Last month actress Julie Harris passed away of congestive heart failure. She was 87 years old and had worked continuously in film, television and on stage since 1948.
She was nominated for an Academy Award for her very first film, The Member of the Wedding, in 1952. Though she didn't win the coveted Oscar, she was awarded five Tony Awards (out of a record ten nominations) for her work on Broadway. Throughout her extraordinary career, Harris defined the term "working actor.”
She went wherever the work took her. While some actors thumbed their noses at television, Harris was a regular performer on the tube: upon her mantle, alongside her Tonys, stood three Emmy Awards for her long running role on the prime time soap opera Knot's Landing.
Harris took her work quite seriously. During the filming of The Haunting (1963), her co-stars noted that she kept her distance off camera. She later explained that she had done so in order to convey her character's loneliness and isolation from the other characters in the film, as the screenwriter had intended.
The Haunting is among the best known and most beloved of Julie Harris' films. Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is a classic ghost story.
As the story begins, The Haunting appears to be a simple tale. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) is a scientist doing research on the authenticity of haunted houses, and the long deserted Hill House has quite a history. The doctor manages to convince a few people to join him on a live-in excursion to the spooky old manor.
"No one comes to Hill House during the night, in the dark," says Mrs. Dudley, the creepy housekeeper (Rosalie Crutchley). "No one lives any nearer than town, and no one will come any nearer than that. In the night. In the dark." The mood is set for an old fashioned creepfest.
But The Haunting soon becomes so much more. Dr. Markway's party includes Eleanor (Harris), a sexually and emotionally repressed spinster who's never been loved. She's joined by Theo (Claire Bloom), a happy-go-lucky hipster who makes no attempt at hiding her lesbianism, or her attraction to Eleanor. A confused and terrified Eleanor, unaccustomed to attention of any sort, soon finds herself in the middle of a strange and unexpected triangle: she's being wooed by Theo, and by the restless spirit of Mr. Crane, the long dead gentleman who built Hill House.
The Haunting is an old-fashioned horror movie. It's terror lies in what you can't see. The residents of Hill House can feel the spirits watching them. They can hear them breathing, just around the corner. The ghosts might touch your cheek in the dark. Turn on the light, and there's no one there...
Viewers today might not realize how daring and groundbreaking The Haunting was at the time of its release in 1963. Only a year earlier, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine had starred in The Children's Hour, an intense drama about a pair of schoolteachers wrongly accused of having a lesbian relationship. But when one of them suggests that there might be some truth to the accusation, we see the shame, fear and hate that prior generations were forced to live with.
Yet in The Haunting, Theo wears her lesbianism on her sleeve. Though the "L" word is never actually spoken, Theo clearly feels no shame over who she is. She’s comfortable with her identity, and takes gleeful pleasure in openly flirting with Eleanor, which is a revelation for Harris' character, who's become resigned to her loveless life. At the time, LGBT people were largely invisible on the screen. When we were seen, we were presented either as tragic, suicidal figures, or as caricatures to be ridiculed. The Haunting might have been the first time a major Hollywood studio, in this case MGM, green-lighted a film with a gay character who was perfectly at ease with who she was. It was Harris' heterosexual character who was filled with shame and suicidal thoughts.
Harris didn't merely play Eleanor. With her training at the Yale School of Drama and her years of stage experience, she actually became every character she played. She immersed herself in the role, brilliantly conveying the anguish of a woman who had long ago realized that she would never be loved. When she suddenly finds herself the object of affection of Hill House, she embraces the attention, both from Theo and from Mr. Crane's ghost. She's so starved for companionship that she's unable to refuse it when it's finally offered to her, no matter where it comes from.
It's a magnificent performance in a film that tugs at viewers heartstrings even as it terrifies them. The Haunting is so much more than just a horror movie.
Three years later, Harris was cast in another daring, for it's time, film. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) was based on a 1940s novel by Carson McCullers, who also authored Harris' star making The Member of the Wedding. It's hard to imagine how audiences must have reacted to this shocker of a tale at the time of it's release. 1967 was the "Summer of Love.” The hippies had begun their counter-culture revolution. Yet in spite of all the talk of "free love" homosexuality remained a largely taboo subject.
Moviegoers must have been stunned when they realized that the loveless marriage between army Major Weldon Penderton and Leonora (Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor) was caused by the Major's obvious sexual attraction to a private (Robert Forster) who likes to go horseback riding in the nude.
Leonora seeks solace in the arms of Lt. Col. Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), who's tired of his own sex-free marriage to the sickly Alison (Harris). Alison gets support from her "manservant" Anacleto (Zorro David), an effeminate, obviously gay man from the Philippines. While The Haunting has but one gay character, Reflections in a Golden Eye had two--yet the Stonewall Riots were still a few years away.
The characters in this Southern Gothic melodrama are intense and passionate. Their lives are miserable. Rage, both sexual and emotional, boils beneath the surface of their polite Southern exteriors. Though not a horror movie per se, Reflections in a Golden Eye is a chilling story of the horrors that can occur when people don't follow their hearts and live authentic lives.
Few actors today possess the kind of dramatic intensity that was Julie Harris' trademark--Meryl Streep comes to mind as one of our few current performers who could play the kind of roles that Harris excelled in. While she was not as famous as her contemporaries, it was impossible to turn away from Julie Harris when she was on the screen. Her mere presence was mesmerizing.
In that regard, Harris truly embodied what it meant to be a star.
Rest in peace.
The Haunting and Reflections in a Golden Eye are available on DVD.