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Whatever happened to Wendell B. Harris Jr.? It’s a question that might be asked with greater frequency if only more people had heard of the 1990 winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Indeed, of all the post-Sundance disappearing acts — and there have been many — Harris’ may be the most intriguing, in large part because his debut (and, to date, only) feature film, Chameleon Street, is among the best and least known prize-winners in the festival’s 25-year history.
Arriving just one year after Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (see related stories) turned the heretofore triple-A Sundance into a major-league ball club, Chameleon Street was one of a crop of 1990 competition titles that heightened the excitement then building around the American independent-film movement. Also in the running that year were Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, the first films of iconic indie auteurs Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) and Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth), and eventual Audience Award winner Longtime Companion. But the jury, which included Soderbergh, Kathryn Bigelow and film critic Armond White among its members, reserved its highest honor for Harris’ ferociously original, mordantly funny take on the life of African-American con artist William Douglas Street, whose impersonations included a lawyer, a Time magazine reporter and a gynecological surgeon (performing three-dozen successful hysterectomies). Adding to the powerful impression made by the film was the fact that its charismatic, skin-shedding protagonist was played by none other than Harris himself.
For most of the two decades that followed, however, news of Harris was so scarce that one might have assumed the triple-threat writer-director-actor to be but the latest in Douglas Street’s series of chameleonic guises. He appeared only twice more as an actor — in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) as the FBI agent who smells something fishy in Jennifer Lopez’s story, and as a college professor in the 2000 Tom Green comedy Road Trip. Meanwhile, unlike many of his Sundance contemporaries — some of whom continued to trudge forth in the indie trenches, some of whom graduated to Hollywood features or segued into television — Harris amassed no additional writing or directing credits. As for Chameleon Street, it grossed just over $200,000 during a small 1991 theatrical release by the Maine-based distributor Northern Arts Entertainment (after the film’s sales agent botched a prospective meeting with Harvey Weinstein) and, like its maker, soon faded from the scene. Until its belated DVD release in 2007, the film was available only on an out-of-print VHS edition.
This year, Harris is returning to Sundance — not with a new film, but with Chameleon Street, which screens alongside Sex, Lies, and Videotape in the festival’s From the Collection sidebar program. It’s a fitting, if altogether ironic juxtaposition, says Harris, speaking by phone from his Flint, Michigan home, given the divergent career paths taken by him and his old pal Soderbergh. “You know, he’s living the life that, as a child, I outlined for myself,” says the 54-year-old filmmaker, whose eureka moment occurred when he was all of 4, sitting in his father’s medical office on a Saturday afternoon, watching a black-and-white movie flicker across the television screen.
“I’m watching this thing and I’m seeing this guy go through all these emotional changes and doing all these things — getting in and out of cars and kind of being rough with women and firing guns,” he says. “All of a sudden, I just understood that this was something that you can put together, you can rehearse it until you get it just right, and then you can show it to people. I could tell it wasn’t something that had been made recently, and I knew that this was going to be what I would spend my life doing. It turned out that I was watching James Cagney in The Public Enemy.”
Soon thereafter, Harris began inventing fanciful stories, which his mother would type out as he dictated them to her. “By the age of 12, I had already outlined my first 25 movies that would be completed by the age of 30,” he says. “I’ve still got the notebook.”
As a teenager, Harris, who says he’s always thought of himself as an actor first and foremost, attended Michigan’s prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts — years in which he also indulged his love of cinema at college film societies in Flint and nearby Ann Arbor. It was at one such screening that he first met fellow Flint native Michael Moore, who, Harris recalls, “had the longest ponytail I’ve ever seen on anybody — hair literally down to the crack of his behind.” Harris then moved to New York and enrolled in Juilliard, where his classmates included William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin. Though he hung around Manhattan auditioning for a while after graduating, acting jobs were scarce, at which point he decided to head to Hollywood and try his luck at getting on the writing staff of the groundbreaking Norman Lear sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (which receives a memorable homage in Chameleon Street).
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