Julie Harris: A Devoted Fan Remembers

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Julie_Harris_1973During the 1950s, ’60s and 70s, Julie Harris-eventually collecting five acting Tonys-didn’t appear in a new production every year. But she almost did. And I missed few of them. (Between 1945 and 1997 she’s listed as helping populate 33 productions.) Harris was my favorite stage actress-and if talking “favorites” has a sophomoric ring to it, that’s just too bad.

In 1955, I saw her as Joan of Arc in Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, directed by Joseph Anthony (whose name is all but forgotten now but shouldn’t be). Was the performance-for which Harris won the second of her five Tonys-indelible? Kinda. At barely taller than five feet, she gave a demonstration of the paradoxical combination of vulnerability and invincibility I’ve never seen equaled. For her final speech (delivered in exaltation at the coronation King Charles for whom Joan of Arc campaigned), Harris was the stage equivalent of an everlasting light.

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In 1957, she played an innocent of an entirely different streak: Mrs. Margery Pinchwife in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (Laurence Harvey and Pamela Brown co-starring). For that one I was in the front row and so, during the beloved letter-writing scene, was a close witness to a display of charm I’ve also never seen equaled. (Perhaps Audrey Hepburn in Ondine qualifies, but no one else in my estimation.) It was the voice again and this time the eyes aglow at the prospect of genuine first-time romance and the accompanying naughtiness implied.

In 1963, she was June Havoc in Marathon ’33, which June Havoc herself directed and adapted from her Early Havoc autobiography. In several decades of theatergoing, I’d say this was the only property I’d describe as before its time-and Harris’s gallant performance as a struggling dance-endurance-contest member was the focus. What I recall is her depiction of desperation as it slowly swallowed the young Havoc over the long (conflated) hours the competition unfolded.

I’m not including too many of the other accomplishments (The Belle of Amherst, a late one) that earned her five acting Tonys. I only began my fanship after she’d put herself on the map with The Member of the Wedding and confirmed her status immediately afterwards with I Am a Camera (first Tony). I have seen-more than once-her performances of both roles in the screen versions. Playing the adamant 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Adams in Carson McCullers’s adaptation of her work of fiction, Harris, who’d opened on stage at 24, was by then 26 yet remained a funny, melancholy portrait of adolescent angst.

As for I Am A Camera, she is still the truest Sally Bowles because she conveys the character’s grasping at sophistication as if it’s a cloying perfume in the air. More importantly, she made the point that Sally wasn’t a particularly talented singer-someone Liza Minnelli, undeniably terrific, couldn’t even be expected to suggest in her Oscar-winning Cabaret turn.

Although Harris’s movie career never matched the authority she attained on Broadway (she was also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for her theater work in 2002), she was top-billed in the 1955 East of Eden over James Dean. He got the bulk of the notices, of course, but Harris’s Abra is remarkable. It’s been reported that she and Dean became close friends during the shooting. From the way she looks at him in the later scenes, what she displays is exquisite acting and perhaps something more: genuine love for the actor. And while it’s hard to take your eyes off Dean as the uncertain Cal Trask, it’s easier to do when he’s on screen with her.

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Julie Harris - The Lark
Julie Harris in The Lark with Boris Karloff

I’m skipping over much of her movie and television work, including the long Knots Landing stint. (Much as Barbara Bel Geddes is known for Dallas to non-theater-goers, Harris is known for Knots Landing. (It’s nice, but in its way regrettable.) What’s less recalled is her being the first lady of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” series, where she did a reworked version of The Lark, which is available at Internet Archive. It’s not the entire glorious stage effort, but it’s close enough to give a strong idea of what the live performance was.

Personally, I only met Harris once. (Well, twice if you count a chance encounter on London’s Portobello Road.) I was assigned to interview her for my college newspaper when The Warm Peninsula was trying out in New Haven. We met in her hotel room at the Taft Hotel. What Harris said to me I don’t remember. It was undoubtedly a typical conversation about her career and the play on hand, which in the long run had a short run in New York.

What I do remember is how she looked and how she was. She was dressed in a tight black outfit, her long red hair flowing. She gave the interview while reclining on the bed and leaning on one arm. Most memorable to me was how clearly her reputed shyness was confirmed. It appeared quite true that her dedication to the theater had much to do with her being invited to become someone more interesting to her than she was to herself. Responding to my questions, she almost never looked me straight in the eyes. She looked down with the look people get when they can’t wait for whatever they’ve acceded to to conclude. As an idolizer and reporter, I was torn between wanting to hang around as long as I could and wanting to let her off the hook. The latter, professional inclination prevailed, I’m happy to say.

The last time I saw Harris in person, she wasn’t in a play. She spoke at the memorial service at the Booth Theatre for a friend of mine, the stage manager Charles Willard, who’d died in a boating accident. Charlie was Harris’s preferred stage manager. As keen on touring as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and Carol Channing, Harris disliked going on the road with The Belle of Amherst without Charlie. She was devoted to him, and he to her.

It might not be too much of a stretch to claim that remembering her deceased friend, she showed some of the fervor she had when Joan talked about the Dauphin in The Lark. She spoke with the same convincing heart she always had and which was one of her unforgettable distinguishing traits. She was Julie Harris-once again on stage.