'Mrs. Harris': HBO's Meaty Docudrama On the Diet Doctor

When love goes very, very bad: Ben Kingsley is Dr. Herman Tarnower and Annette Bening is Jean Harris.
When love goes very, very bad: Ben Kingsley is Dr. Herman Tarnower and Annette Bening is Jean Harris. (By Lorey Sebastian)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006

Self-pitying people have a hard time accepting the notion that, to others, their condition isn't the most entertaining thing in the world.

Such appears to be the ruling rationalization guiding Annette Bening as she tackles the role of Jean Harris in HBO's "Mrs. Harris," a new look at one of the most frivolously tragic cases in the annals of American pop murder.

In March 1980, allegedly intending to shoot herself and bring down the curtain on her tour de force of pity de self, Harris instead ended the life of Herman "Hy" Tarnower, a high-society doctor and promiscuous loverboy.

Why bring up, in 2006, a dubiously relevant case and make a splashy movie about it? Among the reasons: HBO and the film's producers were able to assemble a dream cast that truly is dreamy, including not just Bening as the jabbering Jean, but also the profoundly versatile Ben Kingsley as hoity-toity Tarnower; phenomenal Frances Fisher as Harris's old friend Marge Jacobson; dulcet-toned Philip Baker Hall as Arthur Schulte, one of Tarnower's wealthier chums (although all were loaded); the unstoppable Cloris Leachman as the doctor's sister; and dynamic young Frank Whaley as dynamic young lawyer George Bolen.

Ellen Burstyn pops up, too, in a role the credits vaguely call "Former Tarnower 'steady,' " one of a small army of women who've tossed self-respect (although not, of course, self-pity) to the winds to take up with the wickedly ravenous diet doctor. Ironically, the dapper doc traffics in self-denial in his quest to peddle one of the biggest, fattest weight-loss books of all time: "The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet." "Five million copies in print," snarls Leachman, who speaks directly into the camera during a segment of the film called "Cross-Examination." Like the "Closing Arguments" segment, which follows, it is by no means confined to a courtroom.

"Mrs. Harris" is a surreal docudrama, which is not an easy dramatic form to master. Playwright Phyllis Nagy not only wrote but also directed the script, based on Shana Alexander's novel "Very Much a Lady." Having Burstyn in the cast is a touch of irony consistent with Alexander's scoffing title; it was Burstyn, after all, who played Harris in the first TV dramatization of the trial, a literal-minded docudrama with few liberties taken. Much of it was taken from real courtroom transcript.

It was accepted at the time, without much objection, that Harris was a feminist martyr, a woman who'd been so demeaned by a destructive relationship that she was driven to a mad act of inevitable violence. But the new version offers a love-hate portrayal that's considerably more complex than a transcript-based script could possibly be. It's complex because it takes a nonlinear, non-chronological approach to the story, bouncing among the decades and years to make this a textured quilt, and not just the usual festival of flashbacks.

Kingsley -- the best actor in the place -- treats the role as a fabulous prank, breaking into a crude, cruel laugh when struck by what foolishness some morals be. Tarnower is amused by the attention lavished on the appendage he brandishes between his legs. In the movie's most hilarious and audacious scene -- the one everyone will be talking about the next morning -- the women giggle and the men stare as Tarnower stages his own salacious version of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The whole movie, not just one scene, will be talked about, partly because it finds new subtleties in the ever-changing clash between men and women.

Perhaps the film would have been better off with a more conventional structure. Does it really serve any dramatic purpose, for instance, that some viewers won't even know Harris teaches at a pricey girls' school until three-fourths of the way (or so) through the picture? There are too many fashionable dinner parties along the way, and what a pity the movie has to open with the murder taking place on that "dark and stormy night" that Snoopy was always waxing poetic about.

But Harris's poorly aimed gun isn't the only lethal weapon being bandied about in "Mrs. Harris," and while the film could not be called a rollicking success, it seldom if ever pauses long enough to be ordinary, complacent or conventionally minded.

Tragicomedy or comi-tragedy, HBO's film qualifies as a surefire incendiary experience to be relished by all those enlisted in the battle of the sexes.

"Mrs. Harris" (95 minutes) airs tonight at 8 on HBO.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company