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Barbara Harris (1935-2018) 

by Nathaniel R

Barbara Harris in The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)

Sad news yesterday. One of the nation's best and most underappreciated actresses Barbara Harris passed away at 83 from lung cancer. The Chicago native got her start as a teenager on local stages and was an original member of Chicago's famed Second City troupe. Her intermittent screen career sprang initially from her stage successes. Though her filmography is mostly in the 1970s, she made a few 80s movies before retiring including Peggy Sue Got Married, Grosse Point Blank, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Curiously for such a talented thespian of both stage and screen, she seemed somewhat ambivalent about her career, stating that she didn't miss acting after her retirement...

I was in it for the process, and I really resented having to go out and do a performance for an audience, because the process stopped; it had to freeze and be the same every night. It wasn’t as interesting.”

Four years ago after screening Alfred Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot (1976) I was moved to remind everyone that Barbara Harris was totally underappreciated. But I'd always liked her. One of the first movies I remember seeing in a movie theater as a child was the comedy North Avenue Irregulars (1979) with Harris and Cloris Leachman. The only memory I have of it is Cloris Leachman breaking her fingernails and screaming but still. It's one of the earliest movie memories.

North Avenue Irregulars (1979)

Back then I wasn't clocking actress names yet and definitely not aware that inspired comic instincts might win you Tonys, Globes, or Emmys, but rarely Oscars. Barbara Harris was nominated twice for Best Actress in a Musical at the Tony Awards, winning for The Apple Tree (Barbra Streisand took her other nominated role when it came time for the film version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). 

She was well liked by the Golden Globes with three lead comedy nominations. Two of them came in the same year, 1976! CONSIDER...

What an amazing lineup of musical or comic divas (+ Jodie)!

The previous year, 1975, the Golden Globes had gone all in for Nashville in Supporting Actress, including Harris, as the Academy also should have. Here was their terrific Supporting Actress list that year:

Sadly the Academy was less kind to Harris. She was nominated for just one Oscar in her career for (deep breath) Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971). Like most actors who do a lot of stage work or specialize in comedy, her Oscar record doesn't really hint at the shape of her career. Musical comedy, for instance, was one of her primary gifts but she never made a movie musical other than Robert Altman's Nashville and her role was more tragicomic in that. Either way she's remarkable as Albuquerque in that film, delivering its benediction with transcendent opportunism. 

Actors are lucky to have one legit enduring classic on their resume but Barbara Harris has two, so she'll always be with us: Freaky Friday (1976) and Nashville (1975). The former survived in the public consciousness because it's so enjoyable and influential (having been remade once and riffed on a bunch), and the latter because it's simply one of the greatest movies ever made. Barbara Harris's gift was crucial to the entertainment value and artistic success of both classics. May she rest in peace.

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Reader Comments (22)

The final scene in Nashville is enough to make her unforgettable forever and ever. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

Thank you for such a thoughtful and well researched summary of Barbara Harris's career.
To me she became indelible because of Nashville. I can still see her picking up that microphone and singing "It don't worry me"...
A great talent, her films will live on.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

She was simply enchanting, in a way that you could not help but absolutely love her, and that's why she's one of the best who will ever be. She should have won the Oscar for The Seduction of Joe Tynan. That last scene devastates you. Sublime. Be at peace, Ms. Harris.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I'm fascinated she resembles so many other actresses. I'm completely unaware of her and her name.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

A wonderful actress who often brought a palpable vulnerability to her roles. I first noticed her in 1965 in A Thousand Clowns.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Harris is fabulous in "Freaky Friday" - somehow antic and internal at the same time.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Incredible actress and a personal favorite of mine. I absolutely love the photo you picked from "The North Avenue Irregulars." She has some great moments in that movie including an impromptu Andrews Sisters singalong, and that particular scene of her working undercover while managing her kids and loading up her shopping cart with boxes and boxes of cereal is incredible. A few years ago I got to meet the director of that film, Bruce Bilson, and my first question was what it was like working with her. He said she was delightful.
I'm sad she's gone but grateful she's left us with so many remarkable performances.
Thank you for the terrific write up.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

She is spellbinding in one of the greatest film scenes of all-time in Nashville and certainly should have been nominated for it.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Always liked her she was terrific in Freaky Friday,my heart is with Tomlin and Welles in Nashville,need a rewatch,her greatest performance is definitely Joe Tynan,so glad to see the final shot as the main pic,absolutely sterling work in that film.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Barbara Harris was just great. Closing out the great Nashville was a gift and she really made it count. Check her out in Family Plot also.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

nathaniel, great tribute to the wonderful barbara harris. so funny: north avenue irregulars is one of my first movie memories as well...lots of actresses! BH was so inventive and vibrant in so many things...wish we could have had more and more of her.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

I do want to say that as bad as Who is Harry Kellermam is, Harris is actually really really great in her small part. Her scenes are by a wide margin the best in the film. So that nomination does make sense to me.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Bye, mom

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

She is sublime in WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN, so it's too bad the rest of the picture is such an unwatchable trainwreck.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Loved her in Nashville.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

She was great in Nashville as I also loved her in Freaky Friday as I always wondered why she wasn't a big deal. Another performance of hers that I feel should be mentioned is in Second-Hand Hearts by Hal Ashby. The film is a real mess but she is great in that film as she's the reason to seek that film out.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

So nice to see a lovely tribute to this completely unique entertainer. Since her talent was so individual and fresh I guess it's not surprising that she was more interested in the process as opposed to the result but a shame she didn't take more joy out of it.

Her filmography is a sketchy lot with some real dogs-The War Between Men and Women, Mixed Company-and some real oddities-Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (uber bizarre) & Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (a terrible film outside of her) mixed in with her more esteemed movies. But however variable the vehicles she was always memorable.

She was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination, and in my opinion win, for her brilliant work in The Seduction of Joe Tynan.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

"Nice Girls Don't Explode" was filmed in my Alma Mater at Lawrence, Kansas, just weeks before I started there. So close!

Still can't get through "Family Plot" for some reason, but "Freaky Friday" is super fun.

Rest in Peace.

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

She is very funny in "Family Plot"

August 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

A relatively sparse career but still one of my favourites. Bless her,

August 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

I don't know her film career that well, but she was pure comedy in The Apple Tree. Her "Oh, to be a Movie Star" and "Gorgeous" combo is one of my absolute favorite musical theater moments.

August 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I'm not sure if there are any fans of Barbara Harris in here, but just in case there are... I created a series of video pieces for a tribute to Barbara, who passed away of lung cancer at the age of 83 back in August. She performed on Broadway as well as in eighteen films, mostly comedies like FREAKY FRIDAY and PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED. She also appeared in Hitchcock's FAMILY PLOT and Altman's NASHVILLE. I edited the four video pieces together (intro/Bway & TV/film songs/films) into one big montage to share on YouTube. I never met Barbara, but we had friends in common. I love doing these kinds of projects. Though I couldn't attend the tribute event in NYC earlier this month, I heard that it was quite well received and that the videos elicited much laughter. I hope y'all enjoy this montage; let me know what you think about Barbara too! PLAY BARBARA HARRIS TRIBUTE MONTAGE

October 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Pennington III

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