JED HARRIS: The Curse of Genius by Martin Gotffried

JED HARRIS: The Curse of Genius

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Producer/director Jed Harris had a theatrical genius, Gottfried acknowledges, but the talent on ample, ragged display here is primarily his genius for making enemies: from interviews with lots of anti-Jed survivors (and a few loyalists too), Gottfried has stitched together a sarcastic, superficial biography--much of it in the form of anecdotes-with-dialogue. (Though ""every word is as recalled by participants or witnesses,"" the effect is still slippery, unreliable-seeming.) Why was Harris such a nasty, difficult, ultimately self-destructive sort? Gottfried has hardly a clue, citing only tyrannical parents and, later, ""frustration and neurosis."" There's little depth, then, as Harris--nÉ Jake Horowitz--is followed from an immigrant-family household to Yale, from early show-biz in Chicago to N.Y., where the brash boy-wonder opened an office and scored big with Broadway, alienating George Abbott, Sam Behrman, and others in the process. (Re the Abbott feud, Harris' version ""was twisted by gratuitous cruelty and darkened by spite."") And, though one hit after another followed, Harris was sadistic with actors (""he sliced and cut them on stage, as if daring fate to punish him""), possessive and manipulative with writers, ""asking for disaster--needling, goading, motivating it,"" His career should have crested after Our Town; instead, it floundered--as he passed up promising plays, sabotaged others (Miller's The Crucible), seemed to lose his directing talent; at its worst, such behavior was ""either perverse, a sign of shattered self-confidence, or headlong suicidism."" Meanwhile, too, his private life was an ugly shambles: cruelty to a series of wives; fathering Ruth Gordon's son, then virtually ignoring him (or worse); carrying on assorted affairs--one of which led, apparently, to the lady's suicide. And Harris ended up largely friendless, partly deaf, hard-up, foul-tempered: ""It seems reasonable to conclude. . . that the independence of spirit, the originality of judgment and the arrogance of decision that sent this meteor streaking to theatrical success were the very qualities. . . that undid him."" Gottfried seems too undiscriminating when it comes to the use of interview material; his own comments tend to be cheaply snide or fatuous. But, if weak as biography and unsteady as a narrative, this is an undeniably rich collection of unlovely gossip and backstage-horror stories--with Harris' behavior at its fascinating worst (outrageous, pathetic) in the later decades.

Pub Date: Jan. 4th, 1983
Publisher: Little, Brown