When I was around 12 years old, I happened to catch East of Eden, one late-ish night on television while I was babysitting. I’ve written before about the effect that movie had on me, my consciousness, my awareness, all kinds of things. That was mostly because of James Dean, but I was obsessed with anyone who had anything to do with that film. I turned my adolescent sights onto Kazan, and started poring over the weekly TV Guide to check if any films directed by him were going to be shown that week. I read the book of East of Eden. I was startled to find it so different from the movie. I was 12. Forgive me. Julie Harris’ fresh-faced and yet strong-minded Abra is one of the moral centers of the film. She feels for Cal, but in reality, she feels for the whole family. She knows that something dark is eating at the heart of the Trask family, and she wonders if her presence could somehow alleviate it. (This is even more clear in Steinbeck’s book.) I can’t think of a better actress for that role than Julie Harris, who is supportive, warm, and yet quite formidable. She always was.
Kazan wrote of Harris in his autobiography A Life:
I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through East of Eden except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris, and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic. She would adjust her performance to whatever the new kid did. Despite the fact that it had early on been made clear to me that Warner, when he saw her first wardrobe test, wished I’d taken a “prettier” girl, I thought Julie beautiful; as a performer she found in each moment what was dearest and most moving. She also had the most affecting voice I’ve ever heard in an actress. It conveyed tenderness and humor simultaneously. She helped Jimmy more than I did with any direction I gave him.
Somewhere along the line, in high school, my theatre teacher recommended I check out Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, because it had some wonderful monologues for a teenage girl. I went out and found the play, and looked at the cast list (which I always loved to do. I was already getting to “know” some of these people I was getting to “know” onscreen). I felt a bolt of excitement when I saw that Julie Harris – the one who got to kiss James Dean underneath the willow tree in East of Eden – had originated the role of the teenage girl, Frankie, on Broadway. I was always trying to put together people’s career paths in my mind, in those pre-Internet days. I wrote a little bit about this in my post about Elizabeth Taylor when she passed, and how I sort of pieced together the information of who she was, and what her career was, when I was quite young.
I devoured Member of the Wedding. I loved the monologue that ended with the words, “I wish I had some good cold peach ice cream.” I worked on that monologue and used it as an audition piece until I had to give it up because I was too old for it. This is mortifying to report but there was an open call for actors for this new movie called Full Metal Jacket and they were “seeing” people in Providence, RI. I didn’t know anything about anything, and had no idea what Full Metal Jacket was, or who Stanley Kubrick was, and I didn’t really care. I just knew that it was an open call and they were seeing everybody, including 15-year-old girls in black hi-tops, apparently. I went to the audition (how did I get there? No memory.) and did the “good cold peach ice cream” monologue. Where did I get the guts for all of this? I guess I didn’t know to be afraid. Clearly I was not cast in Full Metal Jacket! But I gave it a shot, feeling like I was trying to channel Julie Harris’ legendary performance (in my own mind).
I didn’t know Member of the Wedding had been made into a film (with the same cast). I still haven’t seen the film, because the way I imagined it was so vivid, I didn’t want to ruin it. (I was quite a fanciful child.) But I read the gorgeous and painfully vivid language of Frankie, and imagined that girl on the carousel with James Dean in East of Eden, as a younger gangly teen, saying those words. Harris was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Frankie in the film. I’ll see it someday. But I already know how amazing she was onstage, I already know how phenomenal she was. Her spirit, her voice, her body language could reach the cheap seats. The woman won five Tonys. Well, six, if you count the one she received in 2002 as a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Her Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst was a giant success for her. My aunt Regina, who is an actress and singer, saw the production when she was in college at the Boston Conservatory. She came down to New York to see it. I hope I get this story right. She said that she could not stop crying after the show ended. Julie Harris was so powerful, so above-and-beyond anything she had ever seen before, that it made an indelible impression on my aunt Regina. It was one of those performances that is so good that it is almost DAUNTING to witness it, if you are a young actress just starting out. The way Regina describes that night gives me goosebumps, and I have talked to other people who saw the same production and they speak in the same way about it. The overwhelming feeling is that they were just so glad to have seen it. It was clearly a unique and miraculous performance.
Thankfully, it has been filmed, and is easily rent-able.
Rest in peace, inspiring woman!