The extraordinary Julie Harris recreated her Tony Award-winning performance as the reclusive 19th century poet Emily Dickinson in the 1976 video production of “The Belle of Amherst,” which is now available on DVD.
“The Belle of Amherst” is a filmed record of Harris’ theatrical performance, complete with an audience sitting in attendance, but mercifully director Charles S. Dubin’s imaginative staging and lighting saves this from being stagy. But when a performer of Harris’ magnitude is front and center, no one pays attention to lighting.
Harris welcomes the audience as an initially awkward hostess â€“ she has kept away from the world for many years and is clearly a bit ill-at-ease over the prospect of entertaining. But as she speaks of her life, her reclusive existence is explained in terms of inner serenity. “I never had to go anywhere to find my paradise,” she says. “I find it right here.”
Dickinson also has fun with the nosy, gossipy neighborhoods who constantly watch her home in search of clues of the elusive woman. Wearing white all year long and waving back at the snoops peering into her window, she admits to playing to the meddlesome audience of local busybodies.
“The Belle of Amherst” presents Dickinson as a lifelong iconoclast. During her schooling, she openly stated her ambivalence towards religion in general and the Bible in particular. “At first I found it to be an arid book,” says Harris as Dickinson as a teenager. “But then I found wise, and then a bit merry.”
In some ways, William Luce’s play makes Dickinson seem too gregarious. The poet is given to off-kilter observations of everyone from her father to her sister’s cat, and the richness of comic text can give one pause to consider why Dickinson never became a comedian. But with Harris as the star of the show, the material is balanced properly. The jokes get laughs, but the actress tones down her line readings to keep in measure with Dickinson’s eccentricities. In her performance, Dickinson casually sees the world askew and speaks frankly of what she views; she is not a serial wisecracker, which may be how a lesser actress might play the role.
But there is a thread of rue and pain that sneaks through the work. In particular is one scene which makes “The Belle of Amherst” required viewing. In recalling a party from her youth, Harris’ Dickinson suddenly becomes a young belle flirting with a man whom she clearly enjoys. But while she is still in mid-sentence during their conversation, he sees another girl (a prettier one) across the room and abruptly leaves Dickinson. In a shattering moment, Harris’ eyes reflect the silent horror of being brushed aside while she continues to talk after the man â€“ she has absorbed his rudeness but the shock has yet to fully sink in. It is a remarkable moment that will haunt anyone who saw the vision of love evaporate before them, and it a reminder of the infinite talents possessed by Julie Harris.