris is indeed an enigma of sorts — the Garbo of adorable urban neurotic Sixties actresses. We don’t know anything about her private life, which is fine (I was intrigued, though, to see Robert Klein mention in his autobiography that he had a crush on her when they worked together in The Apple Tree). But we also don’t know much about her as a performer, except for the work that was preserved onscreen.

The book The Nashville Chronicles by Jan Stuart reveals that, early on, she thought her performance in Altman's epic tapestry was terrible (she initially had another song in the film, one by Chicago friend Shel Silverstein). Altman told her she was wrong, but she begged him to let her buy and destroy the rushes of her initial scenes. He wouldn’t let her, and thus we still have her performance as Altman intended it — but the other song hit the cutting room floor, so that Altman could properly tease out the fact that her character indeed *could* sing….

So Harris is an actress who left us with some superb starring and supporting performances on film, some well-remembered but ephemeral theater and TV work (out of which only a jarringly disturbing and brilliant Naked City episode exists on DVD), and a bunch of unsubstantiated show-biz-style rumors (another one appears on the always-unreliable IMDB, but I will only refer to the ones I’ve actually read in print sources). Of course what it comes down to is that Harris’s personal reputation, whatever that may have been, has been washed away by the sands of time and what we’re left with are the performances, for which I am incredibly grateful.

Since A Thousand Clowns, Nashville, Family Plot, and Freaky Friday are all imminently available, let me just direct you to the nicest rarities that appear online. First, audio tracks of an ill-fated, off-B’way revival of Brecht’s Mahagonny starring Harris and Estelle Parsons. Then the underrated (okay, forgotten) Herb Gardner character masterwork Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971). Harris has a bravura scene that earned her an Oscar nomination. She is utterly sublime.

Jerry Schatzberg’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) is remembered primarily for its early starring performance by Meryl Streep, but Harris is equally wonderful. The trailer can be seen here.

The only Harris film I’ve yet to see — and I'm certain it will appear on the Net in some fashion — is Hal Ashby’s 1981 picture Second Hand Hearts (originally called “The Hamster of Happiness” — I’m not kidding!). A fan of the film put up a clip here.

The Apple Tree
I close with the two clips that kicked off this whole musing on the wonderful Ms. Harris, two segments from her work in Broadway musicals, as captured for TV. I was surprised by these clips for two reasons: because I NEVER thought I’d see her work on Broadway on video; and because she worked in a quiet and nuanced fashion in the movies, but is definitely using what they call “heightened realism” in these clips (or, more apt, cartoonlike caricature for broadly cartoonish musicals).

She also played “split” characters in both shows, so she affects a very cute and somewhat silly voice for each introverted personality. Here she is on the Tony Awards performing a scene from The Apple Tree where she plays the Jules Feiffer character “Passionella,” who wants to be a “beautiful, glamorous, radiant, ravishing… movie star!” Check out the ultra-quick costume change:

And please let us not speak of forthcoming revivals with Harry Connick Jr., or overblown Minnelli movies with Streisand (was there a movie musical with Streisand that was not overblown?), Yves Montand, and a young (singing — yes, I’ve got the LP with the outtake) Jack Nicholson. Here are the original stars of On a Clear Day…, John Cullum and Barbara on The Bell Telephone Hour’s 1966 special “The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner.” On a Clear Day… is very much of its era (the lyrics get into very cutesy places, as when "bestir" is rhymed with "disinter"), and I have no idea how it will be packaged as a revival, and I don’t care, because I won’t see it. This is the real deal:

Wherever you are, Ms. Harris, thanks for the performances. You did turn out to be a very different sort of “radiant, ravishing movie star,” and are not forgotten.

Update: My Deceased Artiste tribute to Barbara Harris can be found here. RIP.


Pen said...

I, too, attempted research on Barbara Harris at one time. The last I heard about her she was supposed to attend a Second City reunion some years ago but she never showed. She was also supposed to do an audio performance but was replaced with Shirley Jones without explanation. Second City reunions were something she never missed. These two events make me wonder if she suffered an illness and, being the private person she is, no word about that has leaked out. I, too, am a big fan of Ms. Harris. Her performances are stellar and I had hoped to someday write a biography about the woman. I have since decided against this and to allow the woman her peace. But I do miss her. Not many actresses these days are equal to Barbara Harris. There will never be another like her. ~Pen

JerseySurvivor said...

I do believe she is still in the Phoenix area. There is very little family info on the ever allusive Harris but I do believe she has one sibling still living.

All Irish said...

I can watch her with Walter Mathau in the Plaza Suite film repeatedly and catch something new every time. She has perfect comedic timing.

Arya said...

I agree, about the perfect comic timing, and love this blogger's description of Barbara Harris as an "urban neurotic Garbo."