Remembering Barbara Harris

Barbara Harris in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975)

For many, news of the passing of Barbara Harris at the age of eighty-three immediately brings to mind the hat trick she pulled off in the mid-1970s, when she appeared in Robert Altman’s Nashville, Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot, and Gary Nelson’s Freaky Friday. Taken together, these three films, released in rapid succession in 1975 and ’76, showed off her remarkable range as an actor.

Most famous among these performances is her turn in Nashville, which culminates with her seemingly impromptu version of “It Don’t Worry Me.” In 1995, Roger Ebert included the rousing number on his list of “100 Great Movie Moments.” Before taking the stage, her character, a singer without an audience, has been “haunting the periphery of the film, staggering around in her skimpy clothes, waiting for her shot at the big time,” as Sheila O’Malley notes in her remembrance. Once she had a microphone in her hand, “Altman—who tended to find his films as he shot them—knew that he had found his ending.” Harris displayed both her comic and dramatic chops in Family Plot, playing a woman passing herself off as a psychic in order to score a handsome reward, and in Freaky Friday, a body-swap comedy that paired her with Jodie Foster.

She’d made a mark on-screen prior to Nashville alongside Dustin Hoffman in Ulu Grosbard’s Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, and she’s especially memorable, four years after Freaky Friday, as the wife Alan Alda cheats on with Meryl Streep in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan. But Harris never really wanted to be a movie star. “I used to try to get through one film a year,” she told the Phoenix New Times’ Robert L. Pela in a 2002 interview. “But I always chose movies that I thought would fail so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the fame thing.”

Her first love was theater. As a teenager, she began acting with the likes of Edward Asner, Elaine May, and Mike Nichols at the Playwrights Theatre in Chicago, where she’d eventually perform the opening song in the very first show staged by The Second City. “Funny and sexy, she blended the kittenish quality of Tuesday Weld with a knowing daffiness reminiscent of Madeline Kahn or Judy Holliday,” suggests Maureen O’Donnell in the Chicago Sun-Times.

That quality took her to Broadway, where she won the Tony in 1967 for her performance in The Apple Tree. Despite the accolades for her work on stage and in film, she’d always insist, as she put it to Pela, that she “was in it for the process, and I really resented having to go out and do a performance for an audience, because the process stopped; it had to freeze and be the same every night. . . . Everyone gets acting mixed up with the desire to be famous, but some of us really just stumbled into the fame part, while we were really just interested in the process of acting.”

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