After two decades of mystery, film fans finally know 'Who Is Harry

The offbeat fantasy "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" (1971) is back after nearly 30 years in obscurity. Just released on video by Fox, the psycho-comedy seems surprisingly contemporary and daring.

It stars Dustin Hoffman as rock star Georgie Soloway, who jumps off the balcony of a New York penthouse and lands on his psychiatrist's couch in one smooth, dreamlike sequence. Georgie wanders through the night looking for consolation - relief from his loneliness and fear.

A stranger named Harry Kellerman spreads unsavory tales about Georgie to his friends. The answer to his suffering is suggested again and again - that love, respect, and the search for meaning make life worth living.

But Georgie is entangled with fame and fortune, caught in a web of materialism. The film opens with him in despair and closes on an ambiguous note left open to the viewer's interpretation. It is as close to a dream narrative as it can be without purporting to be a dream.

"Movies lend themselves to erasing the line between dream and reality," says Herb Gardner, who wrote the original story and later the screenplay. In film, "It's not even real movement you're watching - but a series of still photographs you have been trained from childhood to see as movement. It's floaty stuff.... Moving beyond reality at will is what the movies let you do."

Mr. Gardner wrote it in 15 hours as a short story for The Saturday Evening Post:

"I guess this is what was on my mind in 1968 - what isolation could do to us all. And some of it seemed funny and some of it seemed frightening. It came directly from my mind to the page for one of the first times in my life."

The movie played for only a few weeks when it opened in 1971. Later, copies of the film disappeared along with CBS's short-lived film division. (CBS had put up the money.) It took Gardner almost two decades of on and off inquiries to find it. "Can you imagine trying to make this film today?" he asks. "All the key people, Dustin, Ulu [Grosbard], and I did it for almost nothing. Most of the actors were friends of mine - and still are."

The film "just disappeared into a black hole in the universe. We couldn't find any prints. CBS didn't even know they owned it. I looked for it off and on every year since 1980. Film festivals have asked if they could run it, and I'd say I wish I knew how." The only print that did exist was a terribly botched version cut for commercial TV that made hash of the film.

Finally, he found an executive at CBS who had seen Gardner's play "Conversations with My Father" and took an interest in helping him. Eventually the original negative was found entirely intact and new pristine prints were made. It was recently screened with another of Gardner's films, "A Thousand Clowns," in New York and drew a crowd of young people, as well as those who remembered it from it's original run.

"It's about the fear of aloneness. I remember those years. I remember looking for something larger than myself all my life... I actually meant all that stuff...."

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