Monday, September 10, 2018

Barbara Harris, Pixie Sorceress

Barbara Harris in 1967. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Barbara Harris, who died a few weeks ago, was an improviser down to her soul. A native Chicagoan, she was a founding member of the first improv troupe in America, The Compass Players, helmed by her then-husband Paul Sills in the mid-fifties; when the company morphed into The Second City she accompanied it on tour to Broadway. In New York she starred in Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad and in a pair of musicals for which she provided the raison d’ĂȘtre: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane in 1965 and the short-story anthology The Apple Tree by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick in 1966. (She won the Tony Award – for which she had been nominated twice before – for The Apple Tree.) But she lost interest in stage work because, she said, it was really the exploration that takes place in rehearsal that excited her; she found repeating herself on stage every night stultifying. So, after playing opposite Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns in 1965 – where she’s the only actor who doesn’t succumb to the depressing inauthenticity of the material (she’s utterly charming) – and repeating her stage performance in Oh Dad, Poor Dad in 1967, she turned her attention full-time to movies. Her pixelated presence and off-the-beam focus and slightly dazed quality seemed perfect for the era. She was nominated for an Oscar for Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? in 1971, likely because of one scene, the audition that her character, Allison Densmore, gives for Dustin Hoffman. (It’s the only scene in the movie worth remembering.) And she landed some leading roles over the next decade, though the only picture most movie lovers have seen her in is Nashville (1975), where she plays Albuquerque, the loony-bird aspiring singer who saves the Parthenon show in the final reel with her rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” after the beloved country-western icon Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is shot. Her last starring part was in Hal Ashby’s disastrous Second Hand Hearts opposite Robert Blake in 1981. She made four more movies and retired from the screen in 1997, then moved to Scottsdale, Arizona to teach acting. She’d outlived the epoch she was made for, God knows she’d outlived Hollywood’s capacity for figuring out how to cast an actress who fit no known mold, and once again she’d run out of patience. If the game was no longer about keeping the spark of inspiration alive, Barbara Harris didn’t want to play.

I wasn’t lucky enough to see her in On a Clear Day or The Apple Tree; I caught her live only once, as Jenny in an off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Estelle Parsons, and I recall thinking she was terrific. But she’s thrillingly alive on the original cast recordings of both her Broadway musical shows (though only in the third sketch of The Apple Tree, “Passionella,” a contemporary version of the Cinderella story where a cleaning lady turns into a movie star). In On a Clear Day she played Daisy Gamble, the chain-smoking waif who asks a psychiatrist (John Cullum) to hypnotize her out of her nicotine habit and, when he puts her under, she reveals a past life as a late-eighteenth-century Englishwoman named Melinda Wells. Harris’s singing – she has four numbers – has a comic delicacy with an aching swell at its heart. It’s not like anyone else’s style; Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing is probably closest, but Holliday had a gravelly belt, and even when Harris lets go, on “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn” and the last verse of the indelible “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?,” she sounds more torchy and soulful than show-biz. She draws on the flaws in her vocal delivery – the quavering, the breathiness, the rising and falling volume – for dramatic effect; it’s as if she’s reinventing the idea of the Broadway musical-comedy diva as she goes. In her first song, “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here,” where she demonstrates to Mark, the shrink, how she makes flowers grow by serenading them, she embroiders the lyrics so they end up sounding curlicued and off-center. And in “Tosy and Cosh,” Melinda’s ballad, she gets the British period effect by sitting near the fragile top of her voice and pronouncing some of her words with a swirling oddness: “co-lide” for “collide,” “bridell” for “bridal.” It’s not English, but it’s certainly exotic, like the twittering of a rare transplanted bird. You can hear in the number why Mark falls for her; what you can’t figure out is why it takes him the whole damn play to realize that Daisy is just as entrancing and one-of-a-kind as Melinda. (But that’s a problem with Lerner’s book – and not the only problem.)

Harris in Robert Altman's Nashville. (Photo: IMDB)

Most of her movies, at least the ones I’ve seen, don’t take advantage of her wacky-moonbeam quality. It’s not that she’s bad in something like The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), as the wife whom the politician Alan Alda (also her co-star on stage in The Apple Tree) cheats on with Meryl Streep. In fact, she’s very good, but the role is so conventional that a number of intelligent actresses could have played it – Joan Hackett and Jane Alexander come to mind – without altering the picture. She has a few crazy moments in the awful Disney comedy Freaky Friday (1976), where she and her teen daughter (Jodie Foster) switch bodies; the best is a throwaway bit where she boogies in front a triptych mirror. She’s fine as a scam medium in Hitchcock’s valedictory, Family Plot (which came out the same year), but the material is cut-rate, and a lot of the time you smile more at the casting than anything else. But in the Busby Berkeley spoof, “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933,” that makes up the second half of Stanley Donen’s Movie Movie (1978), she’s got the Joan Blondell part, and though she isn’t on screen enough, she executes an expert send-up of the worn, loyal woman who waits around for the guy she adores to notice she’s alive.

And in Nashville she’s purely sensational. Her Tennessee accent is almost as stylized as her British one in “Tosy and Cosh” – it sounds like someone smashed it with a croquet mallet – and her little scenes with David Hayward and Karen Black make her seem like she wandered into the movie from an absurdist comedy sent in the Ozarks. Black plays Connie White, a second-tier C&W singer who’s also an insufferable phony; Harris’s Albuquerque approaches her as she’s about to perform to tell her she’s written a song that would be perfect for Connie and that she’ll call her up later that week for a chat. It’s a hilarious exchange because you can see that Connie is dying to get away from this fruitcake but she knows the rules of the country game: she’s got to treat her fans as if she honestly believed they were on the same level. Altman pulls off a neat trick with Albuquerque: he makes sure we don’t take her seriously; the only time we see her perform until the very end of the picture, she’s singing at the drag races and the cars drown her out, which makes her look ridiculous. So when, after the shooting, Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton calls desperately for someone to take over the mic and restore the spirits of the panicked crowd, and he hands it by chance to Albuquerque, we’re astonished that she performs like a pro, even – the inspired touch – tossing a branch of sweetheart roses Haven was about to give Barbara Jean into the audience. Harris’s rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” is sorcery: you can’t imagine where the hell it came from. I’d say that describes all the best moments in her career.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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