Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 29, 2013
My earliest memory of Julie Harris stems from an unplanned late night viewing of THE HAUNTING (1963). I was home alone and sulking about having to take orders from a teenage babysitter who was just a few years older than me. Much to my delight, the babysitter had very little interest in what I was doing and she spent the entire evening smoking cigarettes with her boyfriend on the back porch. I had the television all to myself so I eagerly planted my behind just a few feet away from the screen and started flipping channels until I stumbled across a black and white movie. I knew from experience that if I came across a black and white movie playing on TV late at night it was probably a horror film so I settled in for the long haul with some sugary snacks and quickly found myself engrossed in THE HAUNTING. This moody supernatural thriller absolutely terrified me but I couldn’t turn it off and the film immediately became a fright filled favorite. A few years later I read the book it was based on and got the opportunity to see the movie again and again thanks to the wonder of home video. And when I finally caught a screening of it at a revival theater in the early ‘90s my profound appreciation of Robert Wise’s film only grew. But I never forgot how THE HAUNTING made me feel during that first accidental viewing. It set my teeth on edge, made my blood run cold and left my young heart in tatters. And a large part of that was due to Julie Harris’ unforgettable portrayal of the doomed Eleanor “Nellie, my Nell” Lance.
Julie Harris’s tortured performance in THE HAUNTING is just one of many roles that the actress will be remembered for but it’s the one that lingers in my mind the most. As Eleanor, Harris personified the gloomy heart and damaged soul of Hill House, a sprawling dilapidated estate that lures a group of inexperienced paranormal investigators to its doorstep. We know very little about the pleading and pitiful Eleanor as she attempts to escape the iron grip of her oppressive family and go on a grand ghost hunting adventure. But overtime we come to care about her, dislike her, fear her and finally weep for her when it becomes evident that Eleanor’s deepest longings and darkest desires are manifesting themselves in ways she can’t control.
Most visitors would be eager to flee from Hill House once the walls started to rattle and whisper but not Eleanor. Eleanor is at home here in the dark, in the night. She finds some kind of contentment within its gloomy confines. Her unsettled mind is ready and willing to converse with phantoms and they indulge her, tease her, torment her and finally welcome her into their world. But Eleanor’s uneasy journey from visitor to permanent resident of Hill House is guided by delusions and fraught with disappointments. And Julie Harris embodies the broken and bruised Eleanor so effortlessly that we become immersed in her voyage and willingly follow her into the abyss.
It’s impossible to overstate the complexity and delicacy of Harris’ Eleanor. Her performance is both restrained and extravagant. Her body language speaks volumes and her eyes are simultaneously expressing and concealing every thought that races through the dark recesses of Eleanor’s tormented mind. Harris wholly understands her character’s parallel self-loathing and self-obsession. In one scene she is able to evoke our sympathy and in the next she arouses our deepest fears. We want to save Eleanor from herself as well as Hill House but we recoil in dread when we begin to see the extent of her neediness. She’s a petulant child trapped in an adult woman’s body who yearns for unconditional love but has no idea what that truly is. Hill House unleashes Eleanor’s innermost passions and limitless anxieties, which threaten to consume her and everyone around her. And Harris allows us to peer into every dreary corner and sinister crack of Hill House without ever leaving the safe comfort of our theater seat.
Is Hill House truly haunted by ghosts? Or is the decaying mansion filled with timeworn antiques, labyrinth hallways and menacing doors just a grotesque reflection of Eleanor’s troubled psyche? Harris’ performance refuses to communicate any simplistic answers. Thanks to her unforgettable portrayal of Eleanor Lance, the truth remains hidden in the dark shadows and dusty cobwebs that entomb Hill House. And whatever walked there, walked alone.
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