Phantom of the Opera
In Part II in what’s shaping up be my ongoing series devoted to underpraised American women (Part I here), today brings us Jessica Harper. Familiar to many as “Suzy Bannion” in Dario Argento‘s Suspiria, and “Daisy” in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, it’s her “Phoenix” in Brian De Palma‘s Phantom of The Paradise which compels my (all too) frequent revisiting of that film.
For those of you who’ve yet to see it (queue it up, already!), Phantom’s an updating of the Faust tale, where composer Winslow Leach (played by early De Palma muse William Finley), seeking to have his great “cantata” realized, sells his soul to a devil-in-disguise Swan (played, with Sterling Holloway slipperiness, by the film’s composer Paul Williams).
Typical for De Palma, the film offers up an art-versus-commerce parable that’s as bleak as it is unsparing. But beyond its easy, showbiz cynicism, it’s Harper’s wonderfully committed performance that elevates Phantom into the realms of tragedy and heartbreak.
Harper plays muse and soulmate to Leach. But then, as these things happen (though less so, these days), Leach is horribly disfigured in a “record pressing mishap.” Newly reborn as “The Phantom,” he makes an agreement with Swan to audition singers for his cantata. This is where Harper slips in, and pretty much runs—or struts, really—off with the movie.
Beyond the forgettable Inserts, Phantom was Harper’s first feature role. And in this clip here (newly added, raw footage outtakes—the actual clip has been scrubbed from YouTube), you get a definite sense that she’s not just auditioning for Swan, she’s auditioning for the rest of her life.
In fact, as the song goes along, you can actually see Harper finding her voice, as an actress, a person. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to this film—this clip. It doesn’t seem like Harper’s acting at all.
Fortunately, after Phantom, Harper found her way to not just Allen and Argento, but into the relatively secure (by Hollywood standards) arms of Tom Rothman (co-chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment), where she’s now a wife, mother, children’s book author, occasional actress, and, of course, still special to me.