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Scorn and Her Fury 

The crime of Mrs. Jean Harris

Wednesday, Feb 15 2006
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There’s a marriage indicated in the title of HBO’s new film Mrs. Harris, even though no marriage is depicted in writer/director Phyllis Nagy’s archly sympathetic rendering of the complex, volatile coupling of divorcée Jean Harris and bachelor Dr. Herman “Hy” Tarnower, author of one of the most successful diet books ever, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. Their 14-year relationship ended notoriously with the latter’s gunshot death on the evening of March 10, 1980, only to morph into a headline-grabbing storyof jealousy, unfaithfulness, pharmaceuticals and bitterness.

Harris, a storied headmistress at an exclusive girls’ school in Virginia, became an antiheroine for discarded women, but was convicted of second-degree murder. She’d claimed that she drove to Tarnower’s house in Purchase, New York, the night of the shooting for a final word with her man before killing herself and that a struggle to save her went horribly wrong. But the bullets told a different story — one entered him through the back — and an incriminating letter she mailed that same day described a hurt, possibly vengeance-seeking lover.

The two versions of that night — accidental Jean and homicidal Jean — bookend Mrs. Harris, but the movie in between suggests something complicated, a mixture of the two. My vague recollection of the four-hour TV movie from 1981 — a kind of dramatized reading of the courtroom transcripts starring Ellen Burstyn — was that it, too, brought out the story’s complexities. But Nagy, a playwright and first-time filmmaker who used Shana Alexander’s 1983 book Very Much a Lady as inspiration, is after something spiky, outsized and even funny, but always emotionally moored by the spectacular Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley.

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Nagy has legitimate fun, for instance, with the trappings of ’60s and ’70s swank in the film’s costumes and production design, but it’s all in the service of her visual theme of romantic symmetry gone awry. In the first bloom of love, the erudite single-mother feminist emerging from her shell and the affluent, life-devouring charmer are framed by the camera as swooning equals: sitting on a couch at a party, dancing, dining at a table across from each other. On Jean and Hy’s first night in his bedroom you even notice that the books arranged above his twin beds have uniformity of size: largest on the ends, smallest in the middle, like a smile. It all goes crooked, of course, as the indignities accumulate: his marriage proposal taken back, the comely assistant (Chloe Sevigny) who becomes a lover, and a dependence on mood-altering prescriptions for Jean’sdepression that he’s all too quick to refill. And as Jean’s marginalization in their relationship hardens — “Don’t hide me, Hy, don’t pretend I’m not there,” she bitterly admonishes him at one point — Mrs. Harris becomes a jagged portrait of attention-starved imbalance: Kingsley’s perfectly gruff and dismissive Tarnower seems to disappear from the film as his psychological hold over her is cemented, while Jean’s emotional deterioration takes center stage. Literally so, in one scene that glides through a posh party to find Jean alone and ignored. With insouciant grace she picks up a chair in her left hand (champagne flute in the right), strides magisterially into the center of the room and sits, demanding everyone notice her searing loneliness.

Needless to say, this kind of brittlely accurate performance is something to watch in the hands of an actress like Bening, who seems incapable — even during the film’s most blackly humorous moments — of a false, Fatal Attraction–like note. Having recently given us one of the movies’ most thrillingly enjoyable portraits of wronged divahood in Being Julia — where glorious self-absorption was the cure-all — here she exquisitely dramatizes a thinking woman unable to escape that special mental prison reserved for a certain brand of devoted girlfriend, caught in a brutal internal tug-of-war between ladylike decorum and combustible despondency. Bening’s slow-motion slide from airy joy to destructiveness to, in the courtroom scenes, a kind of catching-up dignity with sunglasses as a crutch, is like watching the formation of a wrinkle on a happy face. Mrs. Harris is, in the end, the tale of someone getting older but not wiser: “Stop focusing on hurting so many women and focus on just hurting me,” she dryly says to Hy at one point, with just enough self-awareness to make the comment sting and deflate.

Thanks to Bening, the movie zeroes in on the nagging irony of Jean Harris’ life: that she was bold enough to leave a failed marriage at a time when only the strongest of women did so, yet was tragically stymied by a philandering boyfriend.

MRS. HARRIS | HBO | Saturday, Feb. 25, 8 p.m.

A Race-Based Psychosis?

Based on an Olivier Award–winning play, the BBC production Blue/Orange airing Saturday night on BBC America takes a little while to overcome its obvious staginess — namely, the fact that no one other than the three main characters ever says a word as they wander all over a psychiatric hospital. (I would have figured playwright Joe Penhall to not just open up the locations in his adaptation, but maybe add some other voices, as well.) But once director Howard Davies gets the stakes of Penhall’s controversial story up and in play, this three-hander lands quite a few punches. It’s the last day of a 28-day stint for Christopher (Shaun Parkes), a gregarious but paranoid Londoner of Afro-Caribbean descent who had acted bizarrely in public, and his wiry doctor Bruce Flaherty (John Simm, from State of Play) is hesitant to turn him loose. He sees a classic case of schizophrenia.

The bow-tied senior consultant, Dr. Robert Smith (Brian Cox), observing his protégé with Christopher, however, detects something else: a borderline personality disorder stemming from the institutionalized racism that knee-jerkingly calls black paranoia a mental illness. Or .?.?. is Dr. Smith a careerist who would love to have his name attached to, as his young charge cynically calls it, “a cure for black psychosis”? The title stems from Christopher’s seeing oranges as blue — outside and inside — a sign to Dr. Flaherty that all is not right chemically, but to Dr. Smith a metaphor for the woe heaped upon an abused minority. And as the pedigreed, wealthy Dr. Smith engages in a Mamet-ian game of diagnostic gamesmanship with his young charge over Christopher’s sanity and ethnocentric analysis — the patient’s other eye-opener is his claim to be the son of Idi Amin — one starts to realize that the title is actually a metaphor for the warring perceptions of the doctors.

The performances easily carry the force of Penhall’s potent lashings against the health industry’s more self-interested overseers: When Cox and Simm are at their most high-and-mighty over Christopher’s well-being, they practically quiver with righteousness — that’s some blue vein Simm has in his face — and when exposed over their analytical shortcomings, they cower hilariously. Then there’s Parkes, confused, then angry, then blasé, then eager to accommodate, mindful of every word the two doctors say, but distrustful overall, like a child caught in a nasty custody battle. Naturally, perhaps a little too naturally, Penhall has one of the doctors say, “Maybe he’s more human than us. Maybe we’re the sick ones.” But I prefer Christopher’s pained assessment toward the end: “You can’t talk straight in this place.”

BLUE/ORANGE | BBC America | Saturday, Feb. 18, 10 p.m.

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