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.