Tuesday, May 15, 1990

Toronto Star: "Old flames reunite in film"

Old flames reunite in film
14 January 2000
The Toronto Star
Copyright (c) 2000 The Toronto Star

There I was, expressing my deep affection for her movie and stage acting, but Rosemary Harris was gushing about her "dear sweet Johnny."

Harris and I were meeting because she plays the life-buffeted but accepting, grandmother of one of the three characters that Ralph Fiennes portrays in the epic movie, Sunshine.

Her performance earned her a Genie nomination as best actress (she's the odds-on favourite) and Sunshine, at the York Cinema, leads the pack with 13 Genie nominations, including best picture. Genie presentations will be aired live Jan. 30 on CBC-TV.

Wearing knee pants and sitting in the last row of the top balcony at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, I recalled cheering Harris when she appeared with New York's APA Repertory Theatre Company that performed modern American classic plays.

And I raved about her striking performances as co-star of the movie Tom And Viv, for which she received an Oscar nomination, in TV's The Holocaust and in Kenneth Branagh's movie Hamlet.

Hearing this, she patted my hand, stared into my eyes and replied, dreamily, "Johnny was so handsome, still is."

I was about to demand "Johnny's" last name so I could challenge him to a duel when she dropped the clue that stopped me.

"He was my Iago in Othello at the Old Vic, alternating with Richard Burton, 40 years ago; hadn't worked with him again until this film."

Of course. Her "Johnny" is John Neville, the Toronto actor (currently in TV's Amazon) and a former Stratford Festival artistic director who plays Harris' Communist brother-in-law in Sunshine.

They're just good friends. Neville and his wife Caroline recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and Harris, who lives in London, is married to British screenwriter/ novelist John Ehle.

Their daughter, Jennifer Ehle, plays Harris' younger self in Sunshine and is pitted against her mother in the best-actress Genie category. Each wants the other one to win.

Harris, who has been acting for more than 50 years and who will be 70 this year, calls herself "a film rookie," having appeared in just six movies.

"I wouldn't presume to tell any film director what to do," she said. "In film they can be standing over you with a big stick saying do it properly, or else, and I would.

"On the stage, I do stand up for myself because I am more sure of my ground. I've done great on the stage. I've become a stage animal. I am not a film animal. This is the largest role I've had in film and the most important role."

To prepare, Harris read "some pocket history versions (of the Holocaust in Hungary) but they were so complicated. I feel sorry for Hungarian children. How do they learn what happened?"

She felt the emotions more readily in Budapest, where Sunshine was filmed. She visited its Jewish Museum and "walked where the Jewish ghetto was and saw where brick walls had been put up and beautiful old apartment houses in which they (the government) crowded 30 or 40 families each. Seeing the Danube, I remembered reading about how many people had gotten thrown in there."

Harris revealed that Szabo did more than create the story and co-author the script about three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family from the Austro- Hungarian Empire to the Communist invasion of Hungary in 1956.

"He suggested design of the costumes, came to all our costume and wig fittings, even okayed the hats and the handbags. He pays such enormous attention to detail. "He sees a story in every single element."

Told that Neville was cast in scenes with her, Harris recalled being "thrilled" because it touched off memories of their first pairing.

In mid-1950s Britain, "every young actress was in love with him from afar. (Playing Desdemona in Othello) was one of my first jobs in London and everyone said, `Oohh! isn't it exciting to play with Richard Burton?' I said I only really had eyes for John Neville. I had quite a school-girl crush on him."

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