Mrs. Harris

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Mrs. Harris
Original poster
Based on Very Much a Lady 
by Shana Alexander
Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy
Directed by Phyllis Nagy
Starring Annette Bening
Ben Kingsley
Cloris Leachman
Frances Fisher
Mary McDonnell
Chloë Sevigny
Philip Baker Hall
Ellen Burstyn
Theme music composer Alex Wurman
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Chrisann Verges
Editor(s) Curtiss Clayton
Lee Percy
Cinematography Steven Poster
Running time 95 minutes
Original channel HBO
Original release
  • September 16, 2005 (2005-09-16)

Mrs. Harris is a 2005 American drama film written and directed by Phyllis Nagy.[1] The teleplay, based on the book Very Much a Lady by Shana Alexander, focuses on the tempestuous relationship between Herman Tarnower, noted cardiologist and author of the New York Times bestseller The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, and headmistress Jean Harris. Produced by HBO Films, it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2005 before being broadcast by the cable network in February 2006.

The film stars Annette Bening as Jean Harris, and Ben Kingsley as Herman Tarnower; Cloris Leachman also stars as Tarnower's sister, and Chloë Sevigny plays his secretary and lover. The film also features a cameo performance by Ellen Burstyn as one of Tarnower's previous girlfriends; Burstyn played Jean Harris herself in the 1981 made-for-television movie, The People vs. Jean Harris.


On a stormy night in March 1980, a distraught Jean Harris arrives at the baronial Purchase, New York home of Herman Tarnower following a five-hour drive from McLean, Virginia. Her goal is to commit suicide beside the pond on his estate after confronting her former lover, who spurned her in favor of his considerably younger secretary-receptionist Lynne Tryforos. When she removes a gun from her handbag, Tarnower attempts to take it away from her, and in the struggle he accidentally is shot and collapses. Because the phone isn't working, Jean drives off to seek help from a neighbor, only to return to the house when she sees a police car heading in that direction.

The film then follows divergent paths, using flashbacks and flashforwards to tell the story of the couple's initial meeting, their evolving and eventually faltering relationship, the night of the shooting, and Jean's consequent trial for murder. A divorced mother of two sons, she tends to be complacent in both her personal and professional lives, the ideal target for Herman, a vulgar man with the need to be in total control of everyone and everything. He proposes marriage and presents Jean with a ring she feels is embarrassingly large and overly gaudy for the headmistress of a private girls' school. As time passes, she presses him to set a wedding date, until he finally confesses he has changed his mind about marrying her, primarily because he has no interest in playing the role of father to her sons. Jean attempts to return the ring but he insists she keep it and, instead of allowing her to make a clean break from the relationship, he continues to manipulate her by taking advantage of her need for a dominant presence in her life. By prescribing numerous medications to which she becomes addicted, he forces her to become both physically and emotionally dependent upon him while flaunting his many affairs with other women.

During Jean's trial, a flashback to the night of the shooting shows it in a very different light from the earlier portrayal. An angry Jean willfully and methodically shoots Herman and coldly watches him writhe in pain, but on the witness stand she insists it was an accident. Her staunch refusal to allow attorney Joel Aurnou to portray her former lover in a bad light prevents him from presenting any details that would support a defense of extreme emotional disturbance, and she is found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years to life in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County.


This was the second television movie about the Harris murder trial, following The People vs. Jean Harris, which aired in 1981 shortly after the verdict was rendered. In the earlier film, Harris was portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, who makes a cameo appearance in Mrs. Harris as Gerda Stedman, one of Tarnower's many lovers. Her performance, which consists of two lines of dialogue totaling 38 words and lasts 14 seconds, was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie. USA Today reported when asked about her reaction to the nomination by AP Radio, Burstyn responded, "I thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and, ultimately, I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don't even appear."[2]

In addition to Burstyn, Brett Butler, Lee Garlington, Jessica Tuck, Lisa Edelstein, John Rubinstein, Heidemarie Fuentes and Larry Drake also make brief appearances in the film.


Critical reception[edit]

Dennis Harvey of Variety called the film "competent rather than inspired" and added, "Phyllis Nagy's film directorial bow is an uneven affair, lacking the panache that elevated ripped-from-headlines pics like Reversal of Fortune above telepic level . . . [The film] doesn't seem sure just what approach to settle on: Elements of mystery, social satire (Nagy does have some bright lines up her sleeve), psychological horror story, black comedy, and straightforward tragic love story all jostle without complementing each other or achieving a successful kaleidoscope effect. The latter may be Nagy's goal, but she's not yet an accomplished enough filmmaker to pull it off. Despite particularly sharp assists from her designers in nailing the nouveau riche couture and decor of the eras covered, the movie's own style alternates between pedestrian and overreaching . . . Nevertheless, tale and execution are both colorful enough to hold attention. Bening . . . hits all the right individual notes of pluck, passion, and tether-snapping, even if the hectic script doesn't let them form a coherent arc. Kingsley easily puts across the kind of masculine appeal that can exist in tandem with empathy-challenged callousness."[3]

Awards and nominations[edit]

The film was nominated for twelve Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for Annette Bening, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for Ben Kingsley, and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for Cloris Leachman in addition to Ellen Burstyn, but lost in all categories.

The film was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or TV Film and the Satellite Award for Best Television Film. Bening was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Miniseries or TV Film, the Satellite Award for Best Actress - Miniseries or Television Film, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie. Kingsley was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Miniseries or TV Film, the Satellite Award for Best Actor - Miniseries or Television Film, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie.

The American Cinema Editors nominated the film for Best Edited Miniseries or Film for Non-Commercial Television, and the Costume Designers Guild nominated it for Outstanding Costume Design for Television Movie/Mini-Series.

The Casting Society of America honored the film for Best Film of the Week Casting.

DVD release[edit]

HBO Home video released the film in anamorphic widescreen format on DVD on August 1, 2006. It features audio tracks in English and Spanish and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. Bonus features include commentary by Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, and writer-director Phyllis Nagy and Mrs. Harris For the Record: Firsthand Accounts, which includes brief interviews with some of the real-life principals involved in the story, including Jean Harris.


  1. ^ "Mrs. Harris". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ "Ellen Burstyn sounds off on her Emmy nod". USA Today. 2006-11-03. Retrieved November 3, 2006. 
  3. ^ Harvey, Dennis (2005-09-16). "Review: "Mrs. Harris"". Variety. 

External links[edit]