Monday, April 17, 2017

Ed Harris' performances: 1978 - 1992

By s. Monday, April 17, 2017
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.


  1. Wow. I thought I was really familiar with his filmography, but I have only seen a few of these. One of them is The Abyss, but I never heard any of those stories. They're incredible. And I agree with everything you wrote about Glengarry Glen Ross. Great post. I'm looking forward to the next one.

    1. Thank you! The making of the Abyss is I think one of the biggest messes in Hollywood's history. Cameron is usually acting like an asshole to his actors - I think Winslet got pneumonia from being in this cold water so long - but he really topped himself with what was happening on the set of the Abyss

  2. Walker I've seen bits of but not all of it as it is made by Alex Cox who did Sid & Nancy and Repo Man. I want to see Alamo Bay because of Louis Malle. I've seen The Abyss, Swing Shift, State of Grace, Glengarry Glenn Ross, and The Right Stuff as he's someone that can't suck.

    1. Alamo Bay is not good but the performances are worth seeing, especially Madigan's. I didn't know the same guy who did Walker did Sid and Nancy, I love this film!

  3. Ed Harris did a lot of varied roles - I haven't seen anything in this section but already adding a few of these to my watch list! Great post!

    1. Awesome, hope you'll like them! Sweet Dreams in particular is worth seeing and Glengarry Glen Ross - this one is the best out of movies featured here

  4. I'm glad your Harris posts are ready!

    I haven't seen any of these. I still can't believe Knightriders is 2 and a half hours long. I think I'll try to sit through that for the lolz eventually.

    Glengary Glen Ross is now on Instant Netflix so again I have no excuses. I'll watch it soon.

    Great post!

    1. Well, they are still in progress :) The last decade is the hardest to watch he has been in some truly terrible films

      It's actually fairly gripping for a movie of this runtime. It's so ridiculous you cannot take your eyes off screen

      Dude just watch it and then check out the Hours :) I'm 100% sure you will like both

  5. Great run down. I STILLLL need to watch Sweet Dreams. Given your praise for it, I'm sure I won't be disappointed.

    1. I really think you'll like it, if only for the two central performances

  6. Holy shit, this is awesome. I have only seen two of these movies (!), but as a fan, I'd be willing to check out most of the rest. Except for Jackknife, as I don't know who the Hell is in that screen shot. Maybe Fred Harris?

    'Charming and intense' just about sums it up perfectly. Harris can be the nicest guy you'd ever meet, or a total f--king psychopath that scares the shit out of you...but either still kind of like him, you know?

    GREAT POST! I'm totally going to do one of these one day...just not sure on who.

    1. He actually looked cute with that mustache :)

      There is a certain movie he made in the 90s where he plays perhaps the sickest character in any movie ever, or at least in top 10 of the biggest psychos. But that's for the next post :)

      Alexandra Daddario perhaps? :D

  7. AWESOME stuff sati!! Thanks a ton, I've always thought the same about Ed, so under-noticed and underrated, mainly cos he doesn't whore himself out trying to sell himself I reckon

    Thanks again, he looks so young in these films!! I'm definitely gonna have to check some of these out, I bloody love Ed but have not seen him in much.... Before Westworld the last I saw him was in Enemy at the Gates!! =/

    Can't wait for the next edition! :)

    1. Enemy at the Gates is in the next entry, he is not in it much but it's such a beautiful performance.

      You should really check out some of those, his performances are always worth seeing so they make the films themselves worth checking out :)

  8. Amazing post. I love how prolific Harris is. I've seen a good few of his films, but appreciate you introducing me to some of those I was unfamiliar with.

    1. Thank you! I hope people see more of his stuff when they read about his films here

    2. I plan on watching more of his movies, especially after reading this.

  9. I’ve seen only three. (Abyss & Glengarry, which I love), and The Right Stuff (technically impressive but overlong, would be better suited as a mini-series. My favorite part was the portrayal of Gus Grissom and the controversy with the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft)
    Your reviews have me curious about watching Sweet Dreams and Paris Trout, both I had never even heard of.

    1. Yeah that whole spacecraft situation was very well portrayed in the movie. It was one long film but it was filled with those interesting subplots that really made it gripping

      Both are definitely worth seeing, especially for the performances

  10. Great post! I just love this guy! He is so versatile and talented. I have to check out more of his performances in the years you indicated, because I mostly like him in such films as "A History of Violence" and "A Beautiful Mind".

    1. He was wonderful in both of those! The part in Beautiful Mind wouldn't be memorable at all if lesser actor played it