Joy for Jennifer

An article from the Daily Mail Weekend Section, June 24, 2000
by Sarah Chalmers

Rosemary Harris congratulates her daughter 
Jennifer Ehle

When Pride and Prejudice star Jennifer Ehle won the prestigious Tony Award for Best Actress on Broadway, she reduced one fellow nominee to tears, her mother Rosemary Harris.

Here the veteran star tells Sarah Chalmers about the triumph - and trauma - of their big night.

Rosemary Harris and her daughter Jennifer Ehle laughed out loud when they were asked to move into the aisle seats at this month's Tony Awards where they became the first ever mother and daughter to compete against each other for the same prize at the New York ceremony. "They said all the nominees have to sit on the outside so it's easier for them to get out," Rosemary says now. "We thought, 'There's really no point; neither of us is going to win', but we didn't want to make a fuss, so we moved."

Of course, as we now know, there certainly was a point - but for the daughter rather than the mother. Jennifer, the beguiling star of The Camomile Lawn and Pride and Prejudice, was announced as Lead Actress In A Play for her role in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. Delighted, she leaned forward to hug her tearful mother and equally proud father - the American author John Ehle - before rushing to the stage in her new backless frock to collect the prestigious award.

"I wouldn't be here without my beautiful, beautiful, beautiful parents," she said as Rosemary wept tears of unabashed joy.
It was a rare public display of emotion for this stylish Anglo- American family. "When they announced Jennifer's name for the Tony Award," says Rosemary, "it was like being told you had won the Lottery.
It was a mixture of shock and joy and ecstasy and disbelief. The tears were pouring down my cheeks. I was just so thrilled to lose," she laughs.

The tears were pouring down my cheeks.
I was just so thrilled to lose.

"Neither of us though we would win, but there was one awful moment - for a split second - when I thought, what would I do if it was me? As a mother you would always rather your daughter won."

Rosemary, who was nominated for her role in Noel Cowward's Waiting in the Wings, won the same award in 1966 for her part in The Lion in Winter. Back then, the awards were not televised and consisted of a small tea party at a New York hotel. She remembers that when she won "everybody in the room turned round to see who I was, because nobody had heard of me." She felt quite out of place, and has used the award as a paperweight ever since. "I am rather proud of it, though. The engraver obviously got carried away with all the Rs in my name and spelt Broadway Star with two Rs!"

One suspects that despite her distinguished career - she was once described as unrivalled in her portrayal of "the romantic female personality in its dauntless pursuit of love, honour, self-sacrifice and the wearing of gorgeous gowns" - the part she has found most fulfilling is that of mother. Certainly, Jennifer is besotted with her mother, to whom she bears an amazing resemblance. She has said: "I was an only, late child. I was spoiled rotten. The three of us are very close." Perhaps it is that closeness which made Jennifer such a late starter in love. When she did, finally, discover boys, she fell for two of her leading men in rapid succession.

First there was Toby Stephens, son of the actors Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, on the set of the TV drama The Camomile Lawn, in which Jennifer famously appeared nude. "I got into boys very late," she said. "All through drama school I was uninterested. I didn't put out any signals for years." When she and Toby broke up they remained friends. Then came Colin Firth on the set of Jennifer's next triumph, Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. In the end, it is said, Jennifer dumped Firth, though all she has said is, "Being on location and acting in a story opposite somebody is incredibly conducive to falling in love."

Her mother, like Jennifer, is one of those people who exude warmth. She has an elegant, serene beauty. We meet in her Manhattan apartment, which has a lived-in air, despite the fact it is not the actress's main home, but a base she uses whenever her stage work brings her to New York.

Rosemary speaks often and unselfconsciously of Jennifer. "I don't think she would mind me saying, but it was a stroke of luck she landed the part in The Real Thing. She did an interview in a British paper and said she hadn't worked in seven months, had been going to Starbucks, drinking coffee and going mad. When she told me afterwards what she had said, I said, "No, no, you should just say you are considering things and the right thing hasn't come along yet." But it turned out Tom Stoppard read the interview, called her agent up and said, "Why haven't we seen Jennifer Ehle?" She went along and read for him and got the part."

Rosemary says she has never given her daughter advice on acting, although they have appeared together twice - once as the younger and older version of Calypso in The Camomile Lawn, and again as Valerie, at different ages, in the recently released film Sunshine with Ralph Fiennes. On Tony night, all three members of the family got ready at Rosemary's apartment. It was a giddy affair, for which John dressed in a new tuxedo, Jennifer a new dress and Rosemary put on a favorite trouser suit.

Her favorite suit was covered in champagne.

Then just as the limousine arrived to take them to the ceremony, calamity struck. "I suddenly had this bright idea that I would take a bottle of champagne and we would drink it in the limousine." "So I opened the champagne and put it in a plastic bag. But the bag had a hole in it and the bottle went right through it and crashed on the corner of the table and spouted champagne all down my suit. I thought, 'What am I going to do? I have nothing else to wear.' So I rushed and got the ironing board out. It was such a farce, everyone was waiting in the car for me and I was covered in champagne. To my amazement, the iron dried it all out and there wasn't a mark, so I carried on downstairs with what remained of the champagne."

Rosemary was born in her grandmother's home in Suffolk, but spent the next six years in India. "It's very vivid in my mind," she recalls. "I had an ayah (nursemaid or governess) whom I adored. She taught me all my nursery rhymes in Hindustani, and I can still remember them today." She remembers her mother as "a perfect creature. She didn't work, I suppose she was part of the jazz age. But she was always busy - playing tennis or riding or shooting."

When the family returned to England and war broke out, the family moved to the Cornish village of Mylor, near the River Fal, and it was there, when Rosemary was only 14, that her mother died of pneumonia. "We didn't know she was terribly ill, she was just upstairs in the bedroom with flu for two days. When the doctor came to see her he ordered an ambulance to take her to Falmouth Hospital. We didn't go with her."

When day broke, she and her elder sister learned that her mother was critically ill so they hired a taxi to take them to the hospital, but it was already too late. "I didn't have the remotest idea that I would never see my mother again. It just never occurred to me."

The heartbreak of her mother's death is something Rosemary feels may be part of the reason Jennifer brings her such joy. She is careful not to be over-protective, but admits, "If someone says they are not feeling well, I don't disregard it." Rosemary returned to boarding school after her mother's death, a place where she was "miserably homesick. I felt my life had been blighted and that I would never be truly happy again."

When she left school she flirted with the idea of physiotherapy as a career, but settled instead for the theatre. Her father had written music and her mother loved to act, so as a youngster she was a talented mimic. After a spell at RADA, where she won the Gold Medal, she secured a role as an understudy in a Wilfred Pickles play called The Gay Dog at London's Piccadilly, where her sole task was to look after the dog and "make sure it peed in the interval and not on stage."

But in true fairytale fashion,
she auditioned for a role on Broadway in 1952 - and got the part. The young ingénue packed all her belongings into a trunk - including a sewing machine and some pots - and set sail aboard the Queen Mary.
The Broadway run was short-lived and
Rosemary was soon back in Britain, but her career was on its way (she was dubbed "the prettiest girl on Broadway" by one critic) and her love affair with America had begun.

By 1956 she decided she wanted to make America her home and stayed there at the end of another Broadway run. "I felt freer and less self-conscious in America and as a result I acted better."

Rosemary was dubbed "the prettiest girl on Broadway" by one critic.
Rosemary in Beau Brummell (1954)

Three years later she married producer Ellis Rabb and toured America with his rep company. The marriage, however, did not last - she would later say - in part because "I wasn't really a wife, a homemaker."

Photo by Thomas Cox

In the late Sixties she met John Ehle, who would become her second husband. "My friend Bella Spewack, who wrote the script for the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate, telephoned me one evening and said I had to come round, she had just met the man I was going to marry. She said it was like casting a play. He was in town for one day and ended up getting a wife."

The pair wed on the porch of John's North Carolina log-cabin in 1967, which they still own to this day. Two years later, Jennifer was born on what Rosemary calls "the happiest day of my life." With her own new family intact, she could begin to exorcise some of the ghosts of her past. Rosemary's father had died when she was in her early 20s at a time when their relationship was strained because of his repeated infidelities during the war. It was a betrayal the young Rosemary, who adored her mother, could not forgive. When her father remarried four years after her mother's death, Rosemary continued to live with her grandmother.

"I think if he had lived we would have become friends, but at the time I felt he had let my mother down." It is some comfort to Rosemary that her father was aware of her success as an actress, and immensely proud of her. "In his wallet he used to carry a clipping about my award at RADA."

When Jennifer was 14, during one of family's many visits to England, when Rosemary was filming Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse for the BBC, she replaced the saddest memory of all with a gloriously happy one. "Jennifer was the age I was when I lost my mother and I took her to see the house we had lived in at the time. It had a For Sale sign in the garden, and I took some lovely pictures of her walking round the garden and sitting on the same steps I had sat on as a girl. It was very moving to go back with my husband and daughter in happy times."

Rosemary with her daughter, Jennifer

Old Times

An article from the 1971 Old Times Souvenir Program by Harold Pinter. 
Photos by Sy Friedman/Zodiac and edited by Seymour Krawitz

Rosemary Harris truly became one of the stars of the American stage during the lifetime of the Association of Producing Artists. For seven years following A.P.A.’s founding in 1960, Miss Harris appeared throughout the nation as well as at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. She was seen in Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan, Chekhov, Ibsen, Giraudoux, Pirandello, and Kaufman and Hart, mostly under the direction of Ellis Rabb who founded the A.P.A. and to whom she was married. However, it was the Broadway production of The Lion in Winter in which she starred opposite Robert Preston that brought her top recognition. She won the Antoinette Perry Award that year for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

Miss Harris was born in Suffolk, England, but spent her childhood in India and Kashmir. The late Moss Hart brought her to Broadway in his play and production of The Climate of Eden. After starring in The Seven Year Itch in London, she joined the Bristol Old Vic, and subsequently the London Old Vic playing Desdemona opposite Richard Burton’s Othello and Cressida in the late Sir TyroneGuthrie’s production of Troilus and Cressida.This production toured the United States and then Miss Harris appeared in Interlock and The Disenchanted on Broadway. She joined Group 20’s Theatre under the Stars at Wellesley, Mass. playing Peter Pan and thinks she may be the only Peter Pan to have flown out of doors. 

Back on Broadway she appeared in Laurence Olivier’s production of The Tumbler, which later led to her joining his company at Chichester, England, and also the National Theatre Company of Great Britain, playing Ophelia in the inaugural production of Hamlet in 1964 and hyena in Uncle Vanya. 
Four years ago (this was written in 1971), Miss Harris married novelist John Ehle and they now have a baby daughter Jennifer. Just after she was married, Miss Harris starred in the London production of Plaza Suite and won the London Evening Standard Drama Award for her performance. Her last engagement in the United States prior to Old Times was in Los Angeles when she starred with Jack Lemmon in the Idiot‘s Delight revival. 

A Conversation With Rosemary Harris

by Matt Wolf

Rosemary Harris starring in Women of Troy at the National.  London Theatre News, 1995

On Broadway last season in An Inspector Calls, she was the Birling family matriarch, whose self-deception crumbled as dramatically as the Yorkshire jewel box of a house in which she lived. Now, . . . she is commanding the vast Olivier stage at the Royal National Theatre as Hecuba in Euripides' Women of Troy, providing the play's grief-stricken heart. Add to that her Oscar-nominated performance as T. S. Eliot's mother-in-law in Tom and Viv, and Rosemary Harris is in her prime: a seasoned pro who seems to take more risks the older she gets.

 "I don't think I am afraid now. It's like growing gills; I think I've grown gills for the stage," said Harris, a slender, attractive woman who looks younger than her 60-odd years. In an interview in the Chelsea flat she bought last year, Harris added, "I don't have anything to lose now, so it doesn't really matter, taking risks. That's why I was brave enough to do Women of Troy, because everyone said, 'Oh, a Greek play in the Olivier Theatre,' and I thought, 'Well, why not?' I could have gone on safely playing in An Inspector Calls but I think one has to be brave."

 The actress ranges widely in her choice of parts, shifting easily between London and New York , between American and British plays. On Broadway in the early 1980s, she received three successive Tony nominations for Heartbreak House, Pack of Lies, and Hay Fever. Then, with daughter Jennifer (now 24) enrolled in drama school in London , she came to the West End to play M'Lynn - the Sally FIeld role - in Steel Magnolias.

 Other memorable American mothers followed in Jane Bowles's In the Summer House, and, of course, in Lost in Yonkers, for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award. So versatile is she that some local press failed to include Harris in round-ups of British Oscar nominees, assuming - because her home base remains Winston-Salem , North Carolina , where husband John Ehle lives and writes - that she must be an elegantly accented American.

 She takes the back-and-forth nature of her life in stride. "It seems perfectly normal to me because I've done it so long and so often," Harris said. "I know it must seem a long way to other people, but nowadays you just close your eyes and you're there; it's like going up to Manchester or Birmingham ."

 Tom and Viv revived a movie career that has long been subordinated to theatre work, and Harris hopes to increase her film exposure. "If I could go on playing Nora and the young Shakespearean heroines, I wouldn't perhaps think about films," she said, citing The Cherry Orchard, Ghosts. and Shakespeare's Henry VIII as plays she would like to do. "Maybe it's nice now to think one can expand oneself a bit. If some nice film roles came along, this would be the time to do them."

Rosemary Harris talks with Gerard Rymond

London Theatre News, November 1992

Rosemary Harris's smile is like a warm embrace. Her head slightly inclined, her face lights up radiating grace and compassion. But you won't see that smile in Lost in Yonkers until the curtain call.

 In the new Neil Simon play, currently at the Strand Theatre, Harris plays Grandma Kurnitz, a formidable German Jewish matriarch who terrorizes the two grandsons left temporarily in her care. Having suffered the horrors of war, Grandma has turned herself into a monster in order to survive.

 "I personally think Grandma is capable of loving but doesn't know how to," says Harris, describing the role that she also played for six months on Broadway. Her performance is quite different from that of Irene Worth, who created the part. She infuses the mean old grandmother with a subterranean current of warmth that is quintessential Rosemary Harris.

 In her 40-year stage career, Harris has performed on both sides of the Atlantic, but Lost in Yonkers marks the first time she re-creates in England a role she played in America . Ironically, for someone so English in both looks and temperament, she has spent the past 36 years of her career and her life primarily in the United States . In fact, she got her first break as an actress in New York .

 Moss Hart's Climate of Eden opened on Broadway in 1952 and lasted only two weeks, but it won for the 22 year-old Harris the Theater World award for most promising actress of the year. Fourteen years later she would fulfill that promise, winning Broadway's highest accolade, the Tony, for her performance in The Lion in Winter. After The Climate of Eden she returned to London for The Seven-Year Itch, beginning a career-long trend of performing American plays in London and British plays in New York .

In 1955 Harris joined the London Old Vic Company, proving she had a flair for Shakespeare and the classics. According to Sir Peter Hall, who has directed Harris onstage and in television, her Ophelia and her Cressida at the Old Vic were marked by a self-deprecating wit. "There is a twinkle at the back of her eyes that makes her suffering all the more potent."

 After an American tour of Troilus and Cressida in 1957, Harris decided to stay in the United States , saying she didn't want to spend the rest of her life playing classical roles in England . Nevertheless, at Laurance Olivier's invitation, she returned to England to give a memorable performance in Olivier's celebrated production of Uncle Vanya with Michael Redgrave in 1963. When Olivier became head of the National Theatre a year later, Harris repeated the role and also played Ophelia to Peter O'Toole's Hamlet in the National's inaugural season.

 Despite her success at the National, Harris returned to America in 1965. She was hoping to mend her failing marriage to the American actor/director Ellis Rabb. She and Rabb were married in 1959 and formed the Association of Producing Artists soon after their wedding. APA toured the United States extensively, earning a reputation for being one of the finest repertory companies in the country. Rabb and she divorced in 1967 but that same year, Harris married John Ehle, a novelist. She now lives in Winston Salem, North Carolina, with Ehle; they have one daughter, Jennifer, also an actress.

 Does she regret not staying on at the National in the sixties to continue in the British classical actress tradition? Harris beams her radiant smile and says her daughter and her husband, John, are ample compensation, adding, "I knew I didn't want to sit with only a book of yellowing press cuttings." But Harris confesses she is "sick for not doing Shakespeare," and would be glad to play "any one of the old hags!"

 Once her stint in Lost in Yonkers is completed, Harris is looking forward to working again soon. She searches for the right metaphor to describe her feelings about acting, and pauses. Then she smiles. "Doing a play is like being at a wonderful party. I don't know how many more invitations I will get, but I am a party girl and I really enjoy a good party.

Rosemary Harris
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Retrieved from ""

Rosemary Harris as Aunt May Parker in the Spider-Man films.Rosemary Harris was born on September 19, 1927 in Ashby, Suffolk, England. She is an Academy Award nominated English actress and a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame. Most articles show the 1927 date; however, Rosemary says her birth year is actually 1930.[1]

Her early years gained her experience in English repertory theatre - she was in Kiss and Tell at Eastbourne with Tilsa Page and John Clark in 1948 - before training at RADA. She first appeared in New York in Moss Hart's Climate of Eden in 1951, but returned to England for her West End debut in The Seven Year Itch which ran for a year at the Aldwich. She then entered a classical acting period with the Bristol Old Vic and then the Old Vic.

Her first film followed, Beau Brummel with Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor, and then a touring season with The Old Vic brought her back to Broadway in Tyrone Guthrie's production of Troilus and Cressida. Preferring to base herself in New York, she knew she would be able to work on both sides of the Atlantic.

Her plans changed, however, when she met a young man with a plan to start his own producing company on Broadway, always a risky proposition. By 1959, the Association of Producing Artists (APA) was established, and she and Ellis Rabb were married in December 1959, and over the next two years their energies were combined into making the APA a ten year success. The year 1962 brought her back to England and Laurence Olivier's Chichester Festival Theatre, and in 1964 again, when she was Ophelia to Peter O'Toole's Hamlet, for the inaugural production of the new Royal National Theatre of Great Britain.

Returning to New York, further work with the APA, and then she was cast as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, which brought her a Tony Award in 1966.

Ellis Rabb directed her one last time as Masha in War and Peace in 1967, the same year they agreed to split up. And a little while later, Rosemary was to marry again, this time her husband was the distinguished writer John Ehle, and they settled down in the countryside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and it was there that their daughter Jennifer was born, destined herself to become a Broadway star in her own name, Jennifer Ehle.

Her credits in film, television and theatre are long and varied, and can be found below. At this time, now in her seventies and finishing up her third Spiderman film as Aunt May, enough to say that this versatile actress has remained a much-loved, modest and accessible star, with long and warm memories for her equally loyal friends.

Selected filmography
Spider-Man 3 (2007) 
Being Julia (2004) 
Spider-Man 2 (2004) 
Spider-Man (2002) 
The Gift (2000) 
Sunshine (1999) 
Hamlet (1996) 
Looking for Richard (1996) 
Tom & Viv (1994) 
Crossing Delancey (1988) 
The Chisholms (1980) (TV series) 
The Chisholms (1979) (miniseries) 
The Boys from Brazil (1978) 
Holocaust (1978) (miniseries) 
Beau Brummell (1954) 

Selected Theater
Waiting in the Wings [Dec 16, 1999 - May 28, 2000]- May Davenport [Broadway-Original Play] 
A Delicate Balance [Apr 21, 1996 - Sep 29, 1996]- Agnes [Broadway-Revival] 
An Inspector Calls [Apr 27, 1994 - May 28, 1995]- Sybil Birling [Broadway-Rivival] 
Lost in Yonkers [Feb 21, 1991 - Jan 3, 1993]- Grandma Kurnitz [Broadway-Original] 
Hay Fever [Dec 12, 1985 - Mar 29, 1986 ]- Judith Bliss [Broadway-Revival] 
Pack of Lies [Feb 11, 1985 - May 25, 1985 ] - Barbara Jackson[Broadway-Original] 
Heartbreak House [Dec 7, 1983 - Feb 5, 1984 ]- Hesione Hushabye [Broadway- Revival] 
The Royal Family [Dec 30, 1975 - Jul 18, 1976 ]- Julie Cavendish [Broadway-Revival] 
A Streetcar Named Desire [Apr 26, 1973 - Jul 29, 1973 ]- Blanche Du Bois [Broadway-Revival] 
The Merchant of Venice [Mar 1, 1973 - Apr 7, 1973 ]- Portia [Broadway-Revival] 
Old Times [Nov 16, 1971 - Feb 26, 1972 ]- Anna [Broadway-Original] 
War and Peace [Mar 21, 1967 - Jun 17, 1967 ]- Natasha [Broadway-Original] 
You Can't Take It With You [Feb 10, 1967 - Feb 1967 ]- Alice Sycamore [Broadway-Revival] 
The Wild Duck [Jan 11, 1967 - Jun 17, 1967 ] - Gina (alternate)[Broadway-Revival] 
We, Comrades Three [Dec 20, 1966 - Dec 1966 ] -Young Woman (Alternate) [Broadway-Original] 
Right You Are If You Think You Are [Nov 22, 1966 - Dec 1966 ] -Signora Ponza (Alternate) [Broadway-Revival] 
The School for Scandal [Nov 21, 1966 - Jan 1967 ]- Lady Teazle, Epilogue [Broadway-Revival] 
The Lion in Winter [Mar 3, 1966 - May 21, 1966 ]- Eleanor [Broadway-Original] 
You Can't Take It With You [Nov 23, 1965 - Jun 18, 1966 ]- Alice Sycamore[Broadway-Revival] 
The Tumbler [Feb 24, 1960 - Feb 27, 1960 ]- Lennie [Broadway-Original] 
The Disenchanted [Dec 3, 1958 - May 16, 1959 ]- Jere Halliday [Broadway-Original] 
Interlock [Feb 6, 1958 - Feb 8, 1958] - Hilde [Broadway- Original] 
Troilus and Cressida [Dec 26, 1956 - Jan 12, 1957 ]- Cressida [Broadway-Revival] 
The Climate of Eden [Nov 13, 1952 - Nov 22, 1952 - Mabel] [Broadway-Original] 

Theatre World award, The Climate of Eden, 1953. 
Tony award, best actress in a play, The Lion in Winter, 1966. 
Drama Desk award, outstanding actress in a play, Old Times, 1972. 
Drama Desk award, outstanding actress in a play, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Merchant of Venice, 1973. 
Drama Desk award, outstanding actress in a play, The Royal Family, 1976. 
Emmy Award, outstanding lead actress in a limited series, 1976, Notorious Woman (Masterpiece Theatre, PBS). 
Emmy Award, outstanding lead actress in a limited series, 1978, Holocaust (NBC). 
Golden Globe Award, best television actress--drama, 1979, Holocaust (1978, NBC). 
Golden Satellite Award, best performance by an actress in a supporting role, drama, Sunshine, 2001 (shared with her daughter, Jennifer Ehle). 
NBR Award, National Board of Review, best supporting actress, 1994, Tom & Viv. 
Tony award, best actress in a play, Pack of Lies, 1985. 
Obie award, performance, All Over, 2002. 
Many other nominations for theatre, film and television awards.


External Links

Rosemary Harris
at the Internet Movie Database
Rosemary Harris
at the Internet Broadway Database
Presenting Rosemary Harris
: articles and images
Rosemary Harris
- Downstage Center interview at American Theatre


Musing of Bill Petros: History, Culture, Technology from Monday, June 06, 2005

Theatre Review: The Philadelphia Story 

Sometimes you meet famous people when you attend the theatre in London -- I did tonight. I attended the new London version of "The Philadelphia Story" which though most people know by the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant movie, was originally a play. Indeed, it had been originally customized to Hepburn. The one in London is being done this year while Kevin Spacey is the artistic director of the Old Vic theatre. He also stars as CK Dexter Haven. Jennifer Ehle has the staring role of Tracy Lord, and she makes the part her own. You may remember her as Lizzy Bennet from the British miniseries "Pride and Prejudice." But more on this play later.

I hadn't been to the Old Vic in years, since Patrick Stewart was doing his one-man version of "A Christmas Carol." I thought I'd go to the stage door around back to meet Captain Jean-Luc Piccard of the USS Enterprise. So did a couple of hundred other "Star Trek: the Next Generation" fans. While I did not get to meet him, I did get close enough to breathe the same air molecules. But that was all.

Tonight I had a good seat in the second row of the stalls (translation: first level of balcony) and during the second interval (translation: intermission, and yes, there were two) across the row in front of me walks Rosemary Harris returning to her seat. I could not take my eyes off her. You know her as the kindly Aunt May from the current Spider-Man movies, but in her day she was an actress of great renown and prowess both in London and on Broadway, having won Tony, Obie and Emmy awards and has appeared opposite Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, and Michael Redgrave.

I spoke with her for a few minutes as we left the show. Her presence there was significant for two reasons. First, she had done 5 plays in this same theater, indeed, her picture is on the wall with Peter O'Toole in Hamlet in 1963. But more importantly, the starring role of tonight's play was her daughter, Jennifer Ehle. I told her that I thought her daughter had done a marvelous job in the role, and I asked her what she thought. She thanked me and said it she was quite proud to watch her. I asked her if it was a thrill to she her daugther perform in the same theatre that she had performed in in 1963. She said yes and that she had to pinch herself... and that she had also performed here along with Richard Burton in Othello "in 1954, or was it 55?" (It was 1956.) And she had done Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, and Uncle Vanya, and she couldn't remember them all, there were five.

I told her that her daughter had made the part her own, and so she had. The play is a bit different than the movie, where Tracy's brother Sandy is absorbed into the role of CK Dexter Haven, making Cary Grant's role much larger. In the play, the lines and the plot elements go to her brother, consequently CK Dexter Haven has a rather smaller role. Ms. Elhe is the dominant role and she embodies the character so that you forget that she's not the person you usually associate with the role. Her vocal range and presence on stage gave her a gravitas that grows on you. Her "American" accent was almost flawless, as were most of the British Actors. Her younger sister Dinah was played with whiny adenoidal delight by Talulah Riley in her stage debut. Nicholas Le Prevost's Uncle Willy was a particular delight with a somewhat expanded role. Julia McKenzie's Margaret Lord was a special breath of off-handed humor.

Kevin Spacey, as I mentioned, had a smaller role than expected, but he had fun with it. He delivered some of his lines as W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx. He was nimble and light on his feet and seemed almost outside the play at times. He did with volume and anger what Cary Grant did with tone and eyebrow. But Spacey's emotion revealed nuances I hadn't caught in my dozen viewings of the movie, and he can throw away a line like nobody but Sean Connery as 007.

As I left the play, Ms. Harris and I spoke for only three or four minutes. I told her it was a treat to meet her and she thanked me as we parted and walked into the night.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood theatre buff  

Biography on Collector’s Post

Rosemary Harris has been a enormously popular and versatile star of the theatre 
on both sides of the Atlantic for over 50 years.

She was born in England but, shortly afterwards, the family moved to India, returning six year later. After school she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts where she won a Gold Medal. She made her stage debut in the Broadway production of Moss Hart's Climate of Eden (1951) and was described by the press as the ‘most beautiful girl on Broadway’. Although the cast was awarded a Theatre World Award, the play ran for only 20 performances. After it closed, she returned to Britain where she made her West End debut in the British premiere of The Seven Year Itch (1952) - it ran for a year at the Aldwych Theatre. She went next for a season to the Bristol Old Vic and then joined the Old Vic. Among the star roles she played there were Desdemona, opposite Richard Burton, in Othello (1956) and Cressida in Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Troilus and Cressida. During this period, she also made her first film, Beau Brummell (1954), with Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor. In December, 1956, she returned to Broadway with the Old Vic Company that was presenting a short repertory season in which he again played Cressida.

When the season ended, she decided to stay in New York. Much of her 1957 work was involved in television: she appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and in two episodes of The DuPont Show of the Month, and one episode of both Hitchcock’s Suspicion and The Kraft Television Theatre. Her next Broadway appearance was in Interlock (1958), with Celeste Holm, at the ANTA Playhouse. The new play survived for only four performances. Before the end of the year, she was back again: starring with Jason Robards Jr. in The Disenchanted (1958-9).

In 1959, she met and ambitious young actor, Ellis Rabb (1930-1998) who had the ambition to establish his own company, The Association of Producing Artists (APT). It was a project that appealed to her, as did the man. They married in December, 1959. Shortly afterwards, on February 24, 1960, she played the opening night of Benn W. Levy’s The Tumbler that was directed by Laurence Olivier and also starred Charlton Heston. It was not a success and there were to be only another four performances.

She then gave her energies to helping her husband form the APA and then appeared on a prolonged tour with the company, performing mainly classical plays. In 1962, she appeared in Laurence Olivier's Company at the Chichester Festival Theatre for their first season, playing in The Broken Heart and Chances. She returned the following year and, in 1964, she played Ophelia, opposite Peter O'Toole, in Hamlet, the Laurence Olivier production that inaugurated the National Theatre at the Old Vic.

Apart from her visits to London, she lived in the States and performed mainly with the APT company. The exception was the première on Broadway of The Lion in Winter (1966) in which she created the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine and for which she received the 1966 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. She also appeared on Broadway in seven other plays, all produced by APT, between November 23, 1965, and June 17, 1967. In the last of the seven, she played Natasha in a new dramatisation, directed by husband, of War and Peace. This was the last time she appeared in an APT production. Shortly afterwards, she and Ellis Rabb were divorced and, later in 1967, she married the author, John Ehle, who lived in North Carolina.

In the spring of 1969, she and her new husband went to London where she starred with Paul Rogers in Plaza Suite. For her performance, she won the ‘London Evening Standard’ Award for Best Actress. After her return to Winston-Salem in North Carolina, she gave birth to her daughter, Jennifer Ehle, who has become a successful and distinguished actress.

Throughout the ensuing years, she has been a much loved and highly-praised performer in an astonishing variety of roles in films and in plays on stage and television. Highlights of her theatre career in London include: Heartbreak House (1984) with Rex Harrison; The Best of Friends (1987) with John Gielgud; and Hecuba in Women of Troy (1995) for the Royal National Theatre. On Broadway, she played Barbara Jackson in Pack of Lies (1985); Grandma Kurnitz in Lost in Yonkers (1992); and Waiting in the Wings (1999-2000) with Lauren Bacall. Her film roles include Mrs Doring in The Boys From Brazil (1978); Rose Haigh-Wood in Tom & Viv (1994) for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress; the Player Queen in Hamlet (1996) with Kenneth Branagh; and Aunt May Reilly Parker in Spider-Man (2002). The many TV dramas in which she has appeared include Notorious Woman (1974) and Holocaust (1978), for both of which she received an Emmy nomination.

Despite her justifiable fame, she has always been a kind and giving person who has always been happy to share her considerable expertise with drama students. She has taught acting courses in many places from her now home state of North Carolina to Russia.

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