Julie Harris 1925-2013: “And we who walk here, walk alone.”

julieharrish

Hill House has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here, walk alone.” – Eleanor Lance, The Haunting (1963)

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.

haunting00

hauntingjh03

hauntingjh09

hauntingjh04

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.

hauntingjh06

hauntingjh01

hauntingjh10

hauntingjh08

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.

Further reading:
- Julie Harris obituary
- Actress Julie Harris dies at 87
- Julie Harris, Celebrated Actress of Range and Intensity, Dies at 87

11 Responses Julie Harris 1925-2013: “And we who walk here, walk alone.”
Posted By Stephen Foster : August 29, 2013 3:08 pm

I was 12 years old when I saw Ms. Harris in this film, and she is “the heart” of THE HAUNTING! She gives that terrific interview with TCM where she talks about what an emotional mess she was making the picture. “I think I got too close to that one!” (I am paraphrasing.) Her getting so close to all her characters is what made her so extraordinary (can you think of ANYONE else as Frankie Adams, Abra, or the vipers she played in HARPER and THE SPLIT???). I was fortunate to see her onstage in six of her roles (in her later career, alas) and meeting her was as special as seeing her work. She made you feel as if it were all for you and you alone! She was the last of the great American actresses of her era (Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Colleen Dewhurst, etc.), and I will miss her terribly!

Posted By moviepas : August 29, 2013 7:26 pm

Julie was also the star of the British film from the 1950s, I am a Camera, which because the stage show & film Cabaret later.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 30, 2013 2:03 am

Thanks for this wonderful reading of one of my favorite films…depending on what day you ask me, perhaps my favorite film! And Julie’s performance is definitely at the heart of it. Stephen, I recall that interview on TCM; she said she practically had a nervous breakdown herself! It is, to my mind, one of the great film performances.

Like many of you, I first saw this on television as a child…sort of. Our parents forbade us to watch any of it, but my kid sister and I sneaked a peek at the opening few minutes. That was enough to scare us into flipping the knob back to BONANZA! When I finally saw it in a theater in widescreen, I appreciated how well it works on television: Julie’s close-ups fill the screen and make her experience even more claustrophobic!

Posted By swac44 : August 30, 2013 3:49 pm

I love The Haunting more and more every time I watch it, especially when it comes to Ms. Harris’s performance, which is one of the most involving in ’60s cinema, let alone the horror genre. I also love introducing it to new viewers who want to see a horror film I consider one of my favourites.

I do regret ditching my old laserdisc of this title though; despite the sharper image, the compressed audio on the DVD doesn’t have the same kind of heft when the spirits come a-knockin’. I still remember watching it for the first time and practically flying off the couch when my subwoofer kicked into gear.

Posted By robbushblog : August 30, 2013 4:41 pm

What a great movie, and a great performance by Ms. Harris in it. Were I lucky enough to have a surround sound system to show off, that would have to be one of the titles to impress.

With parts in just a small handful of really famous movies, she cemented her place in Hollywood history. The fact that she remained working for the vast majority of her life is a testament to her great ability. She will be sorely missed.

Posted By Doug : August 31, 2013 2:36 am

According to Amazon, “The Haunting” will be released on Blu Ray October 15th. “The Uninivited” on October 22nd.

Posted By poet2014 : August 31, 2013 3:13 pm

Does anybody know when TCM will air a tribute to Julie Harris?

Posted By George : August 31, 2013 4:41 pm

Glad Stephen Foster mentioned HARPER. It was a rare unsympathetic role for Harris, and she was very good. She also got to sing (unless she was dubbed, but it sounds like her voice).

Posted By Gayle : September 1, 2013 2:10 pm

I truly appreciate Kimberly’s thoughtful comment. I first saw ‘The Haunting’ around age 11 or 12 on TV. I’ve watched it many times since then and still consider it the scariest movie I can watch mainly because of Julie Harris’ performance.

The question of whether Hill House is truly haunted or simply that Eleanor’s tightly wrapped issues finally catch up with her certainly has ground for discussion. We realize from the start that she’s captivated by Dr. Markway, not unusual for a spinster who leads a drab, miserable existence. I don’t want to include a detail that drives my point home in case some might see it as a spoiler but it also becomes important to leading to the film’s end.

‘Member of the Wedding’ was another of my favorite Julie Harris performances. She was a great actress who gave us so many nuanced interpretations. I regret I never saw her stage work.

Posted By Stephen Foster : September 1, 2013 5:22 pm

George,
I am sure she sang in HARPER; her one and only musical on Broadway was SKYSCRAPER (I think the original cast is still out there on CD) and Peter Marshall was her leading man. I also think sometime in the 60s she was the host of a Kraft Music Hall on NBC and sang “Lost In the Stars”. Boy, am I sorry I missed that!!!
Check out Playbill.com and go into their photo archive tribute to her.

Posted By moviemorlocks.com – Mummy Dearest : October 23, 2014 9:15 pm

[…] by a string of great horror classics including MAD LOVE (1935), which I wrote about last year and THE HAUNTING (1963), which was the focus of my tribute to the late great Julie […]

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.