“Mrs. Harris” and “Huff”: Good Summer Television

I just got a chance to watch Phyllis Nagy’s film Mrs. Harris, which I’d taped from HBO some weeks or months ago. The film stars Ben Kingsley as the Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower, who was murdered in the early 1980s by his long-time lover/companion, Jean Harris (played by Annette Bening), the headmistress of a girl’s prep school in Washington, DC. Written and directed by playwright Phyllis Nagy, the film is a smart, compelling combination of narrative fiction and mock-documentary, investigating the sometimes murky, sometimes clear reasons that drove Harris to commit the crime and, most importantly, telling her story against a cultural backdrop that explains more about her motivation than any of her actual actions.

Nagy tells the story in a non-linear way, beginning with the literally stormy night of the murder and jumping back and forth in time to relate how Tarnower and Harris met and how their complicated affair proceeded over the years. Interspersed are “interviews” with friends and other people who knew Jean and Hy, including Hy’s mother and sister (played satirically as a Jewish suburban matron by a nearly unrecognizable Cloris Leachman). The story is distanced in a Brechtian way, while at the same time, the narrative pulls us into complicated identifications with Harris, from whose perspective the emotional details unravel.

Harris is a straitlaced middle-aged white woman in the 1980s, and her relationship with the Brooklyn-born Jewish doctor lifts her into a more reckless, carefree style of living. Tarnower seems a cad from the outset, although Kingsley plays his charisma as infectious, if offbeat. These two wonderful actors make it plausible that such an unlikely couple would be attracted to each other. Tarnower seems uncouth within the ostentatious displays of his wealth, which ground the film’s production design–he boasts of his money, of his less than privileged background, and of his sexual prowess (in an amusing, highly theatrical scene in which Kingsley appears to strut naked through a locker room, literally turning the heads of the men he passes). His laugh is a caustic bark and his sexuality is narcissistic and infantile.

While Nagy’s screenplay doesn’t quite explain what draws Harris to him, Bening’s performance demonstrates how she comes alive in his presence. His disregard for convention appeals to some hidden anarchistic streak in an otherwise proper life. Her own more radical subconscious is hinted at when she uses the precisions of language to dessicate the egos of people she disdains, typically men with power over her, or Hy’s family, who disapproves of his relationship with Jean. She’s clearly a powerful woman, constrained by a traditional role and traditional expectations, who’s straining against everything she’s been brought up to be. Bening’s performance is wry, mordant, and deeply respectful of Harris’s intellect, even when the choices she makes seem incoherent or insane.

When Tarnower brutally rescinds the marriage proposal he offered, for instance, Harris nonetheless stays with him, accommodating his need for other women until his relationship with a nurse in his office (played by Chloe Sevigny) seems to drive her over the edge of jealousy. The murder is staged as accidental; the fatally depressed Harris apparently means to kill herself, but the gun goes off when she visits Tarnower late on that fateful rainy night, and he dies from the gunshot wound because the storm has knocked out the phone lines and they can’t call for help. By then, Harris is nearly catatonic with grief, jealousy, and rage.

Bening’s ability to capture the far edges of the character’s sanity–from her sometimes priggish, impeccably bred bearing and her sharp retorts to lawyers and police officers she clearly finds beneath her, to the disheveled, exhausted, vulnerable woman taken into custody the night of the murder–makes her sympathetic and captivating, a real study in feminist dignity from a woman who at the same time seems to have debased herself in this relationship.

Mrs. Harris is a smart, thoughtful, funny, feminist film, capturing the irony of Harris’s position and the absurdity of Tarnower’s posturing while at the same time narrating the complicated set of emotions and attractions, needs and desires that made them an explosive, doomed couple. In the process, Nagy recalls something of the early 80s zeitgeist, that moment when the first rush of second-wave feminism was receding, beat back by the avaricious, masculinist capitalism of the coming decade. As Harris tries to maintain her self-respect and her position, she finds herself battered by the very anti-feminist forces that Tarnower in some real way represents. The diet he popularized, for instance, controlled women just as he controlled his lovers. The audience can’t help applauding just a little when Harris inadvertently kills him (although the film also suggests that the murder might have been premeditated–rumination on the possibility isn’t the most interesting aspect of the narrative).

Phyllis Nagy is a playwright I’ve long admired. Her plays include the surrealistic time-traveling romp, The Strip, as well as the chaotic, compelling Weldon Rising. It’s heartening to see someone with an original voice and an insightful feminist perspective working in cable television. Rent it.

Huff is another cable network presentation, this time Showtime, that was recently cancelled (according to People Magazine) after a two-season run (the season one DVD is now available). Hank Azaria produced the series, and stars as a pychiatrist whose home life is more neurotic than any of his patients’. Although he’s presented as a successful professional, married, with one teenage son, an alcoholic mother (played by the masterful Blythe Danner, who was nominated for a 2005 Emmy Award for her work here), a schizophrenic brother, and a father emotionally missing in action, Huff is one of the more long-suffering, introspective white male characters I’ve ever seen written for television.

The show is ostensibly about this man, yet it’s the women who carry it, from his wife, Beth, who begins the series with a career as a caterer and ends it with profound doubts about every choice she’s made in her life; to his mother, Izzy, who was traumatized when her now hospitalized younger son tried to kill her; to his secretary, Paula, an African American woman of great faith who brings a kind of certainty into a household of doubting skeptics, to Maggie, the secretary who cleans up emotional and physical messes for the lawyer Russell, Huff’s self-destructing best friend.

In addition to the surrounding cast of layered, interesting female characters, Huff himself is femininized, his position as family caretaker and certainly as patriarch always challenged and placed in doubt. His own shrink (played with an ironic twinkle by Angelica Huston) calls attention to Huff’s own propensity to try to save everyone but himself, guiding him through an acid trip meant to loosen his somewhat constipated relation to his own emotions. His actions always seem wrong, his anger and his concern ill-timed and misguided. While he’s also written as a sympathetic character, the narrative disavows any need to protect him as its protagonist or to make him an unambivalent hero.

The most fascinating male deconstruction on the show is Huff’s friend Russell, played with astonishing virtuosity by Oliver Platt (also Emmy-nominated this year). Although Russell is the epitome of a self-involved, fast-traveling LA corporate lawyer, the character is written as entirely flawed, flailing about carelessly in the crumbling protection afforded by his privilege. He excuses his behavior as taste, insisting he’s a guy who likes to “party hard.” But his actions become more and more irresponsible as the series progresses, his drug and alcohol abuse and sexual proclivities more alarming, and even his inexplicably loyal secretary finally can’t clean up his messes. Meanwhile, he’s also written as very smart, a wily lawyer who despite his cutthroat power, seems to side with the good guy.

In a drunken bacchanalia, he impregnates a rather ordinary woman (played with deep respect, in a role that could have devolved into cruel parody, by Broadway performer Faith Prince) who decides to keep the baby. The second season narrates Russell’s lightning fast flips between the seductions of a faithful fatherhood and the enticements of his prostitutes and drugs. Kelly, the mother of his child, recognizing that Russell might not be trustworthy, empowers herself as an erstwhile single mother, working with a doula (who ironically turns out to be less dependable than Russell) who insists on assisting her baby’s arrival into a birthing pool set up in Kelly’s small apartment. The season two finale ends with the inadvertent overdose of Russell’s prostitute friend and the birth of his son, who he delivers himself when the errant doula fails to show.

Although there’s something a bit smarmy about recuperating a character who’s most interesting for his flaws by the marvel of childbirth, if the series had continued it would have been interesting to see how the writers addressed Russell’s refusal to bow to convention, despite the birth of his son. And Kelly was never written as someone who wanted Russell fulltime in her life; she’s more concerned with his character because of what he might genetically pass on to her child.

Likewise, although Huff’s mother, Izzy, seems to pull herself out of her alcoholic haze (which allows Danner to deliver some of the best lines I’ve ever heard on television), and although the last episode shows her coming to the rescue of her schizophrenic son when he suffers a very dangerous psychotic break, Izzy has been established as too richly contradictory to be pulled into a conventional narrative of motherhood. Huff, suffering a midlife crisis when his marriage with Beth falters, takes some time away from the family, and is shocked when Beth doesn’t automatically welcome him back when his self-imposed separation comes to what he thinks is an appropriate end.

The series is full of surprises, and holds interest with the sometimes curious, always imaginative and compelling quirks of character that comprise its texture. After the very dramatic cliff-hanger of a season finale, I was dismayed and disappointed to hear that Huff might not be back (I’m determined to believe that People didn’t check its facts). We need all the smart, feminist-inclined television we can get. Rent season one and look out for season two on Netflicks.

Yours, with TIVO,
The Feminist Spectator

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