Who is Judge Gordon Sullivan and why is he writing a mixed review of this movie?
Dustin Hoffman wants to know…
The sixties folk explosion lead to a lot of unlikely folks getting their pictures in the papers. No one was surprised when John, Paul, George, and Ringo took the world by the storm, mop-topped or not. However, when guys like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were suddenly the face of youth, people thought something must be up. Though the era of the heartthrob wasn't over by any means, the sixties expanded who could get their face on a magazine cover. Still, there were still artists working in the shadows, writing hits but unable or unwilling to perform the hits themselves. One of these guys is the main character of the awkwardly titled Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?. It's a wonderfully realized portrait of early seventies neuroses that feels both stuck in its time but ahead of the game. Though not for everyone, it's a definite must-see for fans of early Dustin Hoffman.
Facts of the Case
Who is Harry Kellerman? tells the story of a day in the life of songwriter George Soloway. He's a wildly successful hit maker with loads of money and no problems getting with the ladies. That is, until a guy calling himself Harry Kellerman starts calling up said ladies and making terrible accusations about Soloway's character. It's ruining his life, and so George sets out to find Kellerman, seeking help from his therapist (Jack Warden, …And Justice for All) and girlfriend (Barbara Harris, Freaky Friday) along the way.
While the folk boom was bringing new kinds of faces to the magazine covers of pop music, a similar change in what was considered the right kind of man was going on in Hollywood as well. With the waning of Hollywood's Golden Age, we still had traditionally handsome heartthrobs like Warren Beatty around, but a new breed of guy was becoming attractive. There was the brooding, brutish Marlon Brando, but there was also the slighter, more neurotic figure of Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman always lacked the kind of marquee looks that some stars rely on, and so many of his iconic characters seem to struggle with their masculinity, whether its Ben Braddock in The Graduate or Michael Dorsey in Tootsie. Who is Harry Kellerman? is another opportunity for Hoffman to explore that trend. This time he plays a guy who is wildly successful as a writer of love songs who can't have a sustained relationship. This leads him on a kind of inventory of his love life when Kellerman starts spreading lies about him.
The film's major strength is its cast. Hoffman is his usual dependable self, all twitchy energy and crack timing. Barbara Harris earned an Oscar nom for her role as the aspiring singer Soloway courts, and Jack Warden plays another manic, avuncular authority figure, something like a slightly less suicidal take on his role in …And Justice for All. The actors handle the script—which is filled with a number of witty exchanges and non-sequiturs—with ease. They also hand the film's surreal atmosphere as well.
In 1971, Who is Harry Kellerman? was quickly and rather quietly dismissed, aside from Harris' Oscar nod, and this is the film's first release on DVD. It gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that's pretty good for an obscure early-seventies dramedy. Though the source print looks to be in solid shape, I can't imagine much attention went to re-mastering this film. So detail is a bit so-so, with grain looking noisy in some shots. Colors are muted, but that's appropriately early-seventies. Black levels are pretty good, and consistent even if they're not inky. It's better than I expected, fully watchable, even if not the best an early-seventies film has looked on DVD. The film's mono soundtrack gets a decent presentation as well. Dialogue is clean and clear, and though there's not a lot of dynamic range, there is also little hiss or distortion.
Sadly, there aren't any extras. For a catalogue release like this, I wouldn't normally complain. However, the back of the box mentions "For his role as the prolific songwriter George Soloway, Hoffman performed live (in character) with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show at the iconic rock palace, Fillmore East, in New York City." We see a brief scene from this historic encounter in the film proper, but I think it's a terrible tease to mention that there was a whole night without including some footage of it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Who is Harry Kellerman?, as its title suggests, is an unwieldy mess. Its mannerisms—from the seventies excess of the musical number featuring Silverstein to the shaggy nature of the plot that's heavy on Hoffman's growling—get in the way of the fact that it doesn't have much of a story to tell. In this case, the idea is that the journey is more than the destination (especially once we learn who Kellerman is in the final moments), but the journey here never feels as compelling as its actors want it to be. Part of the problem is one of tone: there's lots of talk of suicide, and yet it's also supposed to be a comedy. It's not hard to see why contemporary audiences rejected it—Hoffman feels too vulnerable and too inscrutable—and yet something about the awkwardness of his character resonates with the current flood of Apatow and Office-style comedy.
Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? is the perfect film to help you win a bar bet as the film with the longest title to be nominated for an Oscar. It's fitting that the awkwardly-titled dramedy would perhaps be most notable for something so trivial. As a character exploration it doesn't quite revel enough about its protagonist, while it's also too light to be a drama and has too much suicide to laugh at frequently. Still, fans of Hoffman will find another of the actor's fine creations, while those with a nostalgia for the weird possibilities the early seventies open up for American cinema will find an interesting curiosity.
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