Although traipsing through well-trod territory, Mrs. Harris offers a stylish and darkly comic take on the doomed relationship between school administrator Jean Harris and her lover, Herman “Hy” Tarnower, originator of the Scarsdale Diet.
The Home Box Office biopic sets a perfect, wry stage for the drama, from the 1960s Danish modern setting of Tarnower’s bedroom, to the floral fitted sundresses and the impish use of music to note the passage of time (Vikki Carr’s overwrought “Let It Please Be Him!” is used to great effect in one scene).
The tone is set perfectly in the titles: Under the strains of “Put the Blame on Mame,” femme fatales in famous movies are shown plugging their duplicitous lovers.
Annette Bening stars as Harris, the divorced mother of two who conducted a nearly two-decade affair with the Long Island cardiologist, played with gleeful arrogance by Ben Kingsley.
The film is dotted with intriguing co-stars. Cloris Leachman nearly steals the film as Pearl, the prideful sister of the late doctor.
Another highlight is the droll Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves) as family friend Vivian, of the posh Palm Beach Schultes.
Criminally underused is Chloe Sevigny as Lynne Tryforos, Harris’s rival for Tarnower’s affections. After one interaction with Harris, her role is mute. But then, the production notes clarify that Tryforos never commented on the Harris-Tarnower tryst after the murder.
Past treatments of the Tarnower affair focused on the Harris trial. In fact, keep an eye out for Ellen Burstyn, cast here as one of Tarnower’s exes. She won an Emmy as Harris in the 1980s for The People vs. Jean Harris.
But this telling depicts the growth and collapse of their relationship, from the first glance across the room to two different versions of the night of the murder: Harris’s recollection and the picture painted in her murder trial.
Bening is amazing as she mutates from a middle-aged-yet-radiant flirt to the beaten, haggard scorned woman who drove five hours that fateful night, purportedly so she could commit suicide in the presence of her faithless lover. The movie offers no concrete explanation of Harris’s unfathomable devotion to the “incorrigible ladies man.”
It’s a dedication that lasts to this day — Bening told reporters recently that Harris called the actress when she learned of the new production. Harris asked the actress “not to say anything bad about Hy,” Bening related.
Mrs. Harris debuts on HBO on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m.