Barbara Harris

My old neighbor Barbara died a couple years ago.

During the 1990s while I was in my twenties, I lived with my boyfriend in the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago  – before its gentrification and massive redevelopment – when I could still swing rent as a graduate student while working weekends as a cocktail waiter in a gay bar. The red-brick building where we lived had a courtyard and each apartment had a small, ramshackle deck off the back kitchen, meaning you could poke your head out and do some Rear Window-like investigating of the other residents, even without a telescope.

Barbara Harris was prime viewing.

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The apartment building in Uptown on the north side of Chicago, where Barbara Harris and I lived in the 1990s.

At first I didn’t know that Barbara was Barbara, but I was most certainly aware of the very peculiar older woman who often floated through that courtyard in what seemed to be layer upon layer of white and earth-toned gossamer, a bizarre and extreme melange of Stevie Nicks with swirling diaphanous shawls; Isadora Duncan with fluttering scarves; sometimes a touch of Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard in a loosely wound turban, or more often, an ill-defined headwrap, somewhat appropriately, à la Little Edie of Grey Gardens; all this, plus some multi-strand necklaces and a collection of slightly ostentatious brooches pinned to a billowy caftan-like garment.

Barbara made an instant impression in person, owing to that peculiar clothing, but also to the unique cadence of her voice, her keen, questioning visage, and perhaps most of all in her movement, flowing through the low-rent apartment courtyard with an odd gracefulness, all that outlandish attire drifting lazily in her wake.

I don’t remember exactly how I came to learn that this Barbara was the same Barbara who’d worked with Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock, who’d starred on Broadway and won a Tony, and who’d played Jodie Foster’s mother in one of my favorite films from childhood, Freaky Friday. But at some point it became the irrefutable truth:  I was living alongside a movie star, at least in my eyes.

Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris in Freaky Friday.

Maybe that’s where the story should end, with my starstruck admiration from across the courtyard, a quiet excitement living in the neighborly aura of a grand actress.

The story doesn’t finish there, though. I don’t even recall how my boyfriend and I actually came to know Barbara on a personal level. Maybe crossing paths while hauling leaky garbage bags out to the dumpster? Not the most refined means of encountering a film star, but we weren’t living the glamorous life, none of us.

I do recall feeling doubtful when someone mentioned that she had once been a famous actress. Why would a movie star and former Tony winner be living in the very untony neighborhood of Uptown? One of my friends told me that he didn’t believe it was really her – until he watched the scene in Nashville when she clambers over a highway barrier, and it all clicked. “I didn’t believe it until I saw her moving,” he confessed. As I said before, there was something very distinct about Barbara in motion.

I wondered what sort of story brought her to live here, so far from Manhattan and Hollywood. Was she returning to her performing roots, where she’d been a member of the Compass Players and became the first performer in the very first performance of The Second City? What path led her from the bright lights and glamor of the coasts back to Chicago, where she lived relatively anonymously, save for the eyes peering out from our apartment windows?

Our other neighbors, mostly working-class immigrants from Mexico, Poland, and the Philippines, weren’t starstruck by Barbara by any measure. Instead, they mostly complained about her, how she was strange, demanding, needy. Crazy.

I wasn’t sure what prompted their rather succinct summations. She seemed rather innocuous, albeit highly unusual. I sensed no outsized ego or imperious diva in her at all. Perhaps the neighbors simply didn’t appreciate someone so unapologetically unique. I did.

But as I drew closer into Barbara’s orbit, I realized that her charming eccentricity on the screen was a quality she projected as an actor; as a real, breathing person, Barbara could be very different: gripped by paranoia and convinced of conspiracies against her, filled with anxiety and general suspicion, beset by loneliness while simultaneously alienating those in her immediate sphere.

Reality slowly began to corroborate the stories and admonishments from the other tenants.

Barbara was wont to believe those around her, at least in the apartment building, of working and conspiring against her, which made me trepidatious about establishing any real proximity, but my boyfriend, admittedly more adventurous and less risk-averse than I, had no such misgivings. He welcomed her company as both the acclaimed actor and the difficult neighbor, while I was still trying to admire from afar – and to stay relatively far away.

onacleardaycovermay1966__92005.1514524657That intrepid boyfriend, however, made semi-regular trips down the derelict back stairs to pay social calls to Barbara. I’d get reports back, most of which were rather unspectacular, save for a juicy pronouncement on Barbra Streisand – “She poisons everything she touches!” (Streisand took the lead in the film version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, a role that Harris originated on Broadway – and to be honest, I see her point.)

I gathered from the communiques that Barbara craved companionship, not sycophancy, and while she wasn’t averse to discussing her career, she wasn’t insistent on it either. My boyfriend’s visits helped to fill a void, but it wasn’t one stemming from the lack of a spotlight; instead, I think she simply wanted company and conversation, maybe a diversion from her routine, if, in fact, she had one.

When my boyfriend was working out of town, however, the Barbara duties fell onto my shoulders. One memorable day she approached me quite agitated about a missing brooch and besought me to come down to her apartment and help her hunt for it. With a long sigh, I obliged, though I had the strong sense that there was no missing brooch, and that Barbara’s problem was not missing jewelry, but loneliness, and what she needed more than the brooch was companionship, even if provided by a neighbor visibly wary of prolonged contact.

Her apartment, a long shotgun style typical of Chicago, was a bit of a catastrophe. Gauzy fabrics spilled out of open drawers and trunks, swirling on the floor as if she might at any moment snatch something up at random to plop on another layer. Very little adorned the white walls, but there was no shortage of candles. My memory may be over the top, but I have a vision of unlit candles laid out on tables, teetering on trunks, resting lopsided on sofa arms, and scattered on the floor amidst all the fabrics. The idea of the candles being lit caused me even more distress than the impending search for the probably-not-missing jewelry.

And simply being in Barbara’s presence could be intense. Her gaze was often penetrating and unwavering, to the point of wholly unnerving me. I think this is why I may have been put off from directly asking about her work. I was simply intimidated, as her eyes suggested a discerning sharpness that would have instantly recognized that my interest in her career past was far greater than in her immediate present, which I found somewhat depressing and discomforting.

So I soldiered on with the quest for the brooch until announcing that I had to head to work, a convenient truth that allowed me to take leave from a movie star who had formerly fascinated me, and still did to some extent, but not enough to engage in a pretend scavenger hunt with no foreseeable end. Moreover, I dreaded being being accused of theft, an allegation that Barbara eventually leveled at any of the neighbors who happened into her apartment. Again, we’d been warned.

Yet while I avoided lengthy interactions with Barbara, I had no problem boasting of a Hollywood star in our midst, and at one point, several friends and I held our own Barbara Harris Film Festival, “simulcast” in Minneapolis, meaning that we all rented the same VHS videos: Freaky Friday, Peggy Sue Got Married, Family Plot, and Nashville, and called each other to hit Play on our VCRs simultaneously, even coordinating pauses. There was beer and weed to deepen our appreciation – and amplify it as well.

Literal amplification. During the scene in Peggy Sue when Barbara implores Kathleen Turner, “Peggy, you know what a penis is. Stay away from it!” we turned our speakers to the window to broadcast that immortal line to the wider world, or at least the courtyard, hoping Barbara would somehow glean some fandom from the jackass kids above.

And when she sang “It Don’t Worry Me” at the stunning conclusion of Nashville, which also concluded our two-city festival, it was deep into the night, and we were singing and dancing, joyously and drunkenly, along with her then two-decade-old image.

Insouciant youth. I miss it and I regret it.


Actually, I began to regret how I viewed Barbara soon after the film festival. While I’d gone to study in Mexico for a month, my boyfriend was entertaining some friends of friends from out of town, and they all went down to Barbara’s for some drinks on a hot summer afternoon that stretched into a full evening of alcohol and chatter. I got a full play-by-play of the evening, billed as hysterically funny, over the phone, but hearing it from thousands of miles away, I felt an unexpected sense of shame.

Rather than a screamingly hilarious meet-up, the encounter struck me as a group of supercilious queens having a cocktail-soaked laugh at the expense of an older woman with mental illness. And I knew from occasions like our faux film festival with speakers blaring out the window that I might as well have been there in spirit. As much as Barbara’s comportment had a comic component, hearing about it from a great distance gave me a different perspective, one that made me feel sorry for her and embarrassed for myself.

Before too long, Barbara was no longer living in her apartment on Montrose Avenue. My boyfriend, whom she eventually and inevitably accused of stealing from her, had broken off his visits, and I was working so many hours that I wasn’t attuned to her at all. She’d had a very strained relationship with our diminutive Greek landlady, who fielded innumerable complaints both from and about her for years. I recall an ultimatum about removing all the candles and then a hastily negotiated exit, assisted, I believe, by someone in her circle of family or friends, members of which I saw only fleetingly during those years.

One day she was simply gone, and we moved on with our lives.

And now, in 2020, a quarter century later, I look back at my youthful impatience and uneasiness with Barbara and regret not being more empathetic and more curious. I sift through the many questions I really had for her that I never asked.

What was Hitchcock like directing Family Plot? Did she realize how long the careening-car-on-the-mountain scene would go when they shot it? Was Bruce Dern as sheepishly sexy in person as he was in the movie? Did she know how truly delightful that final shot of her winking at the camera with the jewel hidden in the chandelier was?

Barbara and Bruce

And how was Robert Altman directing in Nashville? She took on the finale in that great epic as well. Did she know the cultural impact she’d make by taking the stage – a flourish of American opportunism, ambition, and determination in response to an explosion of American madness, violence, and tragedy?

barbara with nashville cast

Barbara Harris, on the stage floor, in Nashville.

Did she appreciate how immensely funny and instantly winning she was in Freaky Friday, selling the body-switch trope as a young Jodie Foster trapped in the body of a middle-aged suburban mom? Did she ever envision her performance in the same madcap vein as a 1930s classic screwball comedy? I did, even as an adult.

Barbara with VW

Those would only have been my lead queries. Could have been my lead questions.

But now, in my fifties, I have different questions than I did as a young adult in my twenties.

I look at the scene where she utters the aforementioned penis dialogue in Peggy Sue Got Married, but my attention isn’t so much on the delivery of the comic line at the tail of the heavy scene; instead, I’m focused on the beauty of the performances and the chemistry between Barbara and Kathleen Turner.

Turner, playing a character inexplicably reliving her teenage years while still bearing her adult history, has just begun to accept and embrace her existence in the realm of fantasy, but when she walks in the door after school, she interrupts her mother hocking family jewelry to make up for the father’s foolish financial decisions. A vaguely suspicious Peggy Sue picks up on the transactional conversation about appraisals, but her mother, Barbara, effortlessly steers her from the troubling circumstances with a lie stemming from the most maternal and loving of motives: protecting the innocence of a child.

A phone call moments later, however, instantly jolts Peggy Sue from her giddy dream, the sound of her deceased grandmother’s voice re-introducing the death and disorder that inevitably accompanies aging. Innocence lost.

The spell of youth is broken, but only momentarily, as Barbara’s soothing voice ever so gently coaxes her – and us – back toward the carefree teenage years full of hope and possibility. Who doesn’t miss a world where a parent can make a problem vanish with the right combination of tenderness and wisdom?

It’s really a beautiful performance, rather a blip in Barbara’s career, but a testament to her talent, her understanding of character and of how dialogue shapes not only the narrative of the work, but also the changing moods of the film. She subtly reels the main character out of a sudden sorrow mired in the profound mystery of death – and then caps the scene with a dick joke.

In quietly redirecting Peggy Sue, along with the audience, through such stark tonal shifts within a two-minute scene, Barbara shows that sharp ability to read into the deeper meaning of her surroundings, to see through to an emotional core, to use her perceptions to evaluate and to navigate.

Maybe that acuity is what I saw in her eyes that intimidated me so. What was she seeing when she looked into my eyes?

Barbara eyes

When I got the news that she died, via a deluge of texts from friends and family who’d most certainly remembered my Barbara Harris years, a wave of emotion and nostalgia swept over me. I thought of that rickety back staircase; the apartment we’d painted the deepest, richest, most obnoxious colors we could find; the beloved dogs I somehow thought could live forever; the boyfriend I once imagined I might grow old with; myself, still full of glorious naivety, boundless energy, and an insatiable desire to find out what would come next. Far more Peggy Sue in the fantasy of youth than Peggy Sue in the reality of middle age.

But amidst all that wistfulness, I found an almost surreal memory holding center stage, and fittingly, Barbara played its star.

In the middle of one of Chicago’s horrible heat waves of the 90s, in the dead of night, I was sleeping fitfully under the hum of a window fan since we had no air conditioning. My eyes suddenly shot open and I lay in bed for a few moments as if some internal alert had gone off. I don’t know how to explain it other than I felt a presence. Maybe that is how some people feel about spirits they imagine visiting them. I say imagine because I’m all science.

Or mostly science, because in this instance, I felt an undefinable something looming in the sultry darkness. My boyfriend was taking a bath in the middle of the night, as he often did when it was too hot to sleep, so I almost involuntarily rose out of bed and opened the curtain that we used to separate the living room we slept in from the rest of the apartment.

And there was Barbara, standing in the small entry, her white garb flowing softly with the breeze of the window fan, looking like a ghost from a nineteenth-century novel, inexplicably present yet strangely not out of place.

The two large dogs we had didn’t even stir as she stood there, silent at first, simply inert in the near black of night.

“Barbara… what are you doing?” I asked, feeling as if I were in a waking dream state and she had appeared out of the shadows as some sort of nebulous midnight oracle.

She said something to the effect that the heat was too much, that she couldn’t sleep, which, though comprehensible, still didn’t satisfactorily account for her arrival as a luminous apparition in our hallway in the wee small hours of the morning.

I hastily explained that I had to get some sleep and that my boyfriend was taking a bath, then suggested placing ice cubes in front of a fan and not wearing so many layers in 100-degree heat, all while I determinedly showed her the way to the back door off the kitchen.

It was as if she’d materialized out of ether in our dark hallway, and I’d forced her to return to her bodily form as I hustled her out onto the little deck and back downstairs.

I then burst into the bathroom and snapped at my boyfriend, “You forgot to lock the fucking back door again and Barbara got in!” as if she were a squirrel that had ventured down a chimney flue.

After he got out of the tub, we both headed to the dining room to see if Barbara had gone back into her apartment.

She hadn’t.

Just under our window in the courtyard was a plastic baby pool that the Filipino family used to keep their little kids busy and cool during the heat wave. And in it was Barbara.

We rested our elbows on the windowsill and wordlessly observed as she floated on her back, arms outstretched, the caftan and gauzy scarves fanning out all around her like the corona around one of the stars she was gazing at in the hazy night sky.

It was a sublimely tranquil scene, completely counter to the Barbara I recognized from daylight. She seemed wholly at peace, reveling in the the serenity that the solitude and stillness of night can bring. A genuine eccentric, completely in her element, basking in moonlight, with no audience that she could discern. Or could she? Might she have known about the two young men peering from above in silent delight? If so, it’s my favorite of her performances. If not, it’s an unintentional gift that I’ll always treasure.

Hitchcock, in closing Family Plot, his final work, relied on Barbara to finish the film on a note of delight and affectionate complicity with the audience, as her character Blanche, the phony fortune-teller and medium, appears struck by a trance as a supposedly unseen force leads her to a hidden diamond. But as she snaps out of her dazed state, she breaks the fourth wall and winks at the audience, letting us know what we’d just witnessed was still an act. Her act.

With just that mischievous wink, I now see the joy of creating illusion in filmmaking, the wonder of acting in collusion with an audience, and the ineffable charm and brilliance of a performer who could convey warmth, intelligence, eccentricity, humor, and love like no other.

Was a blissful Barbara winking up at us as she floated supine in the baby pool on that hot Chicago night?

I’ll never know.

But that is how I will always remember Barbara Harris.

Barbara Harris wink Family Plot final shot

Barbara Harris in Family Plot –  a final complicitous wink at the audience.