I don’t have the experience to eulogize the great Julie Harris, who died yesterday in West Chatham, Massachusetts at age 87. I never saw her once on the New York stage, where she shined the brightest and most consistently, and haven’t seen that many of her films. For decades I’ve associated Harris with only three screen performances: Abra in Elia Kazan‘s East of Eden (one of my favorite female characters of all time), the neurotic, spinsterish Eleanor in Robert Wise‘s The Haunting and Grace Marsh (i.e., Anthony Quinn‘s friend and supporter) in Ralph Nelson‘s Requiem for a Heavyweight. Three films in a seven-year stretch — ’55, ’61 and ’62.
Julie Harris with James Dean during the ferris-wheel scene in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden.
Harris in Robert Wise’s The Haunting (which will be released on Bluray on 10.15).
I’ve never seen Harris’s screen-debut performance in Member of the Wedding (’52), in which she recreated her Broadway debut role as 12 year-old Frankie Addams. (Harris was 25 or thereabouts when she did the screen version.) I’ve never seen her Sally Bowles in the 1955 film version of I Am A Camera (a role she originated on stage). She gave a vivid performance in Harper (’66) opposite Paul Newman — I remember in particular when she looked at Newman fearfully and said “You’ve got cop’s eyes!” But I don’t think I could ever watch her again in in John Huston‘s Reflections in a Golden Eye (’67) — an excruciating film for the most part. And I never gave a damn about her ongoing paycheck performance as Lilimae Clements on Knott’s Landing in the early to mid ’80s.
For the record I never saw Harris play Mary Todd Lincoln in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln on stage or in the 1976 film version. I’ve not only never seen her in The Hiding Place (’75) — I had never even heard of the film until this morning.
Harris collected ten Tony Award nominations and won five Tony awards. Her Broadway resume includes The Playboy of the Western World, Macbeth, The Member of the Wedding, A Shot in the Dark, Skyscraper, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Forty Carats, The Glass Menagerie, A Doll’s House and The Gin Game.
Harris did not have a live-wire personality, according to some who worked with her. Without a role to wrap herself in she could seem opaque. (On a Criterion Spartacus interview Peter Ustinov observed that Laurence Olivier was like this also.) There’s a good quote about Harris from playwright John Van Druten (I Am A Camera) from a 1955 N.Y. Times interview. Harris, he said, is a like a glass pitcher: “You pour in red wine, the pitcher looks red. Pour in creme de menthe, it is green. When she’s by herself, Julie’s almost transparent, almost nonexistent.”