Ed Harris has been giving us wonderful performances in films and television for more than 40 years. It kills me that most of them go unnoticed, in spite of him being a familiar face to so many movie fans because of his appearances in films like The Hours, Truman Show, A Beautiful Mind or Apollo 13. That's why, as I am getting close to having seen all of his movies, I decided to write about each and every single one of his performances he gave since his movie debut (excluding his voice performances). It was not always easy to find those films, sometimes I only had youtube or video ripped from VHS to go by, but somehow I managed to find them all.
I will focus on his roles since his feature film debut but also include the ones in TV movies and TV series. That's altogether - in 39 years - 76 performances and that's not including his stage work.
In this first (out of 4) post I will look at the years 1978 - 1992 and 20 performances Ed Harris gave during that time from his very first role on the big screen that was just one minute long through him playing medieval performers, astronauts, abusive husbands, ordinary guys meeting underwater aliens and frustrated working men.
Coma (1978) - Pathology Resident #2
This is Harris's feature film debut. The film stars Genevieve Bujod and Michael Douglas in lead roles. Bujod's character starts suspecting
there is something going on in the hospital they are working in as patients
suddenly slip into coma in mysterious circumstances. At one point of
the movie she talks to pathology residents - one of them played by
Harris. They inform her of the best ways to kill a person and the glee
and humor Harris puts in his extremely short performance here suggests that had
it been longer he would have stolen the show. Even in such short screen time he manages to be memorable.
Borderline (1980) - Hotchkiss
First big role for Harris. I'm not sure how familiar people are with the kind of films Charles Bronson did, but well, this is a typical one - it's an action flick filled with shooting scenes and not much of plot. Harris plays the bad guy here and this is the first time he had a chance to show his menacing side. It's a really great performance, especially considering that this is only his second time on the big screen and he is on the screen for fairly brief amount of time.
Knightriders (1981) - Billy
Thrice in the 80s Ed starred in movies so bizarre
I genuinely had trouble to write about them here. Yet it is perhaps in those films where he had the best opportunities to show his range (another ones being Creepshow and Walker). There are truly several weird entries in his resume but Romero's Knighrtriders has to be seen to be
believed. The trailer alone is surreal. This is actually Ed's first leading
role and he carries the hell out of this 2,5 hour long movie. He plays a delusional medieval jouster and performer, leader of the troupe travelling on motorcycles, but somehow there is such sensitivity and thoughtfulness to his work here. He grounds his bizarre character in reality which is truly an incredible accomplishment.
Creepshow (1982) - Hank Blaine
Second collaboration between Harris and George Romero. Ed has a very brief role here and is on the screen for only few moments but he still delivers something memorable - this ridiculous dance scene, which is perhaps the most unforgettable scene in the whole movie.
Under Fire (1983) - Oates
Harris doesn't have a lot of scenes in this movie but as
usual he totally owns the movie. He plays Oates, a mercenary who goes
whenever he has to and kills whoever the people who pay him want dead. It's not that he is without scruples, it's that during the time of
war he thinks everything is allowed because it's total mayhem and if you
don't kill, someone is gonna kill you. Even though the subject matter
is so serious and his character does a lot of horrible things, Harris
still plays the part with so much charm and levity.
The Right Stuff (1983) - John Glenn
I think this right here could be considered
Ed's breakthrough role. The movie was successful and even won few Oscars
and Harris, beautifully, portrayed the part of the famous astronaut John Glenn. He is so charming, sweet and lovely in this role. The film is over 3 hours long and has all together terrific ensemble but the
moment that was a true stand out for me was when Glenn's wife called him
to tell him she is not comfortable letting the vice president in
their home. Glenn assured her not to do anything she doesn't want to and
then after hanging up yelled like crazy at his boss for thinking he can
make his wife do something she doesn't want. It's this mix of sweetness
and fury that only Ed Harris can do so damn well. Fun bit - he auditioned twice for the role. It was in fact Harris who insisted on the second audition because he felt his first reading of the part wasn't good enough. After the second reading, he got the part. See, this isn't the guy who is content to just get the part. This is the guy who always wants to get it right.
Swing Shift (1984) - Jack Walsh
Well, there is no way not to mention (since it's me and this is my website) the fact that MPAA completely overlooked the fact that when he sat down in an early scene, whilst wrapped in only a towel, you could see...all of it. That was actually out there, in theaters, right there in the film until it was...concealed in later releases of the film. Ed plays a guy who goes off to war and in the meantime his wife must cope with sudden loneliness and the necessity to support herself without her husband's help. She gets a job and unfortunately for her husband, a lover. Harris is not in the movie much but the balance of heartbreak, rage but also understanding and pride he strikes while he confronts his wife about her living on her own and her cheating is unforgettable. He is so very human in this moment. This is one of the things he does so well - people he plays don't feel like characters, they simply feel like people.
Places in the Heart (1984) - Wayne Lomax
In this hugely uneven but acclaimed
movie that brought Sally Field her second Oscar, Ed plays a husband of Field's character sister. He has
an affair with a married woman (played by Amy Madigan, his wife in real
life). It's a beautiful work and even though he plays a
cheating bastard when he is remorseful you really believe in his remorse. His last
scene in the movie where he is finally forgiven by his wife is so beautiful because of his truly heartbreaking acting. Also a lovely piece of trivia: one day during the making of
the movie him and Madigan simply run away from the set for a bit and got
married in a the nearby courthouse and the only guest was their dog,
A Flash of Green (1984) - Jimmy Wing
A Flash of Green is an environmental thriller with Harris playing the lead role of a small town reporter who accepts the bribe and comes to regret it. Usually environmental thrillers are big in scale and involve some sort of dramatic plot points like international conspiracy or murder but here because of the setting it is all confided within the boundaries of a small town, which makes the film very refreshing. Harris didn't get to play a lot of lead roles in his career, usually being the supporting actor, but this film shows that he is perfectly able to carry the movie all on his own.
Alamo Bay (1985) - Shang
I saw the movie yesterday and it's absolutely awful. The intent behind the story is noble as it talks of important things - after Vietnam war a lot of Vietnamese people were relocated to US where they clashed with the inhabitants who didn't see them as people who needed help, but people who were there to take their jobs. In Texas, Shang, played by Harris, tries to make a living fishing shrimp, as most of the little town's inhabitants do. He also has an affair with Glory (Amy Madigan), in spite of being married and having three children. Very soon Shang and Glory find themselves on opposite sides - Shang wants to run the immigrants of the town and Glory wants to help them. It's a rare movie where Harris is not the one to give the best performance - it's his wife out acting him in every single scene. Also there is a lovely, sexy dance scene between the two that almost made the film worth seeing. Harris and Madigan made a lot of movies together and for me it's always so fascinating to see the people who love each other in real life put themselves through some truly horrible scenes in movies. Here Harris gets to yell "communist c*nt!" after his own wife while she gets to - spoiler alert! - shoot him in the film's ending. Yet they are such wonderful actors you believe all of it.
Code Name: Emerald (1985) - Gus Lang
First movie in which Ed starred opposite Max von
Sydow. Harris plays a double agent posing as a Reich sympathizer, who is planted in a prison where an prisoner, one of a handful of U.S. soldiers who knows the location of the impending D-Day invasion is held. His mission is to rescue the prisoner while constantly hiding his real loyalties. It's a great lead role, that said, young Eric Stoltz is very good as the prisoner. Ed has so
much to do here - maneuvering the duplicitous plot, side story of a romance with a woman who is pretending to be his fiance and slowly
developing compassion for Stoltz' character. It's not a particularly
memorable film but it's very atmospheric and worth seeing for Harris' performance.
Sweet Dreams (1985) - Charlie Dick
Gun to my head, this is the best performance Ed Harris has ever given. The film follows Patsy Cline's (Jessica Lange) career as a
singer but in equally large part it shows her turbulent marriage to
Charlie Dick, played by Harris. He gets to do so many things here - and most impressively
he blends the two qualities he pulls off effortlessly - charming and
intense. There are so many performances he gave where he only has the
opportunity to be either/or with these things, and so many where he only
fleetingly gets to mix one with the other, but here they are balanced
out throughout the entire film. His Charlie goes from villain to a victim, from intimidating to
vulnerable from scene to scene and the entire movie you know you should
condemn him, but you just can't (here's an entire post about this performance).
The Last Innocent Man (1987) - Harry Nash
In this TV movie made for HBO Harris plays a successful attorney who as it occasionally happens, falls in love with his client who hired him to defend her husband, who is accused of committing murder. The story is not hugely unique or surprising but Harris carries the movie so well and even though he doesn't play a particularly likable character his charm and charisma are enough to keep you interested. And he is an absolute rock star when it comes to those courtroom speeches and questioning scenes you often see in films like this.
Walker (1987) - William Walker
This truly bizarre film, which was a massive failure and led to the director practically being blacklisted for the rest of his career, is based on the life story of William Walker (1824–1860), the American filibuster who invaded Mexico in the 1850s and made himself President of Nicaragua shortly thereafter. But make no mistake, it's unlike any other based on true events movies you see, filled with bizarre anachronisms, some of the worst shooting scenes in film's history and even moments of cannibalism. Apparently to get into character, Ed Harris led the entire cast in a 10-mile forced march through the Nicaraguan countryside. The actor was drawn to the challenge of playing someone "who has incredible moral convictions but turns into such an evil person in the name of spreading democracy." He was also drawn to the script's politics, claiming to be anti-Contra and anti-intervention in Nicaragua and saw making a film there as a way to possibly stop the bloodshed. * While I'm fairly certain this is the movie that only hardcore Ed Harris' fans will sit through, this is one of his best performances. He plays a horrible person but also a totally unpredictable one and the fact the film throws him in such campy and bizarre territory only heightens the unpredictability of Ed Harris, the actor - when you watch him on the screen, you never know what he is about to do.
To Kill a Priest (1987) - Stefan
It's surreal that just before Ed Harris
appeared in James Cameron's blockbuster he also showed up in Agnieszka
Holland's movie about the event in Polish history that I'm sure not
many other people than my fellow countrymen know about. I still don't know how
it happened, how he found out about this film or how Holland approached
him. Harris plays an officer who is obsessed with imprisoning or simply getting rid of the priest (Christopher Lambert) who is rallying up the Polish people to fight for their freedom under the Communist rule. It's a very good movie, unfortunately the casting is so problematic here because Harris
blows Lambert off the screen completely, in the effect making the villain
of the picture so much more fascinating to watch and far more complex and
empathetic than the intended hero.
Jacknife (1989) - Dave
In this drama about war veterans Robert De Niro stars as Megs, eccentric and volatile guy who doesn't have that much trouble with adjusting to life after the war. He does occasionally break the window with his bare hands, but his problems seem to end there. But Dave, Megs' friend who fought with him, can barely cope with life, looking for forgiveness and peace in the bottle. Harris gives another show stealing performance as his Dave is such a mixture of sadness, the desire to be left alone and the panic and fear ready to get out, waiting to erupt and resurface. When Megs starts dating Dave's shy sister the tensions only keep rising and while the script isn't the best, Harris still does whatever he can with the material. This is one of those movies that is worth seeing for the performances which really make it worth your while.
The Abyss (1989) - Virgil 'Bud' Brigman
It took me 5 evenings to finish James Cameron's famous movie and if Ed Harris in the lead role cannot get me to watch a
movie in one sitting, then that means it's one boring movie. But ironically, out of all of the performances of his I've written about, this one deserves the most room. Because the man almost died while filming this movie.
While filming a scene where Harris had to hold his own
breath at the bottom of the submerged set, he ran out of air and
gave the signal for oxygen. Harris' safety diver got hung up on a cable
and could not get to him. Another crew member gave Harris a regulator,
but it was upside down and caused him to suck in water. A camera man
came over, ripped the upside down regulator, and gave him one in the
correct orientation. Cameron kept filming. When Harris finally got out of the water, he punched Cameron in the face. Later on, while driving home, he stopped the car and just started crying.
That's not the only story. I don't know how true the following is but it's so fucking insane - and absolutely disgusting - I have to cite it - during filming Harris demanded cabbage as a snack/meal as he was on a
strict diet. This however became almost unbearable for him and indeed
the rest of the crew. In one underwater scene where
Harris was in his diver suit, he passed gas and the smell was so
intoxicating that he actually vomited inside the suit. The scene was
obviously cut and it took hours for Harris to resurface, clean the suit,
submerge and re-shoot the scene. Cameron was reportedly furious with
Harris for this and took action by placing air fresheners in all the
actors and crew members suits to help ensure that there was no repeat of
the incident. Harris also got pink eye during filming and had to wear
contact lenses for a week. *
Harris recalled: "One day we were all in our dressing rooms and people began throwing couches out the windows and smashing the walls. We just had to get our frustrations out." Before the film's release, there were reports from South Carolina that Ed Harris was so upset by the physical demands of the film and Cameron's dictatorial directing style that he said he would refuse to help promote the motion picture. Harris later denied this rumor and helped promote the film. But after its release and initial promotion, Harris publicly refused to ever again discuss the film, saying "I'm never talking about it and never will." *
Feud season 3, Ryan Murphy?
The film's underwater sequences are really breathtaking and in spite of the movie being as old as I am and the rapid progress of film making technology they don't look dated at all. But there is one thing that really makes this movie memorable and it ain't got anything to do with Cameron - and I do hope he is aware of this and it drives him insane. Because what makes The Abyss worth seeing is Harris's incredible work in the resuscitation scene.
In it his character tries to revive his estranged wife. There really are no words to describe this moment and in order to really grasp it you need to sit through this movie and see this man, this peaceful, think first do later man, completely lose control. It's incredible acting. What's interesting is that Harris wasn't acting to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
in many of the shots. He was yelling at thin air. During the scenes she
did appear in, he was pounding and slapping her for real. Mastrantonio
stormed off the set when she was informed that the camera broke in the
middle of the scene and she refused to perform such difficult sequence
one more time.
State of Grace (1990) - Frankie Flannery
I love this performance. Harris (who replaced Bill Pullman) plays the older
brother of Gary Oldman's character and the boss of Irish mob.
There is a conflict in this movie - once Oldman messes up Harris'
character needs to decide whether to follow his family or do what's best
for his organization. Except Harris' character is so unscrupulous and
cold there's not even much deliberation going on. With lesser actor that
would seem like a mistake, a misstep not to give the character the
depth, not to give him a really difficult choice. But he is such a cold bastard in this movie it wouldn't really work. He makes for a worthy adversary for Penn's protagonist and until the very last moment the tension is right there - who will win and who will lose? Watching him get outmaneuvered
and cornered, when this is the guy who always tries to be ahead of everyone else, is so much fun.
Paris Trout (1991) - Harry Seagraves
Paris Trout is filled with great acting. Denis Hopper gives a memorable performance as a repulsive and hateful man who kills a child. Ed Harris plays his attorney who has to defend him. Entangled in all of this is Paris' long suffering and abused wife (played by Barbara Hershey), whom Harris' character falls in love with. He manages to steal the show completely in a very unique, brave and beautifully acted out scene where he admits something very shameful to her character and she simply takes his hand and they make love. It's a very well written movie and it's definitely worth seeing, especially for the spectacular acting.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) - Dave Moss
This is one of the best written and acted
movies out there, precisely because the ensemble is so good - Pacino, Lemmon, Spacey, Arkin, Baldwin, it's
practically impossible to choose the MVP. Harris plays a no-nonsense, desperate guy who is willing to do something illegal to change his
miserable life. And what makes him even more miserable is that his job,
in which he is not very successful at, clashes with his tremendous sense of
self worth and pride. And when it all comes crashing down we are
treated to one of the best meltdown scenes you'll ever see in a movie. I cannot
imagine any other actor pulling it off as well as he did.
Next post: 1992 - 2001 in May.