- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

HBO’s “Mrs. Harris” provokes no new questions about whether Jean Harris intentionally shot her famous lover, physician and best-selling author Herman “Hy” Tarnower. But it will have you asking why the the prim and proper headmistress of the tony Madeira School in McLean remained in the increasingly abusive relationship for nearly 14 years.

The made-for-cable film, premiering tomorrow evening at 8, plumbs the couple’s dysfunctional love match and, with it, Harris’ decaying mental state before killing Dr. Tarnower, author of “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet,” at his New York estate in 1980.

The HBO drama, penned and directed by playwright and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, isn’t the first to rake over the sordid tale that rocked the District and supplied endless fodder for New York tabloids more than 25 years ago. In the characteristic “ripped-from-the-headlines” fashion that has helped to erode the once durable made-for-TV movie on broadcast networks, NBC cranked out “The People vs. Jean Harris” with Ellen Burstyn in 1981 — just five weeks after the end of her trial.

WIth the perspective afforded by the passage of time, “Mrs. Harris” delivers more than a simple rehash of the facts. The film dangles two plausible scenarios about her true intentions: Did her planned suicide unexpectedly go awry? Or was she, instead, a jilted lover bent on revenge? (The jury convicted her of second-degree murder, and Harris served 12 years of a 15-year sentence at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.)

Following an opening montage of iconic fictional murderesses, among them Gloria Swanson’s demented Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.”, Miss Nagy broaches the first of those theories when Harris (Oscar-nominee Annette Bening) shoots Tarnower (Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley) after a violent argument following her arrival, unannounced, at his home. From there, the screenplay, adapted from Shana Alexander’s 1983 best-seller “Very Much a Lady,” seamlessly alternates between the events leading up to Harris’ trial and the roots of the volatile partnership between the manor-born schoolmarm and the prominent cardiologist (who refers to himself as, by turns, a “simple country doctor” or a “tough little Brooklyn Jew”).

After the two meet at a party in 1966, their courtship begins in earnest following Tarnower’s return from an African safari. Harris is smitten, while Tarnower is firmly in control.

Alone in his bedroom — with its oh-so-revealing twin beds — the couple’s first attempt at lovemaking is rigidly clinical. Yet within a year, Tarnower proposes marriage with a $10,000 ring. “My salary for the entire year is only $12,000,” Harris, then a 43-year-old divorced mother of two, tells her best friend, Madge Rigely Jacobson (Frances Fisher).

The pending nuptials don’t deter the good doctor from womanizing (“Stop hurting so many women, and just focus on hurting me,” Harris tells him at one point). He ends the engagement when she presses for a wedding date. Unable to make a clean break, Harris endures a parade of paramours with masochistic fortitude — finally falling apart only when Tarnower latches onto his much younger assistant, Lynn Tryforos (Chloe Sevigny).

Miss Nagy convincingly chronicles her all-consuming grief and spiraling madness through an accumulation of telling detail — Harris’ once-immaculate home is strewn with mounds of clutter — and incident — she fires off a memo banning oranges on the Madeira campus after discovering a discarded peel on the grounds.

Miss Bening, continuing her fluid segue into middle-age roles, is a likely Emmy contender for her role as the emotionally damaged Harris. She completely absorbs her character’s painful self-loathing and naivete about Tarnower — without ever stooping to campy, operatic excess. Miss Nagy also coaxes an impressive turn from an unrecognizable Cloris Leachman as Tarnower’s sister, a talkative, cynical woman who despises Harris.

As Tarnower, Mr. Kingsley offers no surprises, summoning overbearing personas from past roles (most recently, the domineering father of “House of Sand and Fog,” ) to portray the manipulative cad.

Screened last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, “Mrs. Harris” strains a bit in its overreliance on top-40 hits (including the Hollies’ “Air That I Breathe” and Minnie Ripperton’s “Lovin’ You”) to establish both timeline and character moods. But it more than succeeds as a cautionary tale of unrequited love and satiates — temporarily — our neverending craving for the exposure of the demons of the rich and famous.

***1/2

WHAT: “Mrs. Harris”

WHEN: 8 p.m. tomorrow on HBO

RATING: TV-MA, adult content, adult language, violence

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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