Barbara Harris in Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971) - Supporting Actress Sundays

One of the things I love most about the best actressing at the edges is how a certain kind of actress can sometimes just blaze into a movie that's, by most measures, an utter disaster and, in a handful of incredible scenes, seem to "right" the ship just before it sinks. Of course, sometimes the ship sinks anyway, but there's something truly awesome when an actress works that kind of wonder. It's stuff from which actressexuals are born. And just such a performance arrives this week courtesy of...

approximately 15 minutes and 16 seconds
5 scenes
roughly 14% of film's total running time

Barbara Harris plays Allison Densmore, an actress who stumbles into the life of Georgie Soloway (Dustin Hoffman) at an ill-fated audition.

Harris's Allison arrives to the existential, peripsychotic midlife swirl of Who Is Harry Kellerman... as an apparent naif. Allison has no idea that Hoffman's Georgie is a self-destructive, guilt-drenched narcissist prone to consuming people, especially attractive women, as a matter of course. Georgie is so accustomed to people bending, unasked, to his will that he's utterly perplexed, and transfixed, by Harris's Allison...who's singing the wrong song under an assumed name and a new expensive hairdo for a role she's not right for and knows she won't get...

Harris's Allison doesn't care what Georgie wants because she's got way too much going on in her own heart, in her own existential peripsychotic midlife swirl, to really keep track of anyone else. I mean, please, Harris's Allison can't even remove her hand from the lamp -- how can she be expected to accommodate other people's needs...like leave the audition when it's over.

Allison is the kind of self-obsessed neurotic disaster who's only charming in the movies, and Harris is especially gifted when playing this kind of "Elaine May" role. Harris plays Allison's inane neuroses (her echolalic tendencies, her propensity toward self-narration) with an adept lightness that, first, keeps her charming so that, second, her overweening kookiness seems authentic, mildly amusing proof that this complete loon of a woman is just being herself.

Harris's brand of tender clarity is absolutely essential to the character, and to the film. Because Allison's screentime comes one big chunk, Harris has a whole arc to accomplish in the space of a few concentrated scenes: hideous audition becomes crazy plane ride becomes one night stand.

In charting this sequence of actions, Harris does something just wonderful: she simplifies. At each stage, the fluttery crust of mannerisms dissolve ever so slightly to reveal a woman, just as depressed and neurotic and desperate as Georgie, who nonetheless possesses a clear, precise and accurate picture of who she is in the world. Where Georgie has no idea who he is because he's deluged by other people's fantasies of him, Allison's accustomed to not being noticed at all, except when -- of course -- someone tells her she's not what they were looking for. As she guides Georgie into their one night stand, giving him permission to abandon her once its over, her nonstop chatter lifts from Georgie the burden of expectation and offers him the kindness of honesty.

Harris handles Allison with masterful confidence. But amidst the film's grandiosity -- it seems to want to be simultaneously a show business satire AND a "bildungsroman of the creative soul" of the sort Fosse barely accomplished in All That Jazz almost a decade later -- Harris's performance can provide the film's emotional mooring only temporarily before the film once again dives down its own rabbit-hole/navel all over again. (Director Ulu Grosband returned to the dominant themes of Harry Kellerman -- the angst-istential tension between commercial success and creative authenticity in a pop music setting -- a decade or so later in 1995's Georgia, garnering a notable Supporting Actress nod for another formidably talented, iconoclastic actress accustomed to the edges.) But in the end, for Harry Kellerman, Harris's performance can only do so much.

Harris's performance is all by itself in the obdurate, self-obsessed, masculinist world of Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (see Ken's review for even more scathing detail), her performance becoming the single flash of humanity in Hoffman's/Georgie's suicidal spiral of self-loathing and despair.

But even as Hoffman's Georgie free falls from the heavens, something tells me that Harris's Allison is the sole survivor of this bunch...


CanadianKen said...

It's a peach of a performance. And you've captured it here -bloom, fragrance and all. Nice work.

criticlasm said...

YOu and your "echolalic"--you made me go to a dictionary--Love you for that. :) Great review. I was going to watch it anyway, but now I want to even more.

Raybee said...

Wish I could add something but this movie is not available to me.

Martin Olson said...

I have been looking for this film forever for this particular scene. Could you please Youtube Harris' lamp-holding audition scene? I would be eternally grateful!