Getting some therapy with this obscure early 70s gem

The life story of Elton John has finally made it to the screen in the form of Rocketman; the latest jukebox musical biopic detailing the life of a brilliant musician who has been adored by the public for decades. Response to the film has been mixed, with some comparing the results to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody for its hollow, splashy, take on the main subject. Still, the film’s grand reception remains a great stroke of summer counterprogramming that is sure to delight many.

While I probably won’t be checking out Rocketman until awards season (assuming they send out screeners), the movie’s release did allow me opportunity to revisit a little-seen title about another celebrated musical figure (albeit a fictional one) and his complicated relationship with both his profession and himself.

In 1971’s Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, Dustin Hoffman stars as Georgie Soloway, the top songwriter of his generation who has made a name for himself in the music industry thanks to his ability to craft one hit song after another. However, depression, disenchantment, and a crippling neuroses threaten to destroy him at the height of his success. Not even the appearance of an aspiring broadway actress (Barbara Harris) who intrigues him to no end can help Georgie out of his tailspin. Adding to his troubles are reports from his friends who inform Georgie that a man he never met named Harry Kellerman has been spreading lies about him all over town.

There’s a lot to unpack within Who is Harry Kellerman… with most of the content focused on what a proverbial hot mess the main character is. The film goes beyond the notion that success is everything to show a man well-versed in failing at success by not knowing what to do with his career achievements and trying to hide from them altogether. Spurring this on is a crippling insecurity and an emotional stuntedness which holds Georgie back. This is explored through his various past relationships including the girl he knocked up when he was a struggling songwriter, and the latest in a series of young hanger-ons with whom his interest is fleeting at best. Each encounter sees Georgie make something of an attempt at a connection before his neurotic state of mind puts a swift close to it. This is neuroses shown in a way which predates the comical take Woody Allen would later carve out a career from. The moments where Georgie is shown making frequent trips to an analyst (Jack Warden) in an effort to understand his fractured existence are heightened by the flashes of magical realism which suddenly occur, utilizing a taxi cab, penthouse balcony, and even a musical number in an effort to understand the main character’s current state. “I’d like a new life and a day without fear,” Georgie muses at one point. Beyond that fear, there is that suspicion within George that he might not really be deserving of any of the success and fortune which has come his way. Such a sentiment is echoed by the memories of everything he left behind for whatever reason, as well as the moments, both big and small, which led him to his troubled present day.

Later in the film, we meet Allison (Harris), a struggling actress auditioning for a role in the broadway show Georgie is producing. Allison is a tragic figure if there ever was one. An aging file clerk clinging to dreams that will more than likely never come true, Allison’s survival in the real world up to that point has been a keen perception, a surprisingly adept self-awareness, and a love for opera. “People live at the top of their live and die very beautifully,” she says describing the art form, giving a hint to the sort of existence Allison wishes she could live. Who is Harry Kellerman… becomes an entirely different movie during the moments it focuses on Allison, looking at neuroses and anxiety from someone on the opposite end of the spectrum from Georgie. Allison is someone who has neither fame nor fortune to serve as distractions, but instead just the firm realization about what life is for her. “Time, mister, it’s not a thief,” she tells Georgie. “It’s an embezzler staying up nights; juggling the books so you don’t notice anything missing when you wake up.” Georgie is intrigued by Allison but can’t fathom why. He doesn’t use any lines or moves to impress her, nor does he even really try to get her into bed (in fact it’s Allison that initiates intimacy). But there’s something so tender about the way Georgie is taken by this wounded creature in front of him. He isn’t sure how to relate to a woman as in tune with her complicated self as Allison is. The fact that she isn’t all that taken by Georgie’s wealth and power in the industry only adds to the intrigue. Mainly though, it’s the way in which Allison is able to acknowledge and exist with many of the same fears and doubts as Georgie which makes her such a figure of awe in his eyes.

Who is Harry Kellerman… was made during what could have been Hoffman’s most impressive period as an actor. Following the success of Midnight Cowboy, Georgie is the perfect follow-up character for the actor to play, giving him what is perhaps one of his most tour-de-force role up to that point. Hoffman sinks his teeth into Georgie’s slightly manic state of mind, yet also plays his crippling insecurity for real, making the more heightened aspects of the film feel all the more powerful. Released the same year as Little Big Man (which contained another remarkable Hoffman performance), the actor’s stunning work here was quickly overlooked. While his turn was all but dismissed, Harris’s was lavished with praise. As the only character of any real significance outside of the protagonist himself, the actress steals the show in what amounts to little more than two extended scenes. Harris makes the most out of her screen time, however, and succeeds in creating a heartbreaking portrait of a woman caught up in lost dreams she can’t help but still find hope in.

It turns out that no one much cared about who exactly Harry Kellerman was or what he was saying about anyone since the film was a great big flop. The result left a noticeable blemish on Hoffman’s filmography, which had up until that point, been free of any professional downfalls. Critics likewise wasted no time decrying the film for its exploration of the subject matter and approach. Most agreed that Harris was the lone bright spot and sole reason to see the film, eventually earning an Oscar nod for her performance and making Who is Harry Kellerman… the longest titled film to ever be nominated for an Academy Award.

It’s easy to see how the makers of Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? saw the film as fitting perfectly into the decade in terms of theme as the idea of psychoanalysis was quickly coming out into the mainstream. However, with the subject still very much taboo in some areas, it’s also not hard to see why the movie was especially hard to embrace. Yet the film remains one of the most novel explorations into the frenzied psyche of someone trying to understand the world around them as the makings of a nervous breakdown begin to take over. By the time the movie reaches it’s last-minute twist, its underlying idea of a person’s tendency to sabotage everything good in their life takes the whole affair to a deeper level beyond the cerebral, surrealist dramedy that had been playing out up to that point. There could be no other way to end an oddity of a film such as this one.

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