Dismissed by critics during its original release and not subsequently elevated to any special status, the lugubriously titled Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? is nonetheless an interesting piece of work bursting with offbeat characterizations and unique dialogue. This is a rare example of a movie that has considerable virtues even though it doesn’t “work” in any conventional sense. It helps a lot, of course, that Harry Kellerman reflects a peculiar historical moment by portraying the anguish of a celebrity who seeks a reason to live after finding the goals he pursued all his life (fame, money, respect, women) to be insufficient. While it’s true that the early ’70s were lousy with “I gotta be me” character studies, the best of these movies turn a mirror on a period when the line separating egotism and introspection blurred.
Written by Herb Gardner, best known for his plays I’m Not Rappaport and A Thousand Clowns, the picture depicts the last day in the life of Georgie Soloway (Dustin Hoffman), a pop songwriter living in a palatial New York penthouse. Delusional after several days without sleep, Georgie fantasizes about killing himself and experiences surreal visions that mix imagination and reality. At various times, he interacts with his aging father, Leonard (David Galef); his long-suffering accountant, Irwin (Dom DeLuise); his confrontational psychotherapist, Dr. Moses (Jack Warden); and troubled actress Allison Densmore (Barbara Harris), whom Georgie meets while she auditions for a show Georgie has cowritten. Adding to the otherworldly quality of Georgie’s experiences is the fact that he owns a small plane and spends many hours cruising the skies above New York City—in one of Gardner’s effective but unsubtle literary flourishes, Georgie literally has his head in the clouds.
Many of the stylistic affectations in Harry Kellerman were commonplace at the time of the film’s release, including jump cuts that instantly shift Georgie from one location to another, and the way Dr. Moses magically appears in various situations wearing costumes suiting the situations (e.g., a ski instructor’s uniform, etc.). Furthermore, like so many “I gotta be me” stories, Harry Kellerman faces an uphill battle generating sympathy for a lead character who has everything but wants more. What makes the piece consistently interesting, however—besides the brisk pace and the way director Ulu Grosbard’s dark visual style unifies disparate scenes—is the humanity of the acting and the writing.
Hoffman, who had a reputation at the time for being phenomenally self-involved, inhabits the character comfortably, and the boyish charm he brought to The Graduate (1967) shines through especially well during scenes when Georgie sings silly ditties. (The movie’s tunes were penned by poet/songwriter Shel Silverstein.) As for Harris, she’s heartbreaking, giving arguably the best performance of her career as a neurotic with a poetic streak. In fact, Harris netted an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, the sole major honor bestowed on the film.
Fitting a movie written by a playwright, Harry Kellerman truly shines in long dialogue passages, even though Gardner and Grosbard contrive several intricate scenes that rely upon surprising visual juxtapositions. Beyond the occasional zippy one-liner (“Her head belongs in a Cracker Jack box, and her ass in the Louvre”), Gardner fills the script with melancholy pensées. “I’m auditioning every day,” Harris’ character says sadly. “I wake up every morning, and the world says, ‘Thank you, Miss Densmore, that’ll be all for now.’” Gardner also does a fine job of illustrating the distance that exists in most relationships, making the way his leading characters strive for connection seem like a heroic act, albeit—thanks to the movie’s fatalistic worldview—a doomed one.
Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?: GROOVY