Saturday, February 4, 2012

Barbara Harris in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?

Barbara Harris received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Allison Densmore in Ulu Grosbard's Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?. This film is basically as dreary and puzzling as the title is long-winded. After directing Jack Albertson to a Supporting Actor Oscar in The Subject Was Roses, I can only assume that Grosbard wanted to prove his '70s credibility with this overly directed and outrageously boring pseudo-psychedelic film. The film is about Georgie Soloway (Dustin Hoffman), a narcissistic pop star dealing with a bevy of emotional problems that I don't really feel like listing here. I have to be honest and say that the parts not including Barbara Harris have already (less than a day later) blurred together in my mind, and I was very close to falling asleep at multiple times during this film. That being said, with all the awfulness surrounding her, Barbara Harris gets to "steal" the movie with a performance that gives the movie (and the viewers) a much needed shot in the arm.

Allison doesn't pop up until around the hour and fifteen minute mark, when Georgie is auditioning girls for some kind of part (I don't remember what specifically....or if it was even said). At first she seems to fit right in with the tone of the rest of the film--she's kind of a nutcase that flitters around the stage and is outright bizarre. It quickly becomes clear to the casting directors that she is not right for the part. She's too old, too neurotic and weird, and not a good enough singer (though I thought she sounded lovely) for the job. Harris has a very lively, skittish presence that draws you into her character even if you can tell that she's probably a bit of a handful and a total wreck. All these mannerisms work because she's playing a struggling actress--a notoriously quirky group. Eventually, Allison becomes fixated on this one lamp that she has placed her hand on and refuses to let go of, and Georgie takes a little bit of pity on her and attempts to talk her out of the room.

Here is where Barbara Harris gets to deliver the most emotional moments of the film, and Grosbard actually made some great choices when filming this sequence. When Allison auditioned we could only see her from a distance, just like Georgie and the casting directors. As he moves forward to speak with her we also get to see more of a close-up and our whole outlook changes on her. She looks like kind of a clown dressed up all fancy in a new dress that doesn't really fit her body type, with garish makeup, and an overall unnatural look for a woman her age. As the Allison and Georgie talk, all the weirdness and mannerisms that were so prominent fade away and we see a woman struggling with getting older and not being where she wants to be in life. Harris uses simple and time-tested techniques to make this mess of a woman become very sympathetic and relatable. It's all about her presence and the way she drops the mannerisms to reveal this broken and sad woman. This scene can't be more than fifteen minutes long, but it has more impact than the rest of the psychoanalytical drivel in the film.

This would be a truly phenomenal performance if it ended there with Allison being something of an enigma, but what follows is a few more scenes involving a romance with Georgie, and those sort of kill Harris' impact. She has no chemistry with Hoffman, and comes off as rather plain and timid in those subsequent two scenes. It's almost as if that one scene was the only exceptional scene, but once she left that theater the awfulness of the film started to bleed into the her performance. This was one of the hardest performances to grade because it is easily the worst film of any reviewed nominees so far. Barbara Harris is fascinating for a that brief moment of time, masterfully embodying one of cinema's most common themes (getting older), but when it comes down to it the film just drags her down too much and those final few scenes keep her from getting any higher than a 3.5/5.

[Note: I know I said I was doing Cloris & Ellen next, but those two will instead be last because I just waited too long to review them after watching the film and I'd like to have them fresh on my mind when I do. So Margaret Leighton is next.]


dinasztie said...

Never seen this one. Doesn't seem to be very interesting.

hey deanie said...

That first monologue is brilliant and sad. I'd rate her a bit higher but I certainly understand your criticisms.