Daily | Julie Harris, 1925 – 2013

Julie Harris

Julie Harris

Julie Harris, the unprepossessing anti-diva who, in the guises of Joan of Arc, Mary Todd Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and many other characters both fictional and real, became the most decorated performer in the history of Broadway, died on Saturday,” reports Bruce Weber in the New York Times. Harris, who was 87, “had a lengthy, overstuffed résumé as an actress, with dozens of movie and television credits, including the 1955 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of brotherly rivalry, East of Eden, in which she played the girl who falls for the tormented younger sibling played by James Dean, and nearly eight years in the 1980s as an eccentric country singer on the prime time soap opera Knots Landing. But perhaps more than any other performer of her era and her elevated stature, she owed her stardom and reputation to the stage.”

“Her big screen debut came in the movie version of The Member of the Wedding, which she had previously starred in (and won her first Tony for) on Broadway,” notes Matt Singer at the Dissolve. “Once again playing the role of lonely teenager Frankie, Harris received her first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (she lost to Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba).” Harris also “starred in The Haunting, one of the greatest horror films of all time (a few years ago, Martin Scorsese called it the scariest movie ever made).”

“Later in her career, Harris for many audiences would come to epitomize 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, in her performance of William Luce’s 1976 one-woman play The Belle of Amherst,” writes Kevin Murphy for Reuters. “She won the 1977 Tony Award for Best Actress in the play recreating Dickinson’s world by gossiping about neighbors, recounting daily household routines, and reciting the verse of the isolated, idiosyncratic and reclusive poet. Harris ‘in a new twist on the old theatrical saw of an actor captivating an audience by reading the phone book” brought down the house by carefully and guilelessly reciting the poet’s recipe for her Black Cake which included 19 eggs and five pounds of raisins,’ wrote theater critic Louis Chaplin.”

The Wall Street Journal notes that in his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, “the director of East of Eden wrote of Dean and Harris that ‘I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through East of Eden except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris, and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everylastingly sympathetic. She would adjust her performance to whatever the new kid did.'”

“‘I wish I had gotten bigger parts in the movies,’ she told the Washington Post in 1988,” notes Claudia Luther in the Los Angeles Times. “‘But I could never compete with the great beauties.’ … But Harris always returned to that ‘magical place’—the stage. She loved ‘that first moment when the curtain goes up.'”

Updates: Harris “was true to every character she portrayed without sacrificing her thoughts and feelings about them—her musings about them—which is what gives an actor his or her style,” writes Hilton Als for the New Yorker. “Brando and Clift were, of course, masters at that—they lived inside and outside of the people they portrayed—and Harris, who was more or less their contemporary, did the same thing, but in a different way: with an almost feline delicacy. Harris never charged at the audience with her always-humane interpretations, but she wouldn’t let them be ignored, either.”

“In Reflections in a Golden Eye,” writes Brian Baxter for the Guardian, “she played the vulnerable Alison, tended by a fey Filipino house-boy, while neglected by her adulterous husband. In the hothouse atmosphere of a southern army camp, Alison is a highly strung instrument playing as part of a discordant quartet, comprising also Brian Keith, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, giving his greatest performance as the Major. Harris held her own in this illustrious company, but never again encountered such a heady cocktail of the director John Huston, a superb screenplay and three such co-stars.”

Update, 8/29: “Julie Harris’s tortured performance in The Haunting is just one of many roles that the actress will be remembered for but it’s the one that lingers in my mind the most,” writes Kimberly Lindbergs at Movie Morlocks. “As Eleanor, Harris embodied the gloomy heart and damaged soul of Hill House, a sprawling dilapidated estate that lures a group of inexperienced paranormal investigators to its doorstep. We know very little about the pleading and pitiful Eleanor as she attempts to escape the iron grip of her oppressive family and go on a grand ghost hunting adventure. But over time, we come to care about her, dislike her, fear her and finally weep for her when it becomes evident that Eleanor’s deepest longings and darkest desires are manifesting themselves in ways she can’t control.”

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