Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rest in Peace Julie Harris: A Haunting Talent

Actress Julie Harris in "The Haunting," one of the most interesting scary movies of all time. Directed by Robert Wise.

Julie Harris, who died Saturday at the age of 87, starred in a number of really important movies--East of Eden (Warners Brothers 1955) with James Dean was one of them--but, she was never, really, a movie star, in the true sense of that phrase. She didn't star in blockbusters. All of her movie choices were just a little bit different and off-beat. All allowed her to continue her work on stage.

She held the record for Tony nominations and is so well-known for her stage role as The Belle of Amherst that many of us think Emily Dickinson must have looked exactly like Julie Harris. She was Oscar-nominated and a Kennedy Center Honoree. But I think the role she will be best remembered for is the role she played in The Haunting (1963)--a movie that will live on and on because it is so darned good.

The movie was directed by a young Robert Wise, who had learned his lessons well as an editor on Citzen Kane and later as a young director working with the exceptionally talented Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur on small budget movies.

"The Haunting" really is a scary movie, but all the terror in it has to do with things you never see. Things that go bump in the night. The viewer is never quite sure what part of those frights are taking place only in the imagination of Eleanor "Nell" Lance, played by the wonderful Julie Harris.

It is a terrific script by Nelson Gidding based on a story by Shirley Jackson and all of its cast are first rate: from Claire Bloom (dressed by Mary Quant) as the guest with ESP; to Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway; to Russ Tamblyn (who had worked with Wise in West Side Story two years earlier; to Lois Maxwell in a very non-Miss Moneypenny role.

Harris was a Method-trained actress. Actors who follow this system feel they have to experience much of what their character is feeling, so her fellow cast members say Harris kept apart from them during filming. She was interviewed about the movie on Turner Classic Movies and said she got so into the role that she was very depressed during filming. Whatever it took: she did a great job playing the emotionally isolated spinster who makes a weird connection with a troubled house.

We were not big on television in my house growing up, but I do remember dragging one of our early portable TVs into my bedroom when I was in high school and watching The Haunting late one night in my darkened bedroom when its conclusion went well past my bedtime. It was an excellent way to scare myself! But I have seen the film many times since, and have always loved the wonderful, strange, gothic moodiness of it.

I just read that The Haunting is Martin Scorcese's favorite horror film. Great minds think alike, I guess. The entire movie revolves around Julie Harris; so, the fact that she is so good in the part helped make this small movie the real powerhouse that it is.

She was such a surprising person. Not really beautiful. Never really a big star. But what a talent. And that is what makes a film like The Haunting live on as the ghosts do at Hill House. RIP Julie Harris. She left her mark by being exceptional.

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