Julie's Christmas Gifts
Whether on stage, movie screens or TV displays, watching the luminous, honey-voiced Julie Harris (1925-2013), who would have marked her 91st birthday today, was an event akin to the bestowing of a gift. In the vein of doling out presents at the holidays, the five-time Tony® and three-time Emmy® winner would over the years be associated with several Yuletide projects: the voice of Clara in director Carroll Ballard’s Maurice Sendak-inflected ballet film Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1993); and the TV Movies Stubby Pringle’s Christmas (1978) with Beau Bridges; The Christmas Wife (1988) with Jason Robards; One Christmas (1994), a Truman Capote short story adaptation with Katharine Hepburn; and The Christmas Tree (1996) with Andrew McCarthy. The last-named marked the directorial debut of Sally Field, who will in February take on the role of Amanda Wingfield in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which Harris touchingly played in a previous New York production during Christmastime 1994. The Christmas Tree first aired December 22, 1996 but Harris’s most treasurable Christmas gift to audiences opened that same day 44 years earlier: her screen debut in the Stanley Kramer production of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1952), recreating on film her stunning performance as the awkward, dream-spinning 12-year-old Frankie (formally F. Jasmine) Addams under the direction of Fred Zinnemann. Set in a small Southern town in late August, the story dramatizes Frankie’s rite of passage into young womanhood as the pending marriage of her older soldier brother prompts frustrating feelings and impulses with which she finds difficulty coping, to the bemusement and exasperation of housekeeper/guardian Berenice Sadie Brown (Ethel Waters) and younger cousin John Henry West (Brandon de Wilde). The three co-stars were a tight-knit, precisely calibrated family, having created their roles on Broadway, but Harris would be the one singled out for a Best Actress Academy Award® nomination. In Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography – A Life in the Movies, the director (also Oscar®-nominated that same year for another project, High Noon), recalled: “Julie, who was called ‘Sunshine’ by the assistants, is an extraordinary actress, one of the three or four finest I have ever worked with; at the age of about 22 [actually, correcting the filmmaker, 26] she did the impossible job of playing a 12-year-old pre-adolescent with such confidence that she was completely convincing, especially in her great close-ups, wonderfully photographed by Hal Mohr.” She would go on to other remarkable movie work – East of Eden (1955), I Am a Camera (1955), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), The Haunting (1963), Harper (1966) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) come most readily to mind – but The Member of the Wedding (1952) remains a special Christmastime arrival its director would regard as his personal favorite “perhaps because it is not entirely my own – or perhaps because of the quality of pure love that seems to radiate from it so strongly.” Birthday honoree Harris has a great deal to do with that. Twilight Time’s lustrous hi-def Blu-ray of The Member of the Wedding celebrates the artistry involved via a pair of expert Audio Commentaries, another pair of insightful featurettes and an Isolated Music Track showcasing Alex North’s lovely score.