People vs. Jean Harris (1981)

At the onset of “People vs. Jean Harris,” you might think you have wandered into Erica Kane’s latest murder trial.  Tape is used instead of film, giving it simultaneously the look of a soap opera and 1970s British miniseries.  Even weirder is a narrator who pops in every now and then.

Oddest of all is that the entire movie takes place in the courtroom of the trial, with a script that is really no more than actual testimony.  Sounds like a recipe for a dud, right?

Wrong.  Whoever made the brave decision to limit the movie to just the courtroom testimony was a genius.  What was so captivating about Jean Harris’ trial was the question of why she killed Hy Tarnower.  Unlike other sensational crimes of the 20th Century, the Jean Harris crime is fairly tame.  This is not Stanford White being killed by Harry Thaw over love for entertainer Evelyn Nesbitt.  This is not Charles Manson having freakish mental powers of commune members.  This is not O.J. Simpson cramming his celebrity into a glove that didn’t fit.  No William Kennedy Smith rape accusations.  Just a middle-aged woman who killed her middle-aged lover.  Jean Harris was no Betty Broderick.  Jean Harris was a private school headmistress, a prim and proper woman where Betty Broderick, by all accounts, was a loon trying to hold onto a golden life that was fast being ripped from her insane hands.

So, instead of making the crime the actual centerpiece of the movie, the trial is the star, showing the cleverness of the lawyers and witness.  It’s an absolutely fascinating look at the justice system through the lens of a notorious case.  I warn you that this is not a miniseries for those who love shocking courtroom theatrics.  For that, go back to Betty Broderick.  For an intelligent rendering of a famous trial, as portrayed by first-rate actors, stick with “People vs. Jean Harris.”

Judge Russell Leggett (Richard Dysart) gives advice to the jury.  He seems amiable enough and a nicely mixed jury follows along.  Then Assistant District Attorney George Bolen (Peter Coyote), “a formidable and relentless stickler for detail,” gives his opening statement.  Then defense attorney Joel Arnou (Martin Balsam), less polished, but more experienced, has also sparred with the judge in the past, we’re told.  He’s one of those lawyers who talks to the jury like they are friends.  Telling them it’s not a tabloid-type case, he notes that if they want that, “I think that at 10 o’clock you can find out who shot J.R.”

The first witness to testify about the events of March 10, 1980 is summoned and Arnou immediately calls for a sidebar because he objects to the large cross the witness is wearing, feeling it’s prejudicial, but Judge Leggett says no and Suzanne van der Vreken (Sarah Marshall) can start her testimony.  She and her husband were hired in 1964 as servants at the home of Dr. Herman Tarnower.  She testifies that she was in her room “painted and watching television” when she heard the buzzer go off twice.  She called the doctor and heard arguing followed by a shot.  “Then I never heard Dr. Tarnower again,” she says, going to wake up her husband.  “It was so much yelling through the phone, I knew something was wrong” she tells the jury.  Her husband called the police because “they didn’t understand my accent.”  Her husband saw “Mrs. Harris’ car leaving.”

Going into Dr. Tarnower’s room, Suzanne says she saw him bleeding, but still alive and then she called the police, but got no answer.  After a few minutes of pinning down exactly where she and her husband were at all times, Suzanne gives testimony that she saw Mrs. Harris coming “up the stairs, up the front stairs,” with a police officer behind her.

Next to testify is the police officer who found Mrs. Harris.  She approached him and said “something like, ‘hurry up, he’s been shot, hurry up!'”  Then it’s Dr. Roth’s turn (Milton Selzer), district medical examiner, who arrived to find Dr. Tarnower alive, though barely.  His pulse and breathing stopped in the ambulance and “11:58 that evening, he was dead.”

Dr. Roth is the first witness cross-examined by Arnou.  He has Dr. Roth testify that indeed the injuries to and bullet holes in Dr. Tarnower “could have occurred during a struggle.”

It must have been mighty painful to be in that courtroom for over a month by the time the star witness, the one everyone came to see, finally takes the stand: Mrs. Jean Harris (Ellen Burstyn).  “Just relax,” the judge tells her before she starts.

Arnou starts her off early, with where she was born, grew up, was schooled, etc.  She married soon after college graduation and had two children.  In 1965, she and her husband divorced, with Jean retaining custody of the boys.  In 1966, she met Dr. Herbert Tarnower at party and “we talked all evening, in fact.”  A week after that meeting, he sent her the book “Masada,” telling her “it’s time you learned something about the Jews.”  By chance, they were both going to be in New York City for different meetings and got together.  They went for dinner and dancing, where Jean says, he was a “lovely dancer.  I got to be a better dancer after years with him,” to a smile from the judge.  “He wrote and he sent lots of roses,” she testifies, though the relationship was completely chaste.  It wasn’t until the middle of 1967, with her son present, that Dr. Tarnower asked her to marry him.  Behind giant sunglasses, Jean describes the beautiful ring.

There came a point where Jean pressed Dr. Tarnower to set a date for the wedding because she needed to make plans, and she testifies that he said, “‘Jean, I just don’t think I can go through with it.'”  She calmly recounts that she was understanding about his inability to actually get married.  She sent the ring back, but he brought it to her again.  “I think it upset him more than it upset me,” Jean testifies.  “I was very much in love with him by that point and it was too late,” she says as part of a rambling talk on how she loved him, smartly cut off by Bolen, who reminds the judge no actual question has been asked of her.  The judge agrees, but in the most sympathetic way to Jean, not like the clip judges we’re used to seeing on TV.

Though Jean and Hy were not married, they stayed together.  Jean moved to Connecticut to become the headmistress of a small school.  As to her relationship with HiTarnower, “it was a very close one.”  They spent weekends together, took trips together and seemed to enjoy a very rewarding few years together.  When she left the school in 1975, she was worried about exhaustion and was taking pills prescribed to her by Dr. Tarnower.  She took a less stressful job and then went on a tour of Iron Curtain countries before finishing off the trip in Paris together.  At the hotel in Paris, “there was a letter from another woman sitting on the floor.”  She makes a bit of a joke about the letter, which Bolen doesn’t appreciate, but they continue.  She describes how she took off all of her jewelry and left them with his cuff links.  As for the cuff links, she said, “they came from a grateful patient,” but then saw an engraving on them from a woman professing her love, dated during the time of her own relationship with Hi Tarnower.

In 1977, Jean testifies that she was offered a job as the headmistress at the Madeira School.  “My feeling when I went there was that I should spend the first year observing and not try to change anything too fast,” she notes, even though she saw a lot wrong.  Her tenure there was difficult.  At one point, in 1979, the school brought in a “consultant,” though Jean cannot remember what the word for the document he produced is.  “The word just leaves me right now,” she says, becoming a bit flustered.  Essentially, the consultant asked contributors to the school their opinions on how the school was run, which Jean didn’t like.  “She was the most controversial” headmistress the school ever had, one survey noted, though Jeans says, “I wasn’t controversial at all.  You couldn’t say that now,” she jokes, with nervous twitters of laughter from the courtroom.  She strongly defends her record, though the recommendation of the report was that she should be fired.  Jean testifies that it caused her a great deal of “emotional stress…it was depressing and upsetting.”

Arthur Siciliano (Al Ruscio) takes the stand after Jean.  He is the detective who arrived at the crime scene.  He testifies Jean Harris admitted she killed Hy Tarnower as soon as he entered the house.  He placed her under arrest and read her the usual rights, though she said she didn’t need them.  She told them the gun was in the car and Detective Siciliano found it exactly where she said it was.  Turning back to Jean, he asked if she was injured and found her lip bloody and swelling.

After roughly 30 minutes of rather dry and completely expected testimony, Siciliano suddenly gives us the first clue as to why this case became so notable.  “She told me she had driven up from Virginia to the Tarnower home with the hope of being killed by Dr. Tarnower.  She said, ‘he wanted to live and I wanted to die,'” is is testimony.  He continues that Jean told him she was tired of his countless affairs, and the camera shows Jean whispering to her lawyer, but maintaining her cool.  Specific to the crime at hand, Siciliano says that Jean told him she and Tarnower struggled for the gun and he told her to leave, “you’re crazy.”  “They started to fight again and the gun went off several times,” Siciliano relays before Jean asks to see Hi!  He claims to have denied her request, but just then, the body, head exposed, was brought by her and she fainted.  To this, Jean pays rapt attention.

Siciliano continues his testimony.  He went up to the bedroom to see signs of a struggle blood.  “I noticed a bullet hole in one of the sliding doors about 13″ above the floor.  I noticed a television set resting in the stand.  I guess that was it,” he says succinctly.  It’s interesting to note that in the span of one sentence, he notices a bullet hole and completely undisturbed television set.

When Arnou cross-examines Siciliano, he first makes sure that the jury hears they have had past associations, but never any unpleasantness.  But, this encounter immediately gets heated when Arnou gets Siciliano to confess that it wasn’t until a week after the incident that he photographed the crime scene.  Arnou suggests evidence could have been compromised by then, and Bolen’s objection is sustained.  Siciliano did not do any tests to figure out who held the weapon, claiming over and over, “it wasn’t necessary, so I didn’t do it.”  In fact, he did not tests at all on the night of the crime, none at all.  “You were the detective assigned to the case?” Arnou asks.  “I’m not sure,” a nervous Siciliano replies.  Arnou jumps all over that one, causing only more confusion from Siciliano and more admissions that there was some mighty sloppy police work.  Most of it focuses on the issue of who actually touched the gun that night.

Bolen has another shot at Siciliano and wastes not time.  “Did the defendant appear to be acting,” he asks?  Without hesitation, Siciliano says yes and Jean starts to look angry.

Medical examiner Dr. Roh (Alvin Ing) takes the stand.  The entire point of his short testimony is to ascertain whether there are defensive wounds on the dead body.  Medical experts continue with Dr. Ryan (Alan Manson).  Brought from Maine to look at the evidence, he is a witness for the defense to claim that “I would prefer to give the probability to a struggle.”  A succession of medical testimony so dry that the narrator quickly explains it all rather than have us listen to it is paraded by.

And then Jean takes the stand again.  This time, it’s not about her history, but the actual night of the crime.  She’s very specific in explaining how she took flowers, where they were positioned and such, and does not hesitate when asked where the gun was.  “It was in the pocket book,” she says matter-of-factly.  She testifies about going into a dark house, sitting on the bed and turning on the light just as Hi was waking up, but gets in a little dig among the facts, noting that, “he was not enthralled to see me.”  Her testimony is very calculated and subtly paints Dr. Tarnower as rather a cold fish, not interested in talking to her, despite the fact that she traveled from Virginia specifically to talk to him (as per her testimony).  Since he’s not there to defend himself, she can get away with a whopper like “I was sure he would say something like, ‘you’re a nut for driving five hours in the middle of the night just to talk'” when she kept insisting to the slumbering Hi that she wanted a conversation (with flowers).

A bit of a more aggressive Jean comes out when she next describes going into the bathroom she typically used and finding a “blue-green negligee.”  Believing it to belong to a woman who had taken some of her own items…objections from Bolen.  Before the judge can rule, Jean insists that it was because this other woman had taken things of hers that she touched the negligee, but the judge sustains the objection because the possible other woman and her maybe/maybe not taking of Jean’s items is not relevant.  “By this time, I felt hurt and frustrated because the script wasn’t working out the way I expected it to.  I had looked forward to a few more quiet minutes with Hi.  I guess I wanted to feel safe one more time.  I thought it was a reasonable request, but it wasn’t happening,” she says.

After throwing a “box of curlers” at a window and breaking it, Jean says she walked out of the bathroom, only to be slapped by Hi.  Arnou asks if he had ever done that before and Jean replies, “no, indeed he never had, but then I had never come to his house and thrown something before.”

That brings Arnou to one of the main points, namely did Jean go to Dr. Tarnower’s to have him kill her.  “I’m glad I finally have the chance to say it,” Jean says, telling the court she would never have gone to him for such a reason, especially since he “spent his life saving people.”  She claims she “had no intention of ever letting him see I had the gun or anything about how desperate I was that night.”

Angry at being slapped, she throws a box around the bathroom and Hi slapped her again.  “I made him very angry,” she testifies.  Arnou returns her to the fact that keep saying she wanted a client last night with Hy.  Why?  “I planned to leave and go down near the pond and shoot myself,” she says.  Arnou asks her to continue and she sure does, saying, “I didn’t have the desire to throw any more things.  It hadn’t turned out the way I hoped it would.  I just wanted to get dying over with.”  She’s more upset that her fantasy of a quiet talk before suicide isn’t happening, and that’s when her mood that night apparently really turned.

She testifies that she told Hi to hit her once more, “hard enough to kill,” but before even taking a breath, knows enough to say that mentioning that to the policeman “started that who stupid story that I had gone to Westchester to ask Hi to kill me.  That was the farthest thing from my mind.”  She’s exceedingly restrained during testimony, but that this woman is capable of fury is evident.  Without thinking, she reached for her pocketbook, felt the gun, pulled it out and said, “never mind, I’ll do it myself,” which causes a wince from Arnou.  That could be interpreted two ways.  One, that, as the policeman testified, she did go to there to have Hi kill her or two, that she was merely following the thread of asking Hy to slap her to death.

She claims she put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger at the very same instant that Hi pulled the gun from her, causing a shot that went through his hand.  “We both just stood there and looked at it,” she says.  Arnou asks if Jean intended to shoot Tarnower and she adamantly says no, that she didn’t even realize he was so close.  She claims she’s most upset at her own reaction: that she didn’t do anything to help him.  After all, she’s been so motherly toward him that she claims “I got upset if he had a headache and didn’t take a pill.”  But, at the same time, she also says she realized she could race to the gun and shoot herself with it.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t find the gun for a while, until finding it under a bed, but as she was reaching for it, Hy “reached for my left hand…and it hurt and it made me drop the gun.”  Jean is able to recount the details with a minimum of emotion, only bringing it on when she’s correcting someone else’s testimony.  She’s very controlled as she notes Hi went to his bed and buzzed for the staff, with the gun in his right hand “because he buzzed with the left,” she says specifically upon Arnou’s question of where the gun was.

Next, she claims that she begged Hi to either kill her or give her the gun so she could do it herself.  He called her crazy and told her to leave.  She was able to reach for the gun and fell backwards, with Hy lunging after her and “felt the muzzle of the gun in my stomach…well, I thought it was the muzzle and I…pulled the trigger.”  The woman with the stupendous memory claims, she remembers thinking, “that didn’t hurt, I should have done it a long time ago.”  She claims she then ran away from him to shoot herself, which seems a bit odd considering she thought she had already shot herself in the stomach.  With Hi on his knees between the beds, Jean claims, “I put the gun to my head, I pulled the trigger and the gun clicked.”  It did not fire.  So, sure she filled the chamber with six bullets, she fired again, but the shot went into a piece of furniture.  She then tried again at her head, “and I shot and I shot and I shot and I shot and it just clicked.”  Bolen isn’t buying a word of it as she continues that she wanted to be dead before the servants arrived, so she went for the extra bullets in her coat.  She has so much time that she “banged the gun on the tub” over and over to dislodge the casings in order to reload, but the banging caused the gun to break.  She even tried to fix the gun and “finally I walked back into the room and say Hi dropping the phone,” but she took the phone from him, not hearing an outside line, hung it up and said, “Hi it’s broken.  I think it’s gone dead and he said, ‘you’re probably right.’  That was the only civil thing he said to me all night and that was the last thing I heard him say.”  She helped him up onto the bed.  “He looked exhausted, but he didn’t look…fine,” she says, tears welling up and having to stop to control herself.  “I looked at his face and he looked at me and, uh, I guess we were both in a state of shock,” wondering how something like this could happen “between to people who never argued, except over the use of the subjunctive,” a detail that sounds more than a bit rehearsed.  Quietly, she finishes up by describing how she left the house and went to find a phone.

Switching gears, Arnou shows Jean a will she had written, had it executed and wrote some letters.  Now she’s crying fully.  She arranges her papers for her sons, sounding like someone planning a suicide.  “I couldn’t cope anymore,” she testifies.  Arnou asks her to explain a line from the will where she wrote, “I was a person that no one ever knew.”  “I felt that for many years,” Jean says, with Arnou asking her to explain.  Slowly and through the tears, she chalks it up to “being a woman.”  She liked being a woman when she was on Hy’s arm at social functions, but not when she was at school as a woman with responsibilities.  “I intended…to…kill…myself,” she says, barely able to get out the words, “because I couldn’t function as a useful person anymore.”

Still carefully demonizing Dr. Tarnower, Jean testifies that she called him the night of the killing, begging to talk to him and he told her no, to come the next day.  She insisted on seeing him that night and he merely said, “suit yourself.”  It’s then she claims “I stopped thinking of dying as a decision.  It became a physical necessity.”  Arnou asks why she hadn’t tried to kill herself before, and Bolen objects furiously.  Even Jean is surprised, saying, “I didn’t think you would be the one to ask that.”

Then Bolen has four days to cross-examine Jean.  He starts with the engagement, the proposal and the breaking of it.  Sympathetic Jean is replaced by a more caustic one.  She blithely admits that she didn’t mind Hy breaking the engagement, or his reasons for it.  “I was always happy to be with him.  I didn’t sit around for 14 years waiting for him to marry me me, Mr. Bolen.  I was looking for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” she spits out to laughs from the gallery.  Openly hostile to Bolen she he tries to paint her as bitter at not being invited to a dinner honoring Dr. Tarnower or being able to sit at the head table, she snaps that she would have liked to have been there to honor him, but “I have no strong feelings about sitting at head tables, Mr. Bolen.  I’ve sat at a lot of them, and it doesn’t cut any ice with me at all.”

Bolen skips her ahead to the weekend before the killing, asking about a letter she wrote to Dr. Tarnower that took over two days to write, asking her every possible detail one can ask about writing a letter, including mailing the certified letter.  There is a biting back-and-forth between the two that ends up with the judge having to mediate.  On the day of the killing, she did call him, mainly to tell him to throw away the letter if he had received it because “complaining was not my style.”  The conversation then went to normal discourse, making plans for an upcoming weekend.  “What tone of voice did you use during the call?” Bolen asks.  “It was probably a very trouble one, Mr. Bolen, because I was a very troubled woman that day, and long before that,” she retorts.

Up to now, Bolen has been baiting Jean, but then he goes for the kill, to make her seem completely unhinged.  He brings up the subject of the “other woman,” and Jean claims that she was not upset at the woman herself, only “being touched by the other woman” emotionally.  They start to yell at each other when it is suggested that the very long letter to Hi be read.  Jean claims she doesn’t want it read, but isn’t afraid of having it read.  “It is a very private letter, Mr. Bolen, as you know, but if you are going to play cat-and-mouse with it, I would rather have the whole thing on the table,” Jean rails.  Knowing that opened the door for him, Bolen asks Arnou for the letter.

After a break, Jean is questioned by Arnou again.  He intends to swing things back to sympathy for Jean by asking questions about job stress.  Apparently there was a marijuana epidemic at the Madeira School and Jean says she had found “a basket of bongs.”  “Bongs?  How do you spell that?” Bolen interrupts.  “Bong.  B…O…N…G.  If you ever ran a school, you would know that,” Jean acidly answers, getting another laugh from the gallery.  Also, she had been on medication prescribed by Dr. Tarnower, but ran out on March 6 and never took any again.  Asked how she felt without the medication, Jean responds, “just the same as I always had, very tired.”  On top of being a creep, it sounds like Hi wasn’t a great doctor either!  This is backed up by a physician who says that what Jean was on was an amphetamine and that sudden withdrawal from it would cause “fatigue, anxiety and depression, although such reactions vary from person to person.”

Back to Jean.  During a Christmas 1979, Jean and Hi went to Florida with friends, and Jean knew that he was seeing other women, but wasn’t too upset about it.  She even wrote a poem, giving to Hi and the friends where she makes light of his women.  Bolen asks for a voire dire and with Jean in a mood to smack him around a bit, gets off another joke that has everyone laughing, much to Bolen’s dismay.  Arnou reads the poem, a spoof on “’twas the Night Before Christmas” where Jean lacerates Hi for his other women, though very amusingly.  One can question her state of mind: is it playful, as Jean suggests, or mean-spirited, as Bolen wants the jury to believe?

Jean testifies that she saw an ad in The New York Times from one of Hi’s other lovers to him, and claims she told Hy, “why don’t you tell her to use the Goodyear blimp next year.  I think it’s available,” again, in a spirit of fun she wants to convey, rather than bitterness.

Bolen gets his turn to ask questions about the night of the killing.  Jean has to defend her intention to kill herself.  Bolen asks if Jean was angry over the fact that Hi has so many women, but in getting her to answer a particular question, phrases it so she can only answer “yes” or “no.”  The judge and Arnou even get in on the act, but the end result is that Jean has to answer as Bolen dictates, though not without getting frustrated and angry.  Bolen hammers Jean about where she wanted her death to take place, the pond or the bedroom.  Over and over he asks the question in different ways, trying to get Jean to change her testimony, but Arnou keeps popping up with “asked and answered!”  However, Judge Leggett sides with Bolen, chastising Arnou for “making a speech” while objecting.  Bolen tries to get Jean to admit that she was thinking about killing Hi, but she remains resolute.  “I was thinking about dying, Mr. Bolen, and I was thinking frantically about it,” she hisses.

Bolen gets to the business about the phone, whether she tried to call for help, which she insists she did, and goads Bolen with, “I wish you had taken some fingerprints of the phone that night” because it would be proof of her claim.  We know already that the police had been rather inept in their forensic work, and she knows it too.  However, Bolen challenges her that she had used the phone many times, so of course her fingerprints would be on there.  But, she counters that even Hi’s fingerprints were not found on the phone and he touched it “with bloody hands.”  This turns out to be something of a mistake on her part.  Jean wanders through a harangue at the police and everyone else by testifying that all she was trying to do with the phone was get help because she was “no longer consumed with myself.”  She admits she used the phone to call the servants, but Bolen has a counterattack for that, asking her why she didn’t take Hi to the hospital herself.  “I didn’t know he needed a hospital, really,” she says angrily.

Further looking to bait Jean, Bolen asks her if Dr. Tarnower had told her he proposed to one of his other girlfriends.  She says no, going further to ask of Bolen, “did he tell you that Mr. Bolen, because I don’t think that ever happened” while Arnou begs for an objection to shut her up.  Unfortunately, Judge Leggett again sides with Bolen.  There is much discussion of the March 10 daytime phone call, which ends up with Bolen asking Jean if she knew she was “going to inherit $240,000?”  Arnou rises to demand a mistrial and an angry Judge Leggett refuses, but demands that Dr. Bolen has a “good faith” reason for asking the question.  Bolen pushes further, asking if Dr. Tarnower told Jean to go away, and as Arnou objects again, Jean begs of the judge, “how long are we going to go on like this, forever?”  Bolen hits Jean hard in asking, “is it not a fact that on March 10, 1980, you intended to kill Dr. Tarnower and then kill yourself because if you couldn’t have Dr. Tarnower, no one would, yes or no?”  Jean’s eyebrows go up, she places her head on her hand and pauses, only to caustically reply, “no, Mr. Bolen,” looking awfully angry.  “I have no further questions,” Bolen says.  “Well that’s good,” Jean notes, getting the last word.

There’s a surprise witness in the form of Juanita Edwards (Priscilla Morrill).  She was the 10:00 patient in Dr. Tarnower’s office.  Her testimony is that the doctor had taken her pulse when the phone interrupted the appointment.  “Dr. Tarnower left the room…and I remained seated on the examining table and I did not leave it,” she says, though apparently Dr. Tarnower had not hung up the phone in that room completely.  “Very loud and very angry,” is the way Mrs. Edwards describes Dr. Tarnower’s voice on the phone, though Arnou objects and the judge has “angry” stricken.  She says she heard clearly that Dr. Tarnower told Jean to leave him and also that she was going to inherit that mysterious $240,000 before coming back in and finishing her examination.  When Arnou gets his chance, he’s forced to push at Mrs. Edwards, noting that she didn’t bother to hang up the phone and wondering how she heard everything so clearly. Arnou doesn’t score much off of Mrs. Edwards, other than that Dr. Tarnower’s other lover, who worked for him, was in the building at the time of the phone conversation.

Then it’s back to the business of the letter Jean wrote and mailed to Dr. Tarnower.  The narrator skips us through a minefield of potential boring legal wrangling by simply stating the facts: Dr. Tarnower never picked up the letter and after he died, the Post Office ruled the letter be returned to Jean.  The prosecution asked the letter to be put into evidence, but the defense objected, so there was a separate case about the letter, where Judge Leggett allowed it.  Arnou appealed and lost, so the letter was entered into evidence.

That’s not good for Jean, because in the letter, she refers to Dr. Tarnower’s other woman Lynn as “dishonest,” “adulteress,” and even “whore.”  Or, rather, “your whore,” as Bolen corrects.  In fact, she wrote “psychotic” because, according to Jean, “that’s how Suzanne always referred to her.”  “What did Suzanne say about you?” Bolen asks.  “I hate to think,” Jean says bitterly.  As Bolen goes through the letter word by word, Jean gets furious, insisting the judge stop it, but Judge Leggett cautions her, saying that only Arnou can object, which she bitterly remarks, “he’s not doing anything!”  Jean claims she was angry about Lynn, though not because of anything Lynn was or did, just her existence.

Arnou doesn’t object to Bolen reading the letter in its entirety.  The entire letter is quotable, and it’s a corker.  It refers to Lynn in unsavory terms over and over, accusing her of even smearing feces on a dress of hers.  She says she has become poor chasing after him, while Lynn has made money.  Worst of all, he has scratched out her name on his will and put hers in.  She lacerates him, but also begs for any minute of time with him she can get.  It’s alternately mean and pained, but it shows a woman desperate and very much clinging to sanity, obsessed with a man who, according to her, was tossing her out for a younger model.

All that’s left are closing arguments.  Arnou is up first, calling it “a tragic accident” that can “never bring back Dr. Tarnower.”  That’s expected.  His take on the letter is that it was not a threat, especially the end of the letter, that tells him to give Lynn the money, but her the time.  He debunks the letter and debunks Mrs. Edwards.  “This is a story of love.  Love gone wrong, love from a woman to a man who could not accept or did not know how to handle.”  The tragedy, according to Arnou, is that this is a “tragedy” because Dr. Tarnower couldn’t handle “the great gift a woman has to give,” her love.

When Bolen gets his turn, he keeps the jury thinking only of Jean’s “state of mind.”  He crawls over every bit of evidence, showing how it added up to Jean intending to kill Dr. Tarnower.  Arnou objects a few times at Bolen stuffing a bit of theatricality and license into the closing argument, but Judge Leggett always sides with Bolen.  He concentrates mainly on the night of the killing, analyzing every one of Jean’s movements and decisions, making them all look suspect.  Bolen’s is by far the more believable of the two conclusions.

The jury returned a verdict after only a week, a unanimous one no less, and it’s that Jean Harris is guilty.  As Jean is being led out of the courtroom, she is asked for her home address by the court reporter.  “I don’t have any.  I live in jail, I guess,” she snaps.

At sentencing, the defense chooses not to speak, but the prosecution does, painting Dr. Tarnower as something of a saint, which was apparently not true in reality, not, of course, that he deserved to die.  His plea is a but much.  Jean also askes to be heard.  She claims she did not “intend to murder Dr. Tarnower” and that she loved him.  She says it’s a “travesty of justice,” that she will be in prison for the rest of her life.  She also defiantly says that there is no proof of her intent to murder, that the jurors who have spoken out publicly have noted that she did nothing to convince them of her innocence, which is not the same sd guilt being proven.  Her speech is greeted by applause from the courtroom.

When Judge Leggett passes sentence, he does it in a very curious way.  First, he regrets that he has to pass sentence on a woman, but he does it as “mandated by law.”  However, it’s what he says after that is truly telling.  He asks the prison system to use Jean Harris for the good of other prisoners because he finds her so intelligent and worthy.  “Anything that can be done with respect to giving her the opportunity to help her fellow women that are in that prison, I would like it to be done.  I think she has so much to offer the women that are there would be to deprive society and the other inmates in there of a very great advantage,” he says.  That’s a rather remarkable action from a judge who has just sentenced a woman to prison for murder!  But, it’s a summation of the trial.  Jean Harris did kill Dr. Tarnower in one way or another, whether intentionally or accidentally, but that doesn’t take away her personal achievements or better qualities.  That’s why someone like Ellen Burstyn has to be cast in this role, for she is capable of being that Jean Harris.

Really, this should be so dry!  A one-set miniseries with only a handful of actors reciting court testimony?  That sounds like something that should be done on stage, not on television!  But, a chance was taken and it paid off!  The courtroom testimony turns out to be thrilling because there are very clearly two Jean Harrises.  One is the defense Jean Harris: polite, efficient, crisp, though sad.  The other is the prosecution Jean Harris: angry, bitter, desperate and lying.  That’s to be expected in any case, but unlike most courtroom dramas, this one is not based on high-flying theatrics.  It’s very subdued.  Even when Jean and Bolen spar, it’s reserved, hardly as flashy as the great climax courtroom scenes of other miniseries (we could go back to Betty Broderick, but she was just plain nuts, whereas Jean is not only more complex, but also a lady at all times).

Above all, there is the acting.  Cutting the testimony down from months to only a few hours is a chore in itself, but the highlights obviously stood out to writer George Lefferts.  But, how does one act this?  Most of the time, everyone gets giddy with acting fever, knowing this is the stuff of awards.  Richard Dysart chooses to maintain the folksy, almost humorous demeanor of Judge Leggett, a man who knows what he’s doing, but never pretends he’s God.  Peter Coyote, with the difficult part of a young prosecutor who has to make Jean Harris seem like a fanatic, stands his ground among the vets.  When the character realizes he’s about to trap Jean, Peter registers it in his whole body, almost unable to control himself.  Just the opposite is Martin Balsam, who maintains a lack of emotion the whole time, knowing that the more arguments and outbursts that arise, the less the jury will sympathize.

But, of course, the piece belongs to Ellen Burstyn, as does pretty much every movie with her in it.  In an HBO movie version of the same story, one which showed everything rather than staying in the courtroom, Annette Bening gave a spectacular performance as Jean Harris, but she has so much more to work with (Burstyn is also in that movie, playing one of Hi Turnower’s other women).  Ellen has only the trial testimony, and that delicate line of balancing defense Jean and prosecuted Jean.  She remains dignified even in moments of anger, and her Jean never lets on a hint of craziness.  When she says she intended to kill herself, I believed her, because Ellen Burstyn is so damn convincing.  Perhaps if Jean Harris had taken some acting lessons from Ellen Burstyn before testifying, she wouldn’t have spent over a decade in prison (until pardoned in 1992).  The question of Jean’s guilt or innocence is not really the subject of the movie since it presents both sides very fairly and the verdict was already known when it aired.  Watching it unfold is the fun.  Many a more shocking court case has been dramatized, but the decision to do the Jean Harris story within the confines of the court testimony, allowing for little in the way of theatrics forced the best from the writers and actors, and they all rise to the challenge.

Also, note that this aired in May 1981, only a few weeks after the trial ended, so this whole movie was put together very quickly, yet another stunning coup for the writers and actors.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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