Julie Harris Invigorates a Classic
NEW YORK — `MY heart went out to her. She isn't some eccentric lady. I believe that love is at the center of everything she does,'' Julie Harris says about the character Amanda Wingfield in ``The Glass Menagerie.''
Settling back into a large gray sofa, Ms. Harris adjusts her red-framed glasses, a buoyant, youthful spirit shining through her bright eyes. Two nights earlier, she launched the 50-year anniversary production of this monumental play by Tennessee Williams at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre.
In preparing for the part of Amanda, a Southern matriarch and one of the American theater's most daunting roles, she tried to ensure that her interpretation would not be clouded by the volumes of analysis that surround Williams's life and work. Harris appreciated director Frank Galati's choice not to discuss any previous material or production during rehearsals. ``It was like this is a new play. No one's ever done it before.''
The result is a captivating approach to the character, one that creates a more identifiable atmosphere for the story's relationships, and generates a new wave of excitement for the play.
After learning the lines, she turned her attention to research about Edwina Williams, Tennessee's mother, and the inspiration for the character of Amanda.
``I read his mother's book, which I had never read before.... It was called `Remember Me to Tom,' '' the playwright's given name. ``I looked at the pictures of Edwina. Very pretty. Even though they were poor, she always wore clothes that were cut nicely.''
To understand the fading Southern belle who found herself abandoned with two children in a run-down Depression-era flat in St. Louis, Harris focused on the ``thread that runs through the play about her and her husband, which is that this was the man she loved. It was her choice. He had some special charm. She adored him, but it didn't work out, which has made her bitter....''
In Harris's memory, there are two performances that stand out as incomparable - the legendary Laurette Taylor as Amanda, and Ethel Waters as Berenice Sadie Brown in Carson McCullers's ``The Member of the Wedding.''
After seeing Taylor, Harris recalls ``feeling like I had been struck by lightning. It was earth-shattering. It was just awesome. And Ethel had that power, too. Those two performances just obliterate everything else.'' As the close-cropped preadolescent Frankie in ``The Member of the Wedding,'' Harris shared the stage with Waters, and they both went on to recreate their stage triumphs in the film adaptation.
Twenty-four at the time, she took director Harold Clurman's advice: ``Don't play young. Just act what you're feeling.'' The result, a legendary performance, kicked off a career that theater and film insiders consider unique for its range and quality.
One film role gave her the opportunity to work with another acting giant, Marlon Brando, in ``Reflections in a Golden Eye.'' ``Marlon was so good, so alive,'' she says. ``He had the instincts of five people poured into one human being. He had a physical energy, an incandescence, that most people don't have.'' In rehearsals, she recalls, Brando ``would fool around and fool around, and read the lines, but you knew it was always ruminating in his head. Then when the director would say `Action,' he would turn around and you would see a totally different person! You would see this other man.''
Referring to her role opposite Paul Newman in the film ``Harper,'' Harris says with a laugh: ``I was a junkie!'' She calls the experience ``exciting, because it allowed me to go against type.'' @bodytextdrop =
During her acclaimed career, she has collected 10 Emmy and Oscar nominations, and received an unmatched five Tony Awards for her Broadway roles.
Although her dramatic work most often comes to mind, and she was even seen in one episode of the Barbara Stanwyck television Western series ``The Big Valley,'' she has also conquered comedy, winning one of her Tonys for ``Forty Carats.'' For this, she modestly credits director Abe Burrows. ``He was a genius. He had a keen ear, and knew how to say the lines the right way, so you'd get the laugh. He'd point out the musical sound of it - da-da-da-DUM! And you strike that note. Words are music. Words have music.''
While the theater community knows her as the actress who has received more Tonys than anyone else, (other awards were for ``I Am a Camera,'' ``The Lark,'' ``The Last of Mrs. Lincoln'' and ``The Belle of Amherst''), Harris does not confine her stage work to Broadway.
Last season, she appeared in an Off Broadway production of Timothy Mason's ``The Fiery Furnace,'' and she performs in many regional theaters.
``I think of New York as another great city to work in, and not the be-all and end-all,'' she says. ``I play in South Bend, in Minneapolis, Seattle, in all these towns, and you find there's a tremendous hum about what's going on in the theater.''
But for now, she is re-creating one of the most heralded parts in American dramaturgy for a very appreciative audience. She credits director Galati for heightening the experience by adhering to Williams's original stage directions, and for including music and lighting the playwright intended.
``I had an extraordinary thing happen,'' she confides, relating that she met a man who had known Tennessee Williams and his mother and sister. ``He was in New Orleans one time, and Tennessee invited him out for a picnic. He asked Edwina which of her son's plays she admired the most, and she said `The Glass Menagerie,' because, she said, it's about a mother.''
Harris holds her two hands out in front of her, palms inches apart, facing each other, and lightly touches her fingertips together. ``He told me that Edwina did this with her hands.'' She leans forward gently and lowers her voice to a near whisper. ``Now, what's amazing is, I have been doing this gesture, and I don't know where it came from, where I got it. Osmosis. Some things you get from the part.''
During the next several weeks, in addition to appearances in ``The Glass Menagerie,'' she will do a poetry reading, and start relearning ``Lucifer's Child'' for a film project in January. This array of parts is indicative of her diverse career. ``I suppose,'' she says, ``that is the fun of acting. We're like chameleons. We take on the colors of the part.''