I CAN’T LET GO OF THIS LAMP RIGHT NOW
July 26, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
One of the greatest singular talents who ever shined brightly in the theatre and on film is Barbara Harris, who turned eighty-two yesterday. Long retired, she is most notable for her brief time as a go-to actress for everything from subtle comedy, to moving drama to hilarious musicals. At the time, it felt like she could do almost anything, and critics were in love with her. I never got to see her on stage, beginning my theatregoing as I did about the time she left it — in 1967 when she was on top of the world, receiving the reviews of her career in the three one act plays that made up the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musical The Apple Tree, written especially for her. After this personal triumph, for which she received the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, she left the show, never to appear on Broadway again.
Her illustrious (but few) theatre appearances were of such import, that people bemoan to this day missed opportunities to have seen her on stage. And with all her work essentially gone with the wind, we are fortunate at the very least to have her on film as a permanent record of her genius.
And genius it was. Just take a look at this scene from a bizarre 1971 comedy called Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? It starred Dustin Hoffman at a time when his stardom could get practically any movie made — and this one is ample proof of that. Harris, in just her few minutes on screen, received her one and only Academy Award nomination. Cast as actress at an audition with little self-esteem, but enormous reservoirs of emotional honesty, the truthfulness on display here is both painfully real and achingly funny.
Harris once said, “I always chose movies that I thought would fail, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the fame thing … I’m much more interested in what’s behind acting, which is the inquiry into the human condition. Everyone gets acting mixed up with the desire to be famous, but some of us really just stumbled into the fame part, while we were really just interested in the process of acting.”
And we should take Harris at her word here. Having grown up in Evanston, Illinois, she found herself (while still a teenager) falling in with a group of University of Chicago students that were in the stages of forming an acting group. This would become the Compass Players, the first improvisational theatre company in America, which featured the then unknown Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Its founding director, Paul Sills, eventually became one of the great teachers of theatre games (his mother, Viola Spolin, practically invented the method), leading to his founding of Second City, still renowned today as one of the leading improvisational companies in the U.S. and Canada. Harris become one of its original leading players, along with Alan Arkin and Paul Sand, all of whom came to be on Broadway in 1962 when From the Second City opened at the Royale Theatre. The evening of improv comedy and songs gave the twenty-four year old Harris a platform from which to show her versatility, and for her efforts, was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical (she lost that Tony, but so did the twenty year-old Barbra Streisand for I Can Get It For You Wholesale). Whaddya gonna do? *
As Harris described it in a rare interview she gave in 2002 to the Phoenix New Times, “I was a small-town, middle-class girl who wore a cashmere sweater very nicely and ended up on Broadway because that’s the way the wind was blowing. I didn’t have my sights set there. When I was at Second City, there was a vote about whether we should take our show to Broadway or not. Andrew Duncan and I voted no. I stayed in New York, but only because Richard Rodgers and Alan Jay Lerner came and said, ‘We want to write a musical for you!’ Well, I wasn’t big on musical theater. I had seen part of South Pacific in Chicago and I walked out. But it was Richard Rodgers calling!”
That show was On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which wound up not being written by Richard Rodgers, who found that working with Alan Jay Lerner was too much of a nightmare to endure. The composer Burton Lane was enlisted, and though the show had its problems with an original book that doomed it almost from the beginning (written by Lerner himself), the score the two wrote together is actually one of the great ones. With one terrific number after another, Harris was instantly designated a worthy leading lady in a musical that was built entirely around her unique talents. And even though it wasn’t a total success, she got her usual round of amazing reviews, but wound up losing the role when it became a film in 1970 to Barbra Streisand. Whaddya gonna do?
Unfortunately, something happened to Harris during the Broadway run of The Apple Tree a few years later. The pressures of celebrity and being anointed a star (she was named the Cue Magazine “Entertainer of the Year”) proved too much. She was uncomfortable with all of it, and it led to her missing performances and becoming depressed. As she told a reporter “Who wants to be up on the stage all the time? It isn’t easy. You have to be awfully invested in the fame aspect, and I really never was. What I cared about was the discipline of acting, whether I did well or not.”
It doesn’t change the fact, in evidence by this clip from the 1967 Tony Awards (the year she won Best Actress for The Apple Tree), that her prodigious talents were there for anyone lucky enough to catch this performance live.
If any of this compels you to seek out additional Harris performances on film, I urge you to first see Robert Altman’s Nashville, the 1975 classic film for which she should have received another Oscar nomination. Then dive into her stellar work in the 1979 political drama The Seduction of Joe Tynan, written and directed by her friend, fellow Second City alumni, and co-star of The Apple Tree’s, Alan Alda. And don’t miss her playing opposite Jason Robards in 1965’s A Thousand Clowns, or as the body-switching mom with Jodie Foster in the classic 1976 Disney film Freaky Friday.
And if that’s not enough, her performance as a psychic of shaky abilities in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film Family Plot, is essential viewing. She is unshakable in this charming characterization, which only makes you wish that she was given more leading roles as a result.
For whatever reasons led this idiosyncratic and one-of-a-kind actress to forsake theatre and film, we can only hope that in the years she’s been absent that she has enjoyed teaching (which she did for a number of years) and been happy with her personal choice to retreat from the limelight. It’s not for us to judge when anyone makes the conscience decision to give up what was once a path that made the most sense to them — at the time. Artists owe their audiences nothing more than what they are able to give, so long as it doesn’t impinge on their happiness. Acting is a tough profession. Not only because of the rejection that comes with it, but due to the toll it takes on those who invest of themselves deeply in the process. Barbara Harris is one of those individuals that burned bright for a time, but whose flame flickered. The years between 1961 and 1997 demonstrated what she had to offer and we should be satisfied we got as much as even that.
So a most happy birthday to Barbara Harris. Thanks for the memories.
* It was Phyllis Newman who won the 1962 Featured Actress in a Musical Tony for Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Subways Are For Sleeping.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book