Forgotten Films: Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971)

Between AIP’s THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE WATERS OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT (1957); DR. STRANGELOVE OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1963); OH DAD, POOR DAD, MOMMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELING SO SAD (1966) and THE EFFECTS OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS (1972), the film that holds its own in the longest title ever sweepstakes might be WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? from 1971. In William Froug’s essential book of interviews, “The Screenwriter Looks At The Screenwriter” Nunnally Johnson (THE THREE FACES OF EVE; THE DIRTY DOZEN) says, “I don’t care how good a movie is, if it has a title like WIHKAWIHSTTTAM? I know that fellow is not a secure man who wrote that.”

Well, he has one point but playwright Herb Gardner (A THOUSAND CLOWNS) probably did not consider his jangled script “secure” when he wrote and co-produced this rarely-seen or screened 1971 Cinema Center Films release, a late lamented production company from CBS in the heyday of New Cinema. Stylishly helmed by the unique stage director, Ulu Grosbard, the very theatrical writing of Gardner combined with Grosbard’s obvious love for actors makes this a very New York Off-Broadway movie. I’m enamored of its crisp early 70’s look, featuring sleek penthouse production design by Harry Horner and well-shot by the one of the best City Grit chroniclers, Victor J. Kemper (THE HOSPITAL; DOG DAY AFTERNOON). Along with the cool credits, there are vivid, memorable character moments among an elliptical, distant, languid film that received scant praise upon release and another fallen through the reels of time. Until now.

The story is classic 8 1/2 cinematic metaphoric, dealing with the suicidal breakdown of songwriting superstar George Soloway and his hunt for one “Harry Kellerman,” an invisible foe causing havoc in his personal life, sending Soloway on a fantasia through his past and future with his psychiatrist Dr. Moses (Jack Warden) as guide. We watch George go from cynical hit-maker louging in a Manhattan skyscraper and back to idealistic troubador strumming on the “E” train. Ulu Grosbard is an intelligent director who lets scenes breathe, possibly to the detriment of a certain rhythm here, but that could also be due to the stagey dialogue (“I was 18 and knew how to live forever”) that favors repetition for effect and pop quips for depth. I find the ending too easy and oblique, but hey, it was the 70’s, man.

WIHKAWIHSTTTAM? is more sedate than you might imagine given the subject matter and my main critique is that Soloway doesn’t represent an actual cultural persona or attitude. He writes army marches, protest songs and ad jingles yet is somehow seen as a “man of the people.” Gardner has deliberately or unintentionally fudged any real pop or rock sensibility with a broad theatricality that probably worked against the film’s success. The songs by Shel Silverstein aren’t all that memorable and the scene where Soloway comes up to jam with Dr. Hook in concert (prior to an actual Grateful Dead show) doesn’t have any emotional verisimilitude. We never bond with Soloway since he’s such an abstract construct. As Nunnally Johnson said, “I would have found some reason for the audience to be concerned…to have some feeling about this man.”

Actually, WIHKAWIHSTTTAM? resembles and plays like ANNIE HALL minus Woody Allen’s witty satirical observations. Still, it’s a minor tour-de-force for the versatile Dustin Hoffman, one of my favorite actors, and while I never quite believe the character of Georgie Soloway, I believe in Hoffman’s whimsical portrayal. He’s always a pleasure to watch, particularly in a role that most people don’t even know exists. Fortunately, his next film with Grosbard, the superior STRAIGHT TIME (1978), might be Hoffman’s best onscreen performance.

Even better, Grosbard and Hoffman are generous with the supporting cast, allowing the pixie powerhouse Barbara Harris to fully steal the movie as an anxious actress auditioning for a Soloway show on her 34th birthday. Dismissed as old fashioned, she ponders aloud her stagebound life and Where Did The Time Go? It’s a poignant paen to actors who willingly sacrifice to the machineries of time; Hoffman gives great silent support and Grosbard frames the shots around Harris’s heartbreaking face and performance — that ironically gave her a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Among the others, Jack Warden is terrific as Dr. Moses and his Ray Charles lip-sync is the funniest moment of the film. Dom DeLuise plays Soloway’s sleepy accountant, who must answer if he thinks of George as a friend or just a business. It’s nice to see DeLuise and Hoffman work together and you’re reminded how subtle an actor can be given the right role and direction. Also memorable is Soloway’s 5 am visit to his dying father’s restaurant. David Burns is excellent as the pragmatic business owner who feels cheated out of time. Since the paperback script edition is dedicated “To Pop,” there’s no doubt this is indeed a gentle tribute. These empathetic key-hole speeches are Herb Gardner at his best and quiet, thoughtful scenes like this are what make WIHKAWIHSATTTAM? worthy of a visit along with a proper DVD release. UPDATE: Speaking of the “machineries of time” the film has finally arrived on DVD in a bare-bones but proper widescreen transfer.

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35 Responses to “Forgotten Films: Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971)”

  1. to my shame, I’d never even heard of this film. But that is one truly awesome title. Sounds like a DVD release is overdue!

    • christian Says:

      It’s actually available on VHS but needs a widescreen remaster fer sure.

    • Gerry J Says:

      I must be one of the probably less than 5,000 people on the west coast who actually saw this film at its release. I have wondered for a long time what happened to it. It was certainly an odd film, and for us Californians, a little remote. The only script line I remember was either Warden’s or Hoffman’s in the scene where Hoffman is finishing a date with an attractive ingenue, he puts her in a cab and turns ans says something like, “Her mind belongs in a trash can and her ass belongs in the Louvre.” Crude, but an interesting visual…

  2. You and Mr. Peel continue to focus on the movies that make THE FUTURIST! lament today’s cinema. What happened to this type of movie making? Thank you for bringing this to mind, Christian. This type of “New York” film is as dead as the dodo today.

    • christian Says:

      Yes, we all pine for these spectral understated films that didn’t demand instant identification nor simple solutions. Sometimes they erred on the side of too much distance, but there’s a place for both. And yep, the “Urban Gothic New York” film is prehistoric.

  3. never heard of this one ! thank you xian ;)

    • christian Says:

      Check it out and let me know what you think.

      • Anonymous Says:

        I saw this movie when it came out, I was a young teenager, and it really affected me. For days, I was depressed. I talked about this movie with my sister a few years ago, she found it on-line and sent it to me. I found myself wondering about my life and what it all means, again. Who is he and why is he saying all these terrible things about me???? Great movie. 70’s movies really tell quite a story about what the 70’s were all about. Such a great decade (the 60’s), so happy I got to live through it.

  4. You don’t need me to tell you this, but Grosbard would , of course, go on to direct Hoffman in STRAIGHT TIME, which is my personal favorite Hoffman performance.

  5. I’m old enough to have heard about this in my youth, but never saw it. I hope it does get a decent anamorphic widescreen disc release. It’d be great to see another film with Dom DeLuise. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but the original FAIL SAFE by Sidney Lumet had a small but riveting DeLuise performance. Thanks for this, Christian.

    • christian Says:

      Yeah, DeLuise is intense in FAIL SAFE, which I recently re-watched on Netflix streaming in a great HD transfer. I love that film and its plot is SO close to DR. STRANGELOVE that they’re the perfect atomic double feature. Larry Hagman is good too as is the whole cast. I love Lumet’s framing.

  6. I had certainly heard of this (it’s not a title you forget) but until now, it was just one of those titles floating around in the back of my head over the years. I had no idea what it was about, who directed or that Hoffman was in it. Just assumed it was a wacky Sixties comedy. Now I’m curious to see it.

    Isn’t it odd how films with such pedigrees can fall into obscurity? JOHN AND MARY, which you also wrote about, is another. That one I had never even heard of. Why don’t these titles at least play on cable?

    I own STRAIGHT TIME, and I’m not a big DVD collector. Young Busey and Bates; and had he not made such an impression as the shithead parole officer, M. Emmett might never have put on the yellow suit and ten-gallon hat a few years later, in the role of his career. Hoffman is pathetic, sympathetic, scary and completely convincing. How is it possible he wasn’t nominated for any major awards?

    Just talking about it makes me wanna pop it in. “Hand me down my walkin’ cane…”

    • christian Says:

      Yeah, Hoffman had a nice run of obscure films in the early 70’s but STRAIGHT TIME is the best. He was set to direct it but realized he couldn’t disengage himself between roles so he brought in Ulu Grosbard. Editor Sam O’Steen goes into great detail in his wonderful book of interviews.

      IMHO, Hoffman’s single best piece of film acting is the moment where he goes to dinner with Theresa Russell and asks if she wants to dine and dash after their meal….So realistic!

  7. Maurice Says:

    Looking for this movie online I came across this blog… happy to have found I’m not alone in wondering where this film went to… why no dvd release? I actually saw this, and “John and Mary” in a Hoffman retrospective at the NFT in London years ago… thankfully, as they seem to be forgotten today. Wonder if it’s a rights issue? There don’t even seem to be torrents available, it’s a pity. Anyway, just to confirm all the love for “Straight Time”, yeah it IS great and Dustin is at the top of his game. Truly a must see, moving movie.

    • christian Says:

      Thanks for stopping by Maurice. This absolutely deserves a release — but it did come out in VHS, which is how I finally got it!

  8. Also found this blog post in trying to find a DVD of this movie. Thanks for the informative, eloquent review. Got to see author Jonathan Lethem interview Grosbard after a screening of Straight Time a few years ago here in Brooklyn and stoked my interest in Kellerman. Watched True Confessions recently and got me interested in searching again. Bummer there’s no motivation for studio to release digital version. Wish there was a way to see it… (no VHS player anymore)

    • christian Says:

      Thanks for stopping by. That woulda been great to see Grosbard in convo after STRAIGHT TIME.

      No VHS player? Five bucks at any thrift store, man!

  9. Actually since last posting I found a torrent of “KELLERMAN” on one of the torrent sites – incomplete at 96%, and not great quality, but watchable if you have VLC media player :-)

  10. I saw the film when it first came out. To show how things have changed, I simply remained in my seat after the first showing and watched it again. I was in Vancouver, B.C., so maybe that made the difference. — Maybe because I’m a playwright, but I believe the film is worth seeing just for the writing. But, to me, the film is incredibly well directed and the acting from the entire cast is superb. Also, I believe the music is great. —- Get the idea? I love this damn movie and didn’t understand why it didn’t do better. I was 31 and identified with Dustin and Barbara to the core. — Thanks for letting people know about it. By the way, I have the VHS and the sound track.

    • christian Says:

      Yes, sitting in the chair to re-watch…old school! Thanks for stopping by Colin. And it is definitely a playwright’s film with rich theatrical dialogue. Fantastic acting natch. It really needs a major re-issue.

  11. chuck wintner Says:

    I saw this film much differently from some of the above reviewers. I don’t believe that it is a “day in the life” of Georgie…but a day in the life of the HEAD of Georgie, which is where he lived. That’s how he can see himself on the cover of Time, a commercial and non-commercial song writer, as well as a “man of the people.” He is no more real than Harry K. This is a film about the narcissism of our generation, the “effete corps of impudent snobs,” as Spiro Agnew called us (God I hated him; but he was right). Stardom and hedonism even in fantasy could not fulfill, but simply lead to more and more overindulgence. As a result, we divorced, and left our children alone and insecure, without family, in pursuit of our own materialistic pleasures. We now leave them citizenship in a nation of debt, spiritually void, mocking “family values,” because we couldn’t consume enough of ourselves to find nourishment. Let’s hope our children learn from our mistakes, and discover deeper values for themselves and their children. I understand that Hoffman hated the film so much that he prevented its wide release. Right now would be the proper time for it to be seen…looking back at how horrible we were, and how unfulfilled many still are by the if-it-feels-good-do-it philosophy. My thanks to you-tube, and the person who uploaded this.

    • christian Says:

      Thanks for a thoughtful response, chuck. You have an intriguing insight to the film, although I’m not sure I agree. The film definitely takes place in Georgie’s mind, but since there’s no other personality in place, the critique of generational narcissism doesn’t quite fit, especially considering that Herb Gardner has nothing substantial to say about pop or rock, nor even the counterculture of the period. There’s not even a drug scene!

      I think you hit upon some themes, but the film seems about a personal narcissism devoid of cultural residue. Soloway is too much a New York neurotic to be a stand-in for the whole 60’s generation.

      Hoffman might think different about the film these days….

  12. This is a movie I actually saw when it came out, I was 16 at the time, and felt that it changed my life. I walked through the next few days after seeing it in a daze, thinking, analyzing the futility of life and all those crazy things 16 year olds think of. I never forgot this move, and talked about it with my sister who can find anything on the internet, and she sent it to me today. I expected it to be bad, as most movies you see in your youth thinking they were great turn out to be, but this is definately the exception. It is a 70’s movie. I may once again ponder the futility of life for a few days, as I did way back one. This needs to be released. I loved it, and applaud Dustin Hoffman for his life long genius.

  13. Thomas Wakefield Says:

    Where is the DVD? How can this possibly not be out on DVD. It is very good Dustin Hoffman!

  14. I’m like Kim. I saw it when I was 25 and I never forgot it…ever. The title is what drew me in ‘way back then and tho I’ve not seen it since, that title sometimes drifts up from my subconscious, “Who IS Harry Kellerman…” and I always laugh. Always. Most intriguing detail of the movie for me was the fact that the Hoffman character lived in a penthouse on top of the General Motors Building in New York. A rock star paying rent to the Ultimate Man…great irony! Thanks for a cool blog…

  15. Hi, it’s nice to see the “Kellerman” movie get at least a little bit or respect…I’m the original drummer in Dr Hook & the Medicine Show, and that’s me in the concert scene, filmed @ The Fillmore East in NYC…and playing the title song @ the beginning and the end of the movie…

    • christian Says:

      Thanks so much for dropping by, Jay. I do think the film will be re-discovered and noted for its unique 70’s quality.

      And please, I’d love to hear any tales from the shoot as it must have been quite the experience! You must share!

  16. George McThe informers amber heard nude, exactly who lost 1972 presidential attempt, brings
    died.

  17. Maurizio Says:

    I love this film! The fact that it wasn’t such a success only contributes to it’s being a rare gem. You can actually watch the entire film on youtube. I’ve attached the link here. Enjoy!

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