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Dead at 87: James Dean Leading Lady, Best Actress Oscar Nominee Julie Harris

Julie Harris movies James Dean East of EdenJulie Harris: Best Actress Oscar nominee, multiple Tony winner dead at 87 (photo: James Dean and Julie Harris in ’East of Eden’)

Film, stage, and television actress Julie Harris, a Best Actress Academy Award nominee for the psychological drama The Member of the Wedding and James Dean’s leading lady in East of Eden, died of congestive heart failure at her home in West Chatham, Massachusetts, on August 24, 2013. Harris, born in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, on December 2, 1925, was 87.

Throughout her career, Julie Harris collected ten Tony Award nominations, more than any other performer. She won five times — a record matched only by that of Angela Lansbury. Harris’ Tony Award wins were for I Am a Camera (1952), The Lark (1956), Forty Carats (1969), The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1973), and The Belle of Amherst (1977). Harris’ tenth and final Tony nomination was for The Gin Game (1997). In 2002, she was honored with a Special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.

Additionally, Julie Harris was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, winning three times: for the episodes "Little Moon of Alban" (1959) and "Victoria Regina" (1962) from the anthology series Hallmark Hall of Fame; and for Ken Burns’ PBS documentary Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, in which Harris provided the voice of women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. Another notable Julie Harris television role was that of Lilimae Clements (1980-1987) in the hit series Knots Landing (1979-1993).

Julie Harris movies

Although Julie Harris never became a bona fide movie star, she was featured in several important releases of the ’50s and ’60s. She made her film debut in Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 movie version of Carson McCullers’ play and novel The Member of the Wedding. Then in her mid-20s, Harris played the troubled, 12-year-old tomboy Frances ’Frankie’ Addams, a role she had originated on Broadway in 1950, alongside Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde.

Major Broadway adaptations with some or all of the original cast members were quite frequent in the ’50s, e.g., Born Yesterday (Judy Holliday), A Streetcar Named Desire (Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter), Tea and Sympathy (Deborah Kerr, John Kerr), and The Bad Seed (Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack). Many of those failed in their transition to film: the performances felt mechanic, the dialogue sounded stilted, and what one might find believable on stage looked ludicrous on screen.

Somehow, Julie Harris made me forget I was watching a grown woman playing a pre-adolescent girl in The Member of the Wedding. Perhaps that was because this 12-year-old was, in her own immature way, a complex (and sexual) being with equally complex (and, however inarticulate, sexual) desires. In my view, Harris’ performance in The Member of the Wedding was far superior to that of the highly theatrical Shirley Booth — the year’s eventual Best Actress Oscar winner — in another Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptation, Come Back, Little Sheba . (For the record, the other Best Actress nominees of 1952 were: Bette Davis in The Star, Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear, and Susan Hayward in With a Song in My Heart. Harris would have been my pick.)

Julie Harris: James Dean leading lady, the original Sally Bowles

In 1955, three years after The Member of the Wedding, Julie Harris would land two plum movie roles: she was excellent as James Dean’s love interest in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, and she got the chance to reprise her Tony-winning role as Sally Bowles in Henry Cornelius’ British-made I Am a Camera (1955), for which she received a BAFTA nomination as Best Foreign Actress. Co-starring Laurence Harvey, this was the first film version of Christopher Isherwood’s novel and John Van Druten’s play that would eventually become the Broadway musical Cabaret (starring Jill Haworth), later adapted to the screen by director Bob Fosse and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (with Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles).

Julie Harris also had a key role in the well-regarded boxing drama Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), starring Anthony Quinn and Mickey Rooney; she supported Peter Kastner and Elizabeth Hartman in Francis Ford Coppola’s groovy (but not very funny) comedy You’re a Big Boy Now (1966); and was one of the several stars (among them Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall, and Shelley Winters) featured in Jack Smight’s humorous thriller Harper (1966), starring sleuth Paul Newman.

But Julie Harris’ top performances of the ’60s — in fact, two of the greatest movie performances of the decade — were found in Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) and John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), both of which dealt with sexual dysfunctions and some hardcore kinky stuff.

In The Haunting, Harris is a sexless (and, consequently, sex-mad) spinster who feels the presence of a powerful, malevolent force inside an old mansion; having lesbian Claire Bloom as her roommate doesn’t help matters any. Alongside Deborah Kerr’s governess in Jack Clayton’s 1961 horror house thriller The Innocents, Harris’ spinster remains one of the most vivid and most disturbing portrayals of sexual imbalance ever seen on screen.

In Reflections in a Golden Eye, like The Member of the Wedding based on a novel by Carson McCullers, Harris is the unbalanced wife of army lieutenant colonel Brian Keith. How unbalanced? Well, having your nipples sliced off with a pair of pruning shears sounds pretty unbalanced to me. Having lost her newborn child, her only friend is a girlish Filipino gardener named Anacleto (played by Zorro David), as her husband is too busy having an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, herself madly obsessed with stallions and the wife of army major Marlon Brando, who happens to be both gay and impotent, in addition to being madly obsessed with voyeuristic soldier Robert Forster. Needless to say, the dramatic climax in Reflections in a Golden Eye doesn’t feature a big happy orgy.

More Julie Harris movies

Among the few Julie Harris movies — about 15 of them — released in the last four decades are Larry Peerce’s drama The Bel Jar (1978), based on a novel by Sylvia Plath, and featuring Harris as Marilyn Hassett’s mother; Stuart Rosenberg’s Nazi era-set Voyage of the Damned (1976), with Harris as one of the doomed Jewish passengers aboard an ocean liner no country wants in their shores; Michael Apted’s Gorillas in the Mist (1988), with Sigourney Weaver; and small supporting roles in a couple of Cape Cod-set movies directed by Daniel Adams: The Golden Boys (2008) and The Lightkeepers (2009). According to the IMDb, the last title turned out to be Julie Harris’ last movie.

James Dean and Julie Harris East of Eden photo: Warner Bros.

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3 Comments to Julie Harris: Best Actress Oscar Nominee, James Dean Leading Lady Dead at 87

  1. John Kerr

    The news of her death made me so very sad. One of American theatre’s giants. I was so lucky to have seen her on stage once, and even got her autograph (I was a starstruck kid). The actress Cherry Jones once showed me the handkerchief of Sarah Bernhardt, given to her by Harris. Harris had been given it by Helen Hayes - it became a NY tradition for leading ladies to pass it on to a member of the newer generation. Harris was beloved in NY theatre, so it shocked me to hear on the DVD commentary of “The Haunting” her 3 co-stars speaking so disparagingly about her. All, apparently, because Harris didn’t socialize w/them after hours, & remained isolated & “in character” while working. Kind of ridiculous for such spite after many long years. R.I.P., dearest Julie.

  2. al

    she aged James Dean did not age .
    figure that out ?

  3. joelnox

    Always being a fan of her work in film and television about a dozen years ago I saw he on tour in The Belle of Amherst and was completely blown away. It’s not enough praise to say she was amazing but I can think of no other term to describe what we audience members witnessed on the stage that day. She had a cold which she made into part of the performance and made seem as if playing Emily any other way wouldn’t make sense. There was no fussiness or affectation just simple brilliance, a truly memorable experience. A huge loss to the performing world.







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