Theatre yesterday and today



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Julie Harris died three years ago today, August 24, 2013, a sad day for the American theatre. Had there ever been an actress like her? Will there ever be another? As befits someone of her status, the outpouring of love and affection upon her death was tremendous. She was one of the last of a dying breed: a star with her name above the title who (even if the play itself proved insignificant) was always worth seeing. If Julie Harris was in it, there was always going to be something special about it, plain and simple. The recipient of five Tony Awards for Leading Actress in a Play, she was respected and revered, even sanctified. To which Julie Harris might have said, "That's nice, but all I'm really interested in is the work.

In my upcoming book, Up in the Cheap Seats, I devote an entire chapter to the life and career of Julie Harris. One of my purposes in doing so, besides recounting the effect she had on me as a young theatregoer, is to keep her flame burning. I have just finished directing a group of twenty college students in a show, the oldest of which is twenty-four-years-old. Almost none of them had ever heard of Julie Harris. The don't know what plays like The Lark or I Am a Camera or The Belle of Amherst are. And you know what? Why should they? Her best work was on the stage, either on Broadway or out on tour (something she loved doing), but those days ended in 2001 with a stroke that made all but custom-tailored parts available to her for the last dozen years of her life. Yes, these young students can, if they like, seek out some of her voluminous film and television appearances, but the true testimony to her abilities is gone now. Theatre is by its very nature and existence, ephemeral. It's one of the reasons I like to write about it in ways that might bring to the fore what was so special about a particular show or actor. With Julie Harris, the task is both a pleasure and a necessity. Her work should never be forgotten, and to that end, here is a sneak peek of that chapter which I call "The Favorite."

“Julie Harris wasn’t simply one of the great American actors of the 20th century,” wrote Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty after her death. “She represented to those in her profession a reverential ideal.”

True, but Harris never took any of it too seriously.

In 2006, a gala was held in her honor at New York’s Tavern on the Green. The tribute was a fundraiser for the Primary Stages, an Off-Broadway non-profit theatre company, and the friends saluting Harris included Angela Lansbury, Marian Seldes, Elizabeth Wilson, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.

When it was Jackson’s turn at the podium, she spoke of her early days as an actress with Harris: “We both lived in Greenwich Village, and were both at an audition for some show. I was waiting my turn when Julie came out, slammed the door behind her, and announced vehemently to everyone: 'If I had tits I could rule the world.’”

For whatever reasons, Harris always undervalued her appeal, going so far as to comment that “pictures make me look like a twelve-year-old boy who flunked his body-building course.”

But I have to differ.

At twelve-years-old, waiting for Harris outside the stage door after Forty Carats, a minor comedy that was a major hit in 1969, I wasn’t prepared for the effect she would have on me. Looking directly into her piercing blue eyes and delicate features dazzled me. She looked infinitely more glamorous close up than from the last row of the balcony. Her infectious smile was only matched by the musicality of her speaking voice.

Turning her attention to me totally and completely, she looked deep into my eyes and purred, “You have such beautiful hair.”

And with that, she ran her fingers through it.

I was a goner.

And I wasn’t alone. When Elia Kazan, no less an authority on actresses, as well as great beauties (he worked with them all and bedded more than a few), cast Harris opposite James Dean in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's

East of Eden, the head of the studio, Jack Warner, told him that “he wished he’d taken a prettier girl.” In his autobiography, Kazan wrote: “I thought Julie beautiful; as a performer she found in each moment what was dearest and most moving. She also had the most affecting voice I’ve ever heard in an actress; it conveyed tenderness and humor simultaneously.” And in a 1991 New York Times interview, Harris revealed with honesty and good humor how she felt about her looks. When asked what she considered her only regret, Harris replied, “That I was not a great beauty ... it would have been w-o-o-nderful … I would have liked to be just like Cher … if I could have looked like Cher and also been able to act well, that’s everything."

Who am I to argue with Ms. Harris? But does this picture look like someone who wasn't a great beauty?

Besides the pleasure she gave her audiences, Harris derived enormous pleasure from being a member of the audience herself. “My life wouldn’t be as rewarding and exciting and richly endured if I didn’t go to see theater,” she once told a journalist. "I took Charles Nelson Reilly, who doesn’t like to go to the theatre, to Nicholas Nickleby, and when the [8 ½ hour] play was over he said, “Can we go again?” And I said, 'We can go every day if you want.' At its very best, the theater is a balm for hurt minds. It unites us as human beings, gives us a home, brings us together. You say: That’s what it means to be alive, to be human, to feel your heart beat. That’s what it means. Theater does that."


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