Friday, August 24, 2018

'I feel like I just auditioned for the part of human being and I didn't get the job.': Deceased Artiste Barbara Harris

She quit appearing in films 21 years ago and only acted in a play or two after that, but Barbara Harris left a rich legacy of movie and TV work when she died this week at 83 of lung cancer. Eighteen features (plus a bunch of early sixties TV episodes) — a number that includes several cult classics as well as other, more forgettable pics redeemed only by Harris’s presence.

I’ve already written a rather thorough and heartfelt tribute to her, which can be found here. I was pleased and flattered to see that Maureen O’Donnell, in the Chicago Sun-Times obit for Harris, quoted from and linked to my 2011 piece, in which I referred to Barbara as “the Garbo of adorable urban neurotic Sixties actresses.”

But there are things I left out of that piece, and there have been some new discoveries of clips “hidden in plain sight” on YouTube. Thus, this piece should be considered a second part to my August 2011 tribute, which was written while she was still with us but was already long out of public view. The title of this piece is a line from her bravura scene in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, which should without question have earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Alan Jay Lerner (left), Barbara (right), and a random
The first rarity that has shown up is the Comedy from the Second City LP, recorded on Jan 19, 1961, and released on Mercury Records as an original cast album from the Broadway run of the first Second City troupe.

Most interesting is the intellectual aspect of the sketches — these days improv groups seem to aim for sitcom-like set-ups and “signature” characters for each performer, whereas the original group wasn't afraid to drop “egghead” references (as here, when Alan Arkin does a folk song based on William Blake). Barbara sings a ditty about the lamentable lives of various celebrities’ wives and also plays an expert on the Soviet Union (named “Miss Ann Thrope”).

Harris also appears on the second album by the troupe, called simply From the Second City (Mercury, 1962). This record has the classic “Museum Piece” about a housewife talking to a beatnik on the make (Alan Arkin). A film exists of the sketch but it is not available online.

Harris started appearing on television in 1961, with her first role being as a prankster beatnik chick in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode. One of her associates was played by another Barbara – scream queen Barbara Steele!

Barbara on "Naked City."
More disturbing and raw is a Naked City episode, “Daughter Am I in My Father's House” she starred in with Dan Duryea. In it she plays a young woman who is bothered at a movie theater by some rowdy young men. Her crazy father (noir vet Duryea) wants to get back at the guys and so has his daughter (Harris) dress up in slutty outfits and makeup in order to trap them (and any other sleazy guy wandering the Upper West Side).

The episode has the peculiar flavor of a David Goodis novel and is yet another great example of a Naked City ep where one doesn’t really care about the cops but is fascinated by the civilians affected by the crime.

Mike Nichols presents Barbara with a CUE award.
Another great rarity: Barbara and two of her Second City cohorts — Paul Sand and Andrew Duncan — appeared in sketches in a 1962 Sid Caesar special called As Caesar Sees It.

One assumes Sid’s golden staff of writers had gone their separate ways by then, since the sketches here are pretty meager stuff. It is fun, however, to see him interacting with young Second City folk.

The film that serves as the best introduction to Harris’ special magic as a performer (as well as the beautiful dialogue of Herb Gardner and the wonder that was Jason Robards, Jr., in his lighter mode) is the marvelous A Thousand Clowns (1965).

A few plot elements are dated but, setting those aside, the film only gets better and better with age. Those who are new to A Thousand Clowns are either entirely immune to its incredible charm, or it immediately becomes one of their favorite films.

Much has been written in praise of Arthur Kopit’s dark comedy Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. Barbara was featured in the off-Broadway production and repeated her role in the really dire 1967 film adaptation.

The cast is sublime (Rosalind Russell, Jonathan Winters, Robert Morse), as is the director (Richard Quine), but the film is a chore to get through. Harris is in fact one of the only redeeming aspects of Oh Dad the movie — it’s the only time she played a sex kitten on film.

Another super-rarity: Barbara receiving the Best Actress in a Musical award at the 21st Annual Tony Awards in 1967 for The Apple Tree. Note the insane “crawl” on the video that tries to explain Harris’ seemingly sedated state by mentioning that Warren Beatty had just broken up with her (!).

Publicity still for The Apple Tree.
It’s great to see her getting the award — it would’ve been even better if she had given some kind of speech (she departs the stage quite quickly after conveying her thanks), as this is the only footage of her out of character that is accessible.

I can only take small doses of post-Odd Couple Walter Matthau, but I have seen the second “act” of the Plaza Suite film (1971) many times on TV because of my major affection for Harris.

Here is a bit from the segment — dig Matthau’s wig and Barbara’s sexy leather gloves (an interesting accoutrement for a supposedly boring housewife).

For years I was convinced that The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery (1975) was a TV-movie, but that was apparently not the case (although it did find a home on late-night TV for years).

Barbara's bio from the Playbill for a 1991 Chicago production
of Prelude to a Kiss, directed by Sheldon Patinkin.
The film, which did play in theaters, stars Gabe Dell (of the Bowery Boys and the wonderfully weird and poetic 1971 film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, which costarred Harris) is an aging detective; Harris is a small-town woman who lets him know about the somewhat odd predilections of the man he’s searching for.

Barbara’s last two film roles are supporting parts in comedies (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Grosse Pointe Blank). More memorable, however, is her prominent role as a manipulative mom in the straight-to-video film Nice Girls Don’t Explode (1987).

The film is a surprisingly good dark comedy that greatly benefits from the presence of Harris and Wallace Shawn. Here is the trailer:

In the years since I wrote my 2011 tribute to Harris, I was told various things about her from people who work in show business that sounded very sad but: a.) I didn’t know if they were true, and b.) I never met her and can thus deeply love her work without the complications of knowing any of her personal secrets.

The last image in Hitchcock's last film: Barbara winking
at the viewer in Family Plot.
One thing is certain: Her best work will live on, and her cult following will hopefully increase. Farewell and thank you, oh, adorable urban neurotic Garbo!

Barbara steals the scene in the finale of one of the
best films ever made about America,
Altman's Nashville.

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