Barbara Harris appreciation: An actress with an unusual awards history who walked away from show business

Actress Barbara Harris died on August 21 at age 83. The name may not be familiar to younger readers since Harris was the rare performer who climbed to the top of the show business heap but then walked away from it all. She also had one of the most unusual awards histories of anybody.

I remember Harris vividly from my childhood when I saw her in the Disney film “Freaky Friday” opposite a young Jodie Foster. The film centered on a mother and her young daughter who both simultaneously wish they could switch places with each other for a day. By way of Disney magic, the two actually do switch bodies thus having the mother forced to deal with life in school and the daughter tending to the problems of being a housewife. I can still remember the theater echoing with the joyous laughter of children as Harris jumps on a skateboard at one climactic moment of the film.

I continued to enjoy Harris’ work as it showed up on my habit of watching old movies on television particularly in the film version of Neil Simon’s play “Plaza Suite” and in “A Thousand Clowns” starring Jason Robards. While her film career only amounted to 18 movies, she often worked with the best. In addition to appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film “Family Plot” she also worked for such esteemed directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Hiller and Robert Altman.

Harris had a whole other career as a star of Broadway musicals in the 1960s. I once saw a PBS special that featured highlights from some Broadway shows. The pledge seekers promised during each of the long breaks there would be more unseen material if you ordered the show on VHS. Particularly striking in the ad was a clip of a woman dressed seemingly like Marilyn Monroe and absolutely knocking dead some song where she pronounced herself “gorgeous, simply gorgeous.” This was long before YouTube made everything available, so I had to seek out a Broadway message board and describe what I had seen and ask who was that? Shockingly the answer came back that it was Harris in her Tony-winning role in “The Apple Tree” (watch the performance above).

It probably shouldn’t have surprised me that Harris could put over a song the way she did since I had seen her sing in the film “Nashville” many times. I would feverishly watch it as a teen as I did any movie with the moniker of “Oscar Nominee” but it wasn’t until a few years ago that the full power of “Nashville” hit me. It’s seemingly random stories of numerous characters using Altman’s famed overlapping dialogue set in the world of country music culminates horrifically yet also thrillingly with an assassination.

In a nation still reeling from the deaths of MLK, RFK and JFK, “Nashville” seemed to offer some hope. As Henry Gibson of TV’s “Laugh In” yells to the crowd, “This isn’t Dallas (where JFK was shot) this is NASHVILLE!” He encourages the crowd to show them what their town is made of. With blood dripping from his gunshot wound he yells at the crowd onstage Sing! Sing! He then gives his mike to Harris (an aspiring singer) who tentatively takes center stage and sings. It was an important film moment, and of all his talented cast which included Oscar nominee Lily Tomlin, Harris was given the final stunning ending of the film. Her haunting rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” signaled that life would go on for Nashville, country music and America in general.

SEE Lily Tomlin movies: 15 greatest films ranked from worst to best

Harris was always known as being a little bit off-beat and unusual, so why would her award history be any different? All three of her Broadway musical appearances would result in Tony nominations. She won for “The Apple Tree” and was also nominated for “From the Second City” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” although she’d lose the film version of that property to Barbra Streisand. “Nashville” was so packed with strong performances that it had the bizarre occurrence of having four of its cast members compete for the Golden Globe Supporting Actress Award (Ronee Blakley, Geraldine Chaplin Tomlin and Harris). Strangely they’d all be defeated by Brenda Vaccaro for a poorly received film named “Once Is Not Enough.” Harris had previously had a unique Golden Globes experience when she was nominated twice in the same year for Best Comedy/Musical Actress for “Freaky Friday” and “Family Plot” only to lose to Streisand for “A Star is Born.”

Harris’ only Oscar nomination came as Best Supporting Actress in 1971. Harris arguably could be the answer to a trivia question about which performer received an Academy Award nomination (and delivered a great performance) in a movie that was downright awful. That was the case with the strangely titled Dustin Hoffman film “Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?” The movie is almost unwatchable, but Harris pops up briefly (as she did at the end of “Nashville”) and gives a luminous performance.

Harris suddenly disappeared from the acting world in 1997 at the age of 63 and the public never heard from her again. It was sort of comforting to see one of my other favorite actors, Ed Asner, tweet “Goodnight sweet lady. You were a force. I will miss your calls” upon news of her death in the obituaries. Somehow it seemed nice that Harris had kept some contact with a business from which she was so sadly missed. While audiences may have missed a third act from Harris’ career, what she left behind is still wonderful.

Just as I found her closing out “Nashville” profoundly moving, her own passing feels equally emotional.

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