Sunday, May 02, 2010

Actress Files: Julie Harris

Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1952 Best Actress Oscar to Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba)

Why I Waited: The recent arrival on DVD, though I've owned it on high-quality VHS for a while. Mostly, I waited out of high, optimistic investment. Member is a seminal classic of screen tomboyism and a favorite movie of a few lesbian friends and film scholars, which for me are big selling points.

The Performance: Fans of cinematic actressing who don't follow the stage or its history may not realize what a legacy of performers they're missing out on. You could follow Oscar's annals and never come across Uta Hagen, Zoë Caldwell, Diana Rigg, Colleen Dewhurst, or Irene Worth. Occasionally a great dame of the boards manages a single nomination, but barely ever a win: Kim Stanley, Margaret Leighton, Kate Nelligan, Rosemary Harris, Janet McTeer, Viola Davis. Sometimes they swoop in for a trophy and are gone from movies before you know it, as happened with Mercedes Ruehl. A few lucky ones, from Lynn Fontanne to Stockard Channing, have won opportunities to reprise famous stage roles on celluloid and gleaned Academy attention for their troubles, but real crossover stardom or simultaneously thriving careers on both coasts are rare. Outside of theater enthusiasts, Cherry Jones is still known to an awful lot of people, if at all, as the woman who didn't get to reprise her stage triumph in Doubt, although I suppose her ascendancy to the White House on 24 may have changed that. Whether it leads to actual movie parts for her, despite being one of the craftiest and most memorable sculptors of character currently at work in the United States, I'm nervous to even guess.

Julie Harris is a sort of patron saint of the Broadway legend-cum-Hollywood footnote. 30 credits on the big screen are nothing to sniff at, but most of the titles are negligible. She was very moving as James Dean's worried and delicate confidante in East of Eden and reliably fragile as the target of menace in Robert Wise's The Haunting, but almost nothing else made a splash, despite her copping a record-setting five Tony Awards as best leading actress, plus a sixth for Lifetime Achievement. Early in her theatrical career, she was Alice's White Rabbit and one of Macbeth's Weird Sisters in less than a year's time, and she's packed houses and inspired rhapsodies playing everyone from Emily Dickinson to the original, non-singing Sally Bowles. Harris won her first Tony for that last performance, the same year that Stanley Kramer, esteemed producer of noble feelings and stodgy drama, tapped her and costar Ethel Waters to reprise their landmark Broadway success of two years before in The Member of the Wedding. The film did well with critics and patrons, remaining director Fred Zinnemann's lifelong favorite of his own works. Probably the major scandal of the 1952 nomination announcements was that Waters, a prior nominee for the misbegotten Pinky, wasn't cited alongside her costar.

Writing about the performance in this context presents a challenge, because it embodies so many of the standing defenses for as well as the warning-shots against Broadway casts carrying their work into film. Member was divisively received for just those reasons in 1952, so that almost anything you could say about it arrives outflanked by prior comment or larger cliché. Harris's crewcut hair and beanpole androgyny don't quite qualify as a photo-realistic impression of a 12-year-old tomboy, but if you're watching for drama and not for documentary, the proximity more than suffices. She animates the two primary sets of a kitchen and a small yard with the aggressive, slicing movements of a frustrated impetuousness, which no doubt explains why Zinnemann and photographer Hal Mohr, better-known for more innovative and expressionistic lensing, hold to so many proscenium-style wide shots and full shots. By the same token, Harris's wan, freckled face and her soft but frequently anguished eyes capably hold the camera, determining the second major fixture of the film's cinematography: close-ups so intimate that Harris is frequently scalped by the top edge of the frame. She's playing an emotionally ripe, sometimes overripe scenario as a single daughter of a widowed, distant doctor-father. Lacking his company, she kills time more often with the family's black housemaid (Waters) and with the younger, sickly boy next door (Brandon de Wilde, soon to enter the canon in Shane). Repelled by the frivolous femininity of the local girls but devastated at never being invited to join their giggly society, proud of but also tortured by being such a misfit, Frankie Adams is a walking chain reaction of ferocity and woundedness, and her impatience to grow up is expressed via both of those registers. Moreover, and inexplicably to everyone around her, she is obsessed with the impending nuptials of her much older brother Jarvis. Her sentimentality about this occasion, fraught with anger and envy, implies blooming ambivalences of desire and of gender, maybe even of sex: "I couldn't be jealous of them 'less I was jealous of both of them," she admits, without fully knowing or fully not knowing what she means.

Frankie harbors hysterical, unreasonable hopes that Jarvis and his bride Janice—even their names are a parody of hetero pairing and seemingly automatic kinship—will take her with them on their honeymoon and into their conjugal life, though she appears furious that such an oblique contrivance as someone else's romance, bearing nothing in common with what we intuit about her fantasies, represents her only vehicle for escape. She's implacably fixated on something she clearly, at some level, can't stand, though she pours intimidating levels of energy into her plan, emitting eagerness and anxiety through as much through physical aggressivity as through speeches and intense mental focus. Virtually everything Harris finds to do across 90 minutes of barely changing scenery and of blocked, repetitious narrative serves to evoke these desperate double-binds: picking splinters out of her bare feet with a throwing knife, terrorizing the furniture, slumping and gazing morosely out of the frame, sobbing into her hands, raging at Berenice and John Henry, imploring them to absolve her, inviting passersby into her yard and then harrying them out. She's always pushing someone away and pulling someone close, frequently the same person at the same time, and quite often herself.

It's a very emphatic performance, laudable for its sustaining of energy and its refusal to be vised by the unforgivingly stagy filmmaking, but in many ways ill-calibrated for the intimacy of the camera, or the capacity of the audience to be exhausted, if not put off. She handles some of those tight close-ups very well, as when the light behind her eyes clouds over at the news that the clubhouse girls have once again denied her an invitation, before her face darkens subtly but unmistakably into a hard mask of disgust and vituperation. Harris, though, seems to equate the potential for subtlety with the closeness of the camera: when the mise-en-scène reverts to being stagy, so too does much of her acting, and the line between Frankie's histrionics and her interpreter's can be hard to draw. She's inimitable and cosmetically ideal for the role, a much-needed alternative to all the wistful dreamers or sympathy-begging tykes and preteens of the movies. In resisting those traps, though, I wonder if she hasn't opted too purely for violent tantrums over the kind of rolling, pouting, narcissistic loneliness that would agitate the other characters just as plausibly, and make at least as much sense in relation to Frankie's dialogue, but without alienating the viewer or the camera quite so much. The stark physical vocabulary and the impassioned vocalisms can also qualify Harris's eccentric but otherwise plausible impression of being a child herself, turning her Frankie much more into an older person's dilated presentation of adolescent angst—hardly a liability in every sense, but an odd fit with the realistic look of the film, and a tricky counterpoint to Waters's naturalism as Berenice.

I should add, though, that in such bruising scenes as Frankie's last-ditch effort to stowaway in her brother's company, few if any of these caveats matter, and Harris more than overrides the perils in her approach with a body-blow of feeling, scrupulously executed but conveyed with seeming spontaneity. Moreover, screenwriters Edna and Edward Anhalt have restored an ensuing episode from Carson McCullers's autobiographical novel that she excised for logistical reasons in adapting the Broadway play. For reasons I won't reveal, Frankie makes a late-film excursion into the city, where little goes as planned (how could it, with no plan?) and danger rears many heads. Ironically, though story incidents are even more heightened in this passage than in all the weary hours of Frankie being stifled by her home life, and if anything the character's emotions should be even more keyed up than usual during this threatening interval, Harris navigates this late, somewhat sensational sequence with fewer "theatrics": she is scared, restless, and uncomprehending, a fugitive child and an incipient adult in ways that feel well-scaled for cinema and don't insist on a bodily or shouty correlative for every shift and seizure of her inner state.

Was Harris just glad for a departure from a stage-regimen she had reiterated so many times? Was I just so relieved for a change of environment and an opening for narrative unpredictability that my interest revived in a performance I had started to admire in spite of its weaknesses, or maybe even to regret in spite of its strengths? Hard to say. I'd be keen to revisit Member some day, though not soon, to assess more closely what Harris does in this not-quite-finale, and how she has readied the character for this passage all along. In any event, the actress most fully shakes the impression that she's translating work from one platform to another, for better or worse—that is, sometimes with the depth and care that years of familiarity afford, sometimes calcified or reduced by old habits or confusions about the relative scaling required by specific artforms. The balance, I think, ultimately tips in Harris's favor, and I wish more plays were brought to more screens, and more often by their birth parents instead of more bankable Hollywood surrogates.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 31 to Go

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Blogger Andrew K. said...

Is there some gentle irony in the fact that she lost the Oscar to another stage to screen incarnation? I've never really liked this play, I can respect it's significance but it leaves me unmoved (for the most part). I never saw the film, I'd often wondered how Harris' age translated to screen.

12:24 AM, May 02, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@A:EE: That is indeed an irony, and one I wanted to touch on, but the piece had already gotten so long. I think Shirley Booth runs into a lot of the same trouble, seeming garishly stagy and brimming with self-conscious "effects" in a way that strain dramatic plausibilty and redirect our focus from the predicament of her character to the strategies by which Booth conveys her. You could say the same about Harris, but Frankie is such a self-theatricalizer that Harris gets away with more of this, and she stitches it to a unique, unsettling character and screen persona that I found really intriguing, and in some ways inseparable from the drawbacks of Harris's stagebound style. Booth, for me, gives a performance that could much more easily have been re-fitted with the cinema in mind, and there's little I find indelible about her to compensate for all that is aggravating in Sheba.

@Everyone: I recognize this is not one of my better pieces! I only had a half-hour to write it, but I didn't want to lose the rhythm. Hopefully this still makes at least a little sense.

1:22 AM, May 02, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

I love this play, and this performance, but there are numerous times when Harris is playing to the second balcony and not the camera. It's not camera-friendly work, but I really don't care because the text is so lyrical and mysterious and she goes at it with such passion.

The scene where she's dragged screaming from the wedding car is so painful; "too much," maybe, but Frankie herself is all about being too much. That's her problem. So it is very hard to judge the line here between character and performance. Waters offers a fine counter-balance. Have you seen the Alfre Woodard version? Very different, but interesting.

Can't believe you wrote this in a half hour; keep 'em coming!

11:06 AM, May 02, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Dan: That expulsion from the car is so important and effective I actually revised just now to include it. Definitely a proud pendant within (for me) a frustrating but effective performance.

I remember starting to watch the Paquin/Woodard version when it debuted on TV, but Paquin comes off so screechy at the outset, and I was still too Piano-immersed to want to see her in anything else, especially in a case where she might fare less well. Haven't been back, but would certainly consider it.

11:49 AM, May 02, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

Glad you added the bit about the car scene--

Paquin is only adequate as Frankie. The real reason to watch is to see how differently Woodard plays Berenice; in a way, she makes it a play about Berenice, who seems more complex in her hands (though I do think Waters is outstanding in her own way).

12:13 PM, May 02, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Well, there's barely a character in the world that I wouldn't trust Alfre Woodard to complicate. I remember her fondly from those first few scenes. I probably prefer Waters to Harris in this version, and given how sad-sack the Best Actress category was in 1952, there's absolutely no reason for her to have been excluded. Even in the Supporting race, though I'm not sure I'd put her there, it's staggering to see Colette Marchand and Terry Moore there in Waters's rightful place.

1:33 PM, May 02, 2010  

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