Maybe while the power is out in Judge Ryan Keefer's chambers, he can tell you why everyone should love Jean Harris. Or maybe not.
She loved him. So she shot him.
Wow, look at the star power here. You've got two Oscar winners (Ben Kingsley, Gandhi, Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), a host of Oscar nominees (Annette Bening, Being Julia, Mary McDonnell, Dances With Wolves), and an Emmy winner (Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore). Written and directed by Phyllis Nagy (Found in the Street) and inspired by the book "Very Much a Lady" by Shana Alexander, this TV movie originally aired on HBO and earned 12 Emmy nominations. So how good is it?
Facts of the Case
Jean Harris (Bening) was better known as the companion of Dr. Herman Tarnower (Kingsley). Tarnower, despite his appearance as an older short Jewish guy, was a bit of a player in the upstate New York scene, but he managed to hit it off with Jean back when they first met in the mid 1960s. Their relationship was a little bit distant, and Tarnower was more than a little resistant when it came to marriage. Harris tolerated Tarnower for over a dozen years, even after the publication and media blitz of his "Scarsdale Diet" book.
The distant relationship became even colder as Tarnower became more and more involved with his assistant Lynn (played by Chloe Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry), and despite Harris' promotion to headmistress of the Madeira School in Virginia, she still traveled to New York to be with Tarnower. As Herman's relationship with Lynn grew more and more obvious, Jean went to New York one night to kill herself in front of her husband. Later that night, Tarnower was found dead of multiple gun shots and Harris was in jail as a result.
What bothered me about the film was that it seemed to take the easy way out when it came to humanizing Harris. Let me rephrase that; it was a hell of a lot easier to demonize Tarnower. Granted, he still was a bit of a bastard, but to put Kingsley in the role seems to cover any loose holes in the script that Nagy may have left opened. We know Kingsley loves playing villains, so this one should be a cakewalk, right? He's a little bit creepy when the couple first makes love—he resists marriage like Dracula resists sunlight—so sure, now I can see why she killed him.
I don't mean to belittle the complaint, but the whole effort to humanize a convicted murderer is pointless to me. It borders on the "heroic crusade" frame of mind that many share when it comes to this case or others like it. If I was an older woman, I would have read the labels on the drugs my husband was providing me, and I would have left a long time ago, before his philandering became so flagrant. But that's why I don't watch the Lifetime Channel.
Still though, Mrs. Harris doesn't really talk about the reasons for staying with her doctor boyfriend/companion, even as she's being demeaned. There is a dynamic in the relationship where both individuals are fiercely just that, individual and self-sufficient. But it's their desired isolation that draws them towards one another. Opposites attract is the most common overheard saying, but sometimes, even the repelling that polar similarities have may be more intriguing.
The performances are what you'd expect from a film containing so many damn fine actors. If anything, the complaint I voice is that we don't see enough of them. Aside from the names I've mentioned, you've got an almost unrecognizable Michael Gross (Family Ties), Philip Baker Hall (Secret Honor), and Frances Fisher (Titanic), who as Jean's best friend could have been used a little bit more in the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What may be more disappointing to me than the film itself was listening to the commentaries. Nagy's was OK, but the one I was looking forward to was the one with Bening and Kingsley. Pop it in…OK, they're in the same room, this is good…but after that, the track turns into warm vanilla pudding. They spend a lot of time watching themselves in the film and I completely understand that, but aside from the occasional glimmer of acting wisdom, there's not too much to gain from listening to this track. Someone should have given them each a bottle of tequila and told them to go whenever they're ready the overall stories the two of them have got to be interesting.
Performances aside (which is a little hard to do, as Bening and Kingsley were both excellent), Mrs. Harris falls victim to one of the first cardinal sins of retelling a famous murder or crime of years past; it shows love and affection for its subject, focusing more attention on the circumstances that led up to the fateful night than the facts the night has shed. This could have been a lot more affecting if an objective eye was lensed.
The cast is not guilty, Nagy gets community service for her plot devices, and Harris is found guilty…wait, go read the details for yourself, real life is a little bit more enjoyable than the film was.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Writer/Director Phyllis Nagy
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