Julie Harris, whose Broadway performances made her legendary among American actresses, died Saturday at 87. Throughout her roles, Harris was capable of gracefully suggesting that her characters were being driven—or ground under—by emotions too powerful for her small, slim frame to contain. Although she did memorable work in movies and on TV, she was never the popular star in those media she was on the stage, and she didn’t seem to have the kind of outsized, clearly defined personality or public image that is often thought to be essential to movie stardom. As much as any woman in her field, she embodied the idea of an actor as a quiet, blank slate of a person who is possessed by the characters she plays.
Harris began her career in the mid-1940s, with small parts in productions of Shakespeare, Sophocles, and J. M. Synge. Her big break came in 1950, when she was cast as Frankie, the tomboy protagonist of Carson McCullers’ The Member Of The Wedding. She was 24 at the time, which, as she later pointed out, was twice the age of her character. Director Harold Clurman, Harris said, “never said anything about acting childish or acting like a child. He said, ‘Your age doesn’t matter. You could be 52 and still play that part. If you put yourself in the circumstances and properly feel her pain people are bound to think you’re the right age.” It was the perfect advice: Feeling her characters’ pain was something Harris never seemed to have a problem with. Two years later, she, along with her Broadway co-stars Ethel Waters and Brandon DeWilde, recreated their roles for the movie version, directed by Fred Zinneman.
Although Harris was nominated for an Academy Award, the movie was a resounding commercial failure, and as a result, Hollywood may have cooled on Harris before her film career even got started. In 1951, she had one of her most cheerful roles as Sally Bowles in I Am A Camera, a play adapted from the same Christopher Isherwood stories that later inspired Cabaret. Her performance won her the first of five Tony Awards. (She also won a sixth, Special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 2002. All in all, she was nominated a record 10 times.) She starred in a “scandalous” British movie version in 1955.
That same year, Harris had perhaps her best-remembered movie role as the object of James Dean’s tormented affections in Elia Kazan’s East Of Eden. In his book Method Actors, Steve Vineberg wrote that in their scenes together, Dean and Harris showed that the characters “inhabit their own secret world, and what’s more, they seem to be creating it together as we watch. Seeing these two completely intuitive actors in mutual response, you still have the sense of being present at the creation of a new acting technique, the invention of a new set of rules. They play off each other with the fervor of great jazz musicians, throwing out the traditional, reverent approach to text and improvising the dialogue…. Half the time the subtext and mood so overpower the words that the conventional use of language to shape thought and feeling seems to be an outmoded form the actors have to clamber over in their search for new musical phrases.”
Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Harris also appeared in several teleplays, including TV versions of her stage performances in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark (in which she played Joan of Arc) and Little Moon Of Alban, as well as productions of A Doll’s House, Pygmalion, The Heiress, Johnny Belinda, He Who Gets Slapped, and The Power And The Glory. In 1962, bringing things full circle, she played the girlfriend of the punch-drunk hero of Requiem For A Heavyweight, the movie version of the popular TV play. In 1963, she had one of her biggest movie roles as a sexually repressed ghost hunter in The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House.
Among her many other stage successes, Harris starred in the comedy 40 Carats; Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little; and The Last Of Mrs. Lincoln (in which she played Mary Todd Lincoln) and The Belle Of Amherst, her one-woman show as Emily Dickinson, both of which were preserved in TV versions.
In movies and on TV, she appeared in the 1966 Paul Newman vehicle Harper; Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re A Big Boy Now (1966); John Huston’s Carson McCullers adaptation Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967); the 1970 anti-drug TV-movie The People Next Door; Curtis Harrington’s How Awful About Allan (1970); a couple of short-lived TV series, Thicker Than Water (1973) and The Family Holvak (1975) with Glenn Ford; Voyage Of The Damned (1976); as the heroine’s mother in The Bell Jar (1979); as Charlotte Bronte in the filmed one-woman show Bronte (1983); in an uncredited role in Sam Raimi’s Crimewave (1985); Gorillas In The Mist (1988); as the voice of Mary Chestnut in Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990); George Romero’s The Dark Half (1993); and as Rhett Butler’s mama in the 1994 TV miniseries Scarlett.
She was also a series regular on Knots Landing from 1980 to 1987 in the role of Lilimae Clements, a role that garnered her one of 10 Emmy nominations, of which she won three.