Remembering Julie Harris

Along with Katharine Cornell, Rosemary Harris, Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy and Laurette Taylor, Julie Harris was one of a handful of actresses who became as much a part of the American theater as greasepaint and follow spots. Harris died on August 24 at her home in West Chatham, Mass. She was 87.

During her long career, she played an epic historical figure (The Lark), a reclusive poetess (The Belle of Amherst), a tragic First Lady (The Last of Mrs. Lincoln), the crotchety title character in Alfred Urhy's Pulitzer prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy and literally hundreds of other women, every one of them memorable simply because Julie Harris gave them life. She remains one of the most honored players in the history of the Tony Awards with ten nominations and six wins.

In a breakthrough performance, Harris created the role of Frankie Addams, a tomboyish 12-year-old who is determined to tag along on her beloved brother’s honeymoon in the stage adaptation of Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding. She played Frankie again in Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 film version of the play, along with fellow cast members Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde. Elia Kazan credited Harris’ calming influence on the mercurial James Dean as one of the major factors that made the movie version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden such a pleasure for him to direct.

Although Harris’ first love was the theater, she acted in many memorable films. She recreated her Tony Award-winning performance as Sally Bowles in the movie version of I Am a Camera in 1955. Harris was cast by Robert Wise as the psychically receptive Eleanor Lance in his thoroughly spooky film, based on a Shirley Jackson novel, called The Haunting in 1963. She had a major role in my favorite bad Elizabeth Taylor movie. Harris played Brian Keith’s frigid wife, who sexually mutilates herself with a pair of garden shears, in John Huston’s twisted and darkly mesmerizing adaptation of another McCullers novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).

I was fortunate enough to have seen Julie Harris in a big, splashy Broadway musical called Skyscraper in the 1960s. If I had any doubt that she could play anything but neurotic ladies of a certain age, her performance in that delightful bauble put those thoughts to rest permanently. She did a marvelous job singing a catchy Sammy Cahn/James Van Heusen tune called “Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong.” If she didn't have Merman’s bombast, she certainly had all of her enthusiasm.

Helen Mirren, told a story about Julie Harris that tickled the black-tie audience at the Kennedy Center when Harris was honored there in 2005. Many years earlier, Harris was invited to a White House reception for Queen Elizabeth. The Queen appeared in full regalia, positively dripping with fabulous jewels. It was such a spectacular entrance that there was an audible gasp from the assembled guests. From everyone, that is, except Julie Harris, who whispered to the person next to her, “I could play it better.”

No doubt she could have.