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I always wanted to know the details of the Jean Harris murder story.
However, because I kept to scholarly reading, I didn't want to take the
time or money to buy the books & magazines about her circumstances.
Now that I've seen the show, I have a greater understanding of the background history & consequential events that led to Harris's trial & conviction.
My knowledge grew because I witnessed riveting performances by a host of veteran actors: ones that I have grown to trust NOT to be involved in shameless mockeries of the truth, like the "Path to 9/11" is. I'm more curious to go back & read the books, newspapers & magazines about "Mrs. Harris."
My husband and I sat through 20 films this year and this one, along
with Michael Haneke's "Cache," was by a long way the best and the most
surprising we saw. You go to a gala at a film festival and you're
prepared for mostly safe stuff chock full of movie stars, so many of
them, like curios in cabinets ("Walk the Line" and "North Country" are
two such examples; there are others), that you lapse into a deep sleep
just looking at the credits, knowing the exercises in taste and decorum
that will follow. I wasn't encouraged by the cast list of "Mrs. Harris"
but was really interested in the whole Jean Harris story so along we
went to the screening.
For those of you who are not familiar with the tale, this is the murder of the Scarsdale Diet doctor saga in 1980. Jean Harris was an uptight headmistress who, so the media spun it at the time, in a fit of jealous rage drove from Virginia to New York in a blinding rainstorm and pumped the doctor full of bullets because he wanted to marry another woman.
What seems like a pretty straightforward narrative turns out to be anything but that, principally because of the way the story is told in this version and the incredible performances, not just from Annette Bening, though I have never seen such subtlety from this actress but also from Ben Kingsley, Cloris Leachman, Frances Fisher, Mary McDonnell and a host of others in truly perfectly judged cameos.
The first-time writer and director of "Mrs. Harris" never judges the characters and thus wisely puts the responsibility for making any judgments solely in the laps of the audience. The tonal shifts in this film are dizzying but never confusing and perhaps the most brilliant thing about it is the way in which you're seduced into laughing at or with all the insanity and then immediately are shown something that makes you question why you laughed in the first place.
It's not an easy ride or the most comfortable of films to watch, but it's one of the finest depictions of obsession, dependency and love gone wrong I've seen in a long time. It's not for everyone. My husband, who also loved it, had a heated debate with another couple we saw it with who hated it and mostly hated it because of the way it refuses to score easy victim versus villain points. It's divisive and from time to time you wonder about certain shots or the juxtaposition of certain scenes but these are minor quibbles. This is a debut feature that outclasses most of what I've seen in multiplexes this whole year. Go if you want to think and feel as a result of that thinking.
I heard a rumor that the film is not going to be released in movie theaters but will air on HBO. That, if true, is a pity because it's something that should be seen and the performances, writing and direction are first rate.
...Kingsley and Bening's performances are stellar. Like the Film
itself, their portrayal of the idiosyncratic/intellectual characters
and script is amazing. I'm usually not very psyched to see a Bio-pic
because a film's length cannot squeeze the complexities of a life and
often only the really good or bad is portrayed, neither giving the full
Mrs.Harris and "Hy" remind me of people from that niche of society I've known,especially in the way some intellectuals repress emotion w/logic. While for the most part I respect people who process feelings before acting out, but like in the film, too much repressed emotion can be a ticking time-bomb.
Props to the Film-makers and actors for an entertaining, unique,smart,& funny film that like most good/great films get better upon each viewing as details,layers are revealed. I'd recommend to those who seen it once, or didn't watch the film in its entirety to hold judgement until the 2nd viewing.
The film is well cast down to the smallest roles. And while Ellen Burstyn is a great actress(she played role of Mrs Harris in made-for-TV film soon after actual events in the early 80's)its amazing that she was nominated for an Emmy for her 15 seconds of screen time(she plays an ex-lover of Hy's that is being interviewed in a sort of "mock"umentary w/different characters who know the main characters in some way that threads its way throughout the film. The main plot is told through flashbacks from the trial of Mrs.Harris). It makes me wonder if whomever votes for the Emmy's owed her something, or it was pay-back for a past snubbing? While her 15seconds are solid, after seeing it three times I don't see them as worthy of an award or any more recognition than any of the other small roles(Brett Butler,Phillip Baker Hall, and Mary McDonald also give good short performances in the mock-doc thread)?? IMO ALL awards for art are irrelevant anyway(in comparing arts quality) because art is a subjective medium thats quality(sans technical proficiencies)and comparisons are up to an individuals personal taste and preference. Award shows are really just vehicles to promote stars, films, and the industries as a whole(music and/or Film). I'm not naive to the awards relevance and value to the individuals nominated or those involved w/a nominated project. Obviously the Financial gains and opportunity from the exposure and critical recognition is very important to an industry thats goal is to attract as many customers as possible(errr business). Too often people begin to believe that awards are fact,or a true gauge. Like a sporting competition. I've heard competent adults say things like..."that film should've won best picture because it was BETTER than that film..."??).
As a dark comedy Mrs Harris IMO is an excellent film, thats characters and script resinate later. I've laughed several times upon remembering certain lines by Bening and Kingsley. Kinglsey's portrayal of "Hy's" laugh is Hysterical
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Mrs. Jean Harris is a smart, educated woman but she's made some bad choices in life. The film begins with the shooting death of her longtime lover, Dr. Herman "Hy" Tarnower," better known as the Scarsdale Diet Doctor and best selling author. First, I have to say that the casting of this film was perfect. I recognized many faces such as Cloris Leachman who played Hy's sister, Pearl; Nan Martin played his mother; Chloe Sevigny played Lynne Tryforos; and others. This case occurred in 1980 and Jean testified on her own behalf and refused to have an attorney slander Hy. In fact, that was probably the main reason that she got convicted and served time. This shouldn't be a spoiler since this is factual. Anyway, Annette Bening and Sir Ben Kingsley give believable performances as the doomed couple. There are plenty of wonderful appearances by Mary McDonnell, Brett Butler, Lee Garlington, Michael Gross, and Frances Fisher. Oh, I can't forget a brief appearance by Ellen Burstyn who played Jean in the early 1980s too.
For anyone who remembers the shooting of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor at the hands of the school mistress from Madeira, the fancy girl's school in Potomac, MD, this film is a soap opera scandal which should have been allowed to rest in yellowing newspaper clippings (though those are probably on line now in incorruptible digits). Annette Bening is Mrs. Harris, the abandoned and lovelorn teacher. Bening is a fine actress and while she succeeds in bringing her character to life, all that is accomplished is to demonstrate once again that Mrs. Harris was pathetic. Kingsley has much less to work with and all he is able to demonstrate is that Herman (Hy) Tarnower was an unmitigated son-of-a-bitch, which we already knew. Why did Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman allow themselves to be roped into this? One assumes for the money, certainly not the art. Could this have been a better picture? Given the facts of the case, which are reproduced more or less as they were presented at the time, I would guess not. Neither of the principals has much of a back story to be unpacked and, while the details of the murder made headlines for days at the time, at the end of the day it's merely a sad, sordid, essentially uninvolving tale.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Spoilered just in case you are not familiar with the story. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Utterly fabulous film with a strong cast. Cameos done by Ellen Burnstyn and Brett Butler capture Tarnower's eclectic selection of women. Annette Bening does an amazing job of capturing the complexity of real-life woman Jean Harris, yet she does so with an seeming effortlessness that makes her performance eloquent. She IS Jean Harris -- petite, brilliant, vulnerable and dangerous. What a gifted and powerful actress! Ben Kingsley also does wonderful homage to cad/victim Dr. Tarnower. This movie is well cast, well scripted, and well done. For instance, I thought the thunderbolts edge the soft character of Jean Harris quite nicely. Dishes, diamonds and dark glasses. Also accompanied by poignant selections of music from the late sixties and seventies (for instance, Chicago's 'Color My World' as they struggle to get the doctor's stretcher down the spiral staircase as Jean sits by herself in a comatose haze -- very well done indeed. I'm not sure I totally believe her, but I sure do like her. This movie is wonderful!
This film was atypical of the many high-caliber films produced by HBO.
"Mrs. Harris" played like a generic network made-for-television biopic.
The normally excellent Ben Kingsley and Annette Bening were both
mediocre, and the main problem was with the teleplay. The structure of
the film was odd in the use of flashbacks interlarded with the
courtroom scenes. The actual relationship of Jean Harris and Herman
Tarnower was downplayed, as the film progressed through vignettes that
were simply variations on a single stormy and turbulent argument.
The result was a one-note film with one-note performances. Tarnower was portrayed as a boorish womanizer, Harris as a pill-popping neurotic. There were no levels and no depth to the characters. Because the film-maker refused to take a stand on the actual sequence of events during the shooting, multiple versions of the crucial death scene were staged, and the viewer was left with no greater understanding of the events at the end of the film than at the beginning.
This was amateurish film-making with no substantial research apparent and no integrity in attempting to come to terms with this enormously publicized and scrutinized murder. Astonishingly, the film even attempted to integrate comedy with short cameos of actors playing friends and relatives and directly addressing the camera. The scenes did not work, and they tended to trivialize a serious subject.
In the tragic killing of Dr. Herman Tarnower by Jean Harris, there might have been the potential for a film to shed light on why Mrs. Harris pulled the trigger inflicting fatal gunshot wounds on the doctor. Unfortunately, this shallow film lacks intelligence in the scripting and fails even to deliver the kind of compelling drama that one may find in purely fictionalized films about a crime of passion, such as "Play Misty For Me" or "Fatal Attraction."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I thought that this film was very nice. Great acting, costumes,
production, script, true to the real life events, etc. It is definitely
the truth about what really happened and it's definitely not one of
those run-of-the-mill t.v. movies. I give it 8/10 stars.
This film about Dr.Herman Tarnower's and Jean Harris' longtime on and off relationship is based on the book "Very Much a Lady" by Shanna Alexander. The movie starts off with the shooting and then goes into the story being told by friends, family members, and others who knew both of them. I do have to say that Dr.Tarnower was a playboy who heartlessly used women, even though that is no excuse for Jean killing him. I think that Jean should have served longer in prison for the crime. I also think that this movie should have showen some of her prison life in which she helped others.
That is one of the things that I do think she did do right is help others in prison. I think she still is kind of crazy and in denial. This is because she claims that it was an accident, not murder. But it has been proved that is not the case.
Having read Jean Harris' autobiography, as well as other materials on
this case, I thought Annette Bening's portrayal of Jean Harris was
excellent. She was Jean Harris. Ben Kingsley's performance was also
excellent--he was given little to work with beyond witty/smug
remarks/situations yet to his credit he was able to exude the charm
that Tarnower reportedly had, and the chemistry between the Tarnower
and Harris was obvious, which made their connection believable. I was
drawn to this movie as a fan of both Bening and Kinglsey, and the
chemistry between these two very charismatic actors did not disappoint.
What was bothersome was that the film seemed to fluctuate between serious drama and intentional camp. This made it difficult to get too involved in the story or feel empathy for the characters, which is often what people look for in a film of this genre. Even the soundtrack (which was excellent on its own) was used to this endjust when I was getting drawn into Harris' "withdrawal-induced perspective, a pop song from the 70's (was it Bread?) pulled me right out of it. But the more I thought about it (and read some viewer comments on this site) the more appropriate this approach felt. After all, the whole appeal of this story to the public was that a highly successful physician and the Headmistress of a prestigious boarding school were involved in a rather tawdry situation. Two highly educated, superior-acting, society folks who took themselves *way* too seriously were involved in affairs, drugs and cheap catfights. If the shooting scene at the beginning of the film seemed ridiculous and unbelievable, well, that was exactly how Jean Harris described the events herself. So after much consideration, I think that some aspects of the film that other viewers here have criticized were perhaps an effort by the filmmakers to underscore the absurd in this story. This makes "Mrs. Harris" not the typical murder drama/documentary and definitely worth seeing.
So comes down to this: Great cast, great performances (the cameo performances as well) and it accurately portrays the complexities of the situations and the people involved in this story. It is also somewhat disturbing--you won't leave with a feeling that justice was necessarily served, or that anything was really resolved, or with any sense of empathy for the characters. But hey, that's what happens in real life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An extraordinarily talented cast gathered for director Phylis Nagy's
made for TV crime and punishment opus. The results aren't astounding
(like, for example, "Reversal of Fortune"), but it's certainly
interesting as a character study.
The story begins abruptly; rather than introduce the characters and setting, we are thrust into the primary "crime scene". Jean Harris (Annette Bening) confronts Dr. Herman Tarnower in his home and he urges her to sleep it off. Telling him that she drove 4 hours just to spend a few minutes with him, she produces a revolver and attempts to kill herself. In the process of attempting to stop her, the doctor is severely injured by 3 gunshot wounds. Once the "crime" is out of the way, the film goes back in time to fill us in on the background events that led to these events.
My feelings about the film are mixed. The performances are solid, and Kingsley is worth watching in just about anything. He's got a very interesting character here a total narcissist whose main virtue seems to be the fact that he's so open and honest about it. His crowded room of hunting trophies symbolizes rather blatantly his attitudes about life in general, and women in particular.
He's not a very sympathetic character, but no matter how hard the film seems to try I just can't find Jean to be in the "right" here. First of all, I find the depiction of the crime which is shown later in the film based on the prosecution's evidence to be far more likely than the first version we're shown. Even allowing some room for the film to be ambiguous about its goals and giving them credit for showing the prosecution version, I think a number of factors tilt this film strongly in Jean's favor. Basically the film shows Jean as a victim of the doctor, particularly in that it asks us to accept that her depression and violent outburst are the result of her addiction to medication that Dr. Tarnower prescribed for her, and repeatedly reminds us that she took anything and everything he gave her based on faith. The film seems to ask us to hold the doctor responsible for her drug habit, which I find just as unpalatable as her story about the doctor being "accidentally" shot 3 times is untenable. Bening is a fine actress but she can't create pathos where none really belongs. The film is too heavy-handed in asking us to see things from her perspective, even going so far as to basically lampoon the doctor's living relatives and friends who doubt Jean's story and blame her for his death by directing these actors (including Cloris Leachman) in a ridiculous over-the-top manner.
This film will hold your attention to the end of its running time, after which point you may feel as I did that you actually wasted your time. That's not to say it's a horrible film, it's just that the story is finally not convincing on a human level because Bening's character is too improbable to generate anything beyond curiosity.
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