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Phyllis Nagy
Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, Frances Fisher, Lawrence O'Donnell, Cloris Leachman, Frank Whaley, Bill Smitrovich, Michael Gross, Ronald Guttman
Writing Credits:
Phyllis Nagy

When justice is blind, it knows no fear.

The sensationalistic murder of diet guru Dr. Herman Tarnower is explored in this decidedly low-key take on the tabloid cover story from first-time director Phyllis Nagy. As the inventor of the popular "Scarsdale Diet" Dr. Herman Tarnower (Ben Kingsley) became an overnight success during the peak of the early 1980s diet craze.

Despite the popularity of the Dr. Tarnower's revolutionary "lose one pound per day" diet, the womanizing ways of the Casanova cardiologist would soon come to a brutal end at the hands of his jealous, prescription drug-addicted lover Jean Harris (Annette Bening). Driven to despair after their fourteen-year romance failed to result in marriage and enraged by Dr. Tarnower's shameless status as a ladies man, Mrs. Harris confronts her former lover in one violent, final act of desperation.

Rated TV-MA

Widescreen 1.78:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 95 min.
Price: $26.98
Release Date: 8/1/2006

• Audio Commentary with Actors Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley
• Audio Commentary with Director Phyllis Nagy
• “Mrs. Harris for the Record: Firsthand Accounts” Featurette


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Mrs. Harris (2005)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 24, 2006)

I maintain vague memories of the scandalous murder of “Scarsdale Diet Doctor” Herman Tarnower back in 1980. However, since I wasn’t even 13 yet when he was killed, I can’t say that I maintain strong recollections of these events. That made me interested in Mrs. Harris, an examination of the murder.

The flick opens on March 10, 1980. Jean Harris (Annette Bening) feels distraught over the philandering of her lover, famous doctor Herman “Hy” Tarnower. She plans to kill herself, but in a scuffle with Hy, Jean shoots him instead and he dies.

From there Harris follows Jean’s trial and traces her relationship with Hy via flashbacks and first-person remarks from those who knew the pair. We see their initial meeting in 1966 and observe as the charming doctor woos and seduces Jean. From there we observe their interactions over the years up until his demise, and we also check out the aftermath of that event.

If you desire an objective view of the Tarnowner murder, you’ll need to search elsewhere. Whatever one gets from Mrs. Harris, it won’t be a balanced take on events, as the viewpoint of its titular character dominates. This means it becomes tough to distinguish fact from interpretation, and the movie doesn’t follow a terribly concise plotline.

Despite those concerns, Mrs. Harris does manage to become eminently watchable and sporadically gripping. Much of the credit for that goes to its outstanding cast. In addition to Bening and Kingsley, we find notables such as Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Mary McDonnell, Philip Baker Hall, Frances Fisher, and Chloe Sevigny in supporting parts. They don’t get a ton to do, unfortunately, but their simple onscreen presence adds weight to the project.

Kingsley provides an interesting take on Tarnower. He rarely plays Hy as a believable human being. Instead, Kingsley gives the doctor a larger than life feel. He makes Hy loud, blustery and dynamic. All of which the doctor may have been, but that’s not the point. His performance portrays Tarnower as seen through the eyes of others, so his outsized turn makes perfect sense.

This means Bening carries the load in terms of having to play a more three-dimensional character. She does wonderfully in that regard. Bening plays Jean without any vanity, as she lets herself fall into the part with all its warts. We see how Jean changed over the years via Hy’s effect on her as she becomes colder and more remote. She also falls into psychological traps. Bening carries the movie, as it wouldn’t be as interesting without her strength and range behind it.

And that’s good enough to make Mrs. Harris a generally involving movie. The film proves too sketchy and unfocused to become a true success, but it keeps us interested from start to finish.

The DVD Grades: Picture C/ Audio C+/ Bonus B

Mrs. Harris appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The transfer ranged from pretty strong to not so hot.

Sharpness was up and down, though the movie usually offered good delineation. Softness interfered with moderate frequency, as occasional shots appeared less than well-defined. Still, much of the time, matters were reasonably concise and accurate. No issues with jagged edges or moiré effects occurred, but light edge enhancement showed up through the film. Source flaws also caused a few distractions. Grain was heavier than expected, and I also noticed a few specks and marks.

Colors varied as well. Some exteriors demonstrated nice vivacity, but most shots seemed a bit flat. The colors were acceptable but rarely better than that. Blacks were reasonably dense and firm, while shadows were inconsistent. In general, low-light shots came across as somewhat thick and lackluster. This was a watchable transfer but not one that excelled.

Similar thoughts greeted the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Mrs. Harris. The soundfield failed to deliver a lot of pizzazz. Most of the information focused on the front channels, where music offered decent stereo imaging and general ambience. A few scenes such as a thunderstorm opened up the spectrum and used the surrounds to fine effect. Otherwise, this was a restrained soundfield.

Audio quality was satisfying. Speech always came across as concise and distinctive, and I noticed no edginess or other issues. Music seemed clear and vibrant, as the score and songs were reproduced with good vivacity. Effects played a minor role but were clean and accurate. This was an unexceptional track.

When we check out the DVD’s extras, the main attractions come from two separate audio commentaries. The first presents actors Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific chat. Though their pairing sounds like a dream, it starts as a nightmare. During the movie’s first act, the actors have very little to say. Dead air dominates, and their few remarks simply state the obvious.

Happily, things eventually improve. The actors talk about their roles and their performances. We get some info about research – or a willful lack thereof on the part of Kingsley – and other aspects of the production. The characters remain the focal point, and we learn some nice notes in that realm. Bening dominates in this insightful piece. You’ll have to suffer through a boring spot to get to the good stuff, but this ultimately turns into a pretty good commentary.

For the second audio commentary, we get notes from director Phyllis Nagy. She also gives us a running, screen-specific discussion. Nagy chats about the opening credits and their connection to the flick, costumes and makeup, editing, tone and pacing, casting and working with the actors, music, research and the script, photographic styles and visual design, sets and locations, cinematic inspirations, fact vs. fiction and a few other production notes.

That’s a lot of material, and Nagy usually makes this a good commentary. She drags at times, as occasional dead spots occur. Nonetheless, much of the piece works well. We get a very nice overview of the production and all the important issues. I can’t call this a gripping discussion, but Nagy does her job.

Lastly, we find a featurette. Mrs. Harris for the Record: Firsthand Accounts runs four minutes, 51 seconds as it presents archival comments from the real personalities behind the film. We hear from Jean Harris (in 1993 and 1991), defense attorney Joel Aurnou (1999), criminologist/defense witness Prof. Herbert MacDonnell (1999), assistant prosecutor Thomas Lalla (1999), presiding judge Russell R. Leggett (1999), police Chief Willis Harris (1980), author Diana Trilling (1981), and Dr. Herman Tarnower (1978). We also get some remarks from Bening, Nagy, and executive producers Elizabeth Karlsen and Christine Vachon.

“Record” acts as a teaser, really. It tosses out short tidbits from those involved but doesn’t provide any substance. That’s too bad, as this DVD would benefit from a true documentary examination of the Harris/Tarnower situation. That would’ve been a great supplement to offset the dramatization. Unfortunately, this quick featurette doesn’t give us much to satisfy those cravings.

I maintain similar feelings toward Mrs. Harris itself. The flick boasts an excellent cast and intrigues us with its bizarre story of love and death. It just doesn’t prove truly fulfilling. The DVD offers mediocre picture and audio, but it tosses in two generally interesting audio commentaries to add value. This is a rental-worthy release.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1764 Stars Number of Votes: 17
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