Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (movie 1971) review: Messy filmmaking with one single bright spot
To call Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? a curiosity is to perhaps imply quality buried in its quirk, or virtue obscured by its capriciousness. That’s not the case, really, as this largely existential film is an absolute mess with only one bright spot of redemption (more on her later).
Directed by Ulu Grosbard, Who Is Harry Kellerman… – with its long-winded, desperate title – is a curiosity along the lines of a relic, a work that somehow speaks of its time. Unfortunately, it really does not speak coherently, even if the film is unmistakably post-Woodstock, pre-Watergate, and all-American, with errant themes of success, paranoia, and isolation.
Dustin Hoffman anti-hero: Delusional, suicidal + unlucky in love
Dustin Hoffman is Georgie Soloway, a successful songwriter who pens snappy love songs, but is unlucky in love. Of course. Georgie is also suicidal, paranoid, delusional, neurotic, and quite consumed with a fantasy life that typically finds him on a ledge. He has trouble with women and a conflicted relationship with his parents. He ends up either experiencing an early mid-life crisis or burning out on his own success.
Who is Harry Kellerman… wraps all this in light surrealism. What amounts to a conventional narrative is dressed up as a series of daydreams and hallucinations, interspersed with flashbacks and sessions with a shrink, Dr. Solomon Moses (Jack Warden, in various wacky guises and with bizarre accents that shift from scene to scene).
None of it is very meaningful, however, as there is little that is stimulating about Georgie’s neuroses or urgent about his situation. The character lacks emotional availability and no cerebral context is offered in its place. Not helping matters, neither director Grosbard nor playwright-turned-screenwriter Herb Gardner (A Thousand Clowns) offers an invitation to investigate “Who is Georgie Soloway and Why Should Anyone Care What Harry Kellerman is Saying About Him?”
Emotional core pops up in film’s final third
Strange, but perhaps not wholly out of place in such a deliberately eccentric film, is that an emotional core is introduced in its final third.
Allison Densmore (Barbara Harris) is an average secretary who auditions for Georgie. She has an average voice, but a lesser stage presence; consequently, her audition is a disaster – a rambling roller coaster of anxious defeat.
Allison is a genuine failure opposite Georgie’s fabricated disappointment, thus offsetting his misplaced hysteria. A sliver of meaning is drawn from this contrast before Herb Gardner’s muddled screenplay sends Allison on her way.
Barbara Harris’ ‘gifts and charm’ help to lift Who Is Harry Kellerman…
Yet Allison is the one who lingers even when the question posed by the film’s title eventually answers itself. The oddball character is beautiful, yet daffy in her sad ordinariness, and Barbara Harris never allows Allison’s eccentricity (or that of the film around her, for that matter) to subdue her heartbroken eloquence. Allison’s audition scene, in particular, is magnificent and jolts Who is Harry Kellerman… with substance that cuts through its superficiality.
Harris, who had one of the leading roles in Fred Coe’s 1965 film version of Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, received a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination – though Cloris Leachman’s similarly melancholy work in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show was the eventual winner.
Still, it is a wonder that Harris was remembered at all, as Academy voters needed to sort through the film’s trivial meanderings before the payoff of her brief performance.
Barbara Harris’ work in Who Is Harry Kellerman… is not enough to save the ill-defined film, but it does bring Harris’ gifts and charm – on display in far too few films – into focus.
Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? is not recommended, but the Academy Award-nominated work of Barbara Harris is.
© Doug Johnson
Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971).
Director: Ulu Grosbard.
Screenplay: Herb Gardner.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman. Barbara Harris. Jack Warden. David Burns. Gabriel Dell. Betty Walker. Rose Gregorio. Dom De Luise. Regina Baff. Ed Zimmermann. Joseph R. Sicari (as Joe Sicari). Candice Azzara (as Candy Azzara).
Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? movie cast info via the IMDb.
Barbara Harris, Dustin Hoffman Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? images: National General Pictures.