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The First Lady of ‘Suspiria’: The Creative, Curious Career of Jessica Harper

The ’70s star appeared in classic films from Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, and Dario Argento. And with a crucial new role in the remake of the horror classic that featured her most famous performance, Harper is back on the big screen for the first time in 16 years.

Produzioni Atlas Consorziate/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Christopher Walken didn’t turn down a small role in Annie Hall. Neither did Shelley Duvall. Nor did Jeff Goldblum, the man at the party who forgot his mantra.

But Jessica Harper did. And that’s why she’s Jessica Harper, the most bewitching cult actress of her generation, and not a movie star like Sigourney Weaver, who also didn’t turn down a role in Annie Hall.

As an actress in her mid-20s, only a few films into her career, Harper eschewed Woody Allen and instead embarked on a four-month adventure in Rome with Dario Argento, an Italian genre maestro who had directed a few exquisitely tangled giallo thrillers in the early ’70s like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet before graduating to outright horror in 1975 with Deep Red—or as VHS mavens might remember it, Deep Red Hatchet Murders. Harper decided to not appear in the new comedy by Allen—whose reputation as a king- and queenmaker for young actors was already well-established—and take the lead role in the follow-up to Deep Red Hatchet Murders. A film called Suspiria.

It wasn’t an easy decision. “I had a rebellious aspect to my personality back then,” says Harper, “I like to think I still do.” Harper is speaking from her home in Los Angeles, where she’s promoting Luca Guadagnino’s new remake of Suspiria, in which she plays a small but crucial role. Back in 1977, Harper was known only to the cognoscenti, having made a strong impression as a free-spirited singer in Brian De Palma’s 1974 musical-comedy Phantom of the Paradise and as a silent-era actress who submits to making blue movies for a booze-soaked director in 1975’s Inserts. She had also appeared in Love and Death, the last of Allen’s “early, funny” comedies, and with a few obvious exceptions like Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, he’s never been the type of filmmaker to cast the same person repeatedly.

“I was very torn about it,” says Harper. “I really wanted to nurture that professional relationship, because I loved Woody’s movies and felt it would be so great to work with him again. But I’m so proud to be associated with [Suspiria], then and now. Being part of it has been kind of magical, and now here it is coming full circle with another Suspiria. So it’s been a much more significant life choice, long term, than Annie Hall would have been.”

In Argento’s Suspiria, Harper was cast as Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student who arrives in Germany to study at a renowned dance academy that, we soon discover, is a front for witchcraft. Argento opens the film on a dark and stormy night in Munich and immediately sets about establishing the elements that have made the film such an enduring cult favorite: brilliant splashes of primary colors, rendered by one of the last three-strip Technicolor cameras in Europe; exquisitely staged horror sequences, full of suspense and ornate bloodletting; and an unforgettable score by the prog-rock outfit Goblin, which Argento himself had a role in composing. And into the madness goes Harper, a slight and striking figure whose look suggests extreme vulnerability on one hand and curiosity and resolve on the other.

Asked about why she thought she was cast in Suspiria, and whether there was a unifying type she was playing, Harper goes back to Phantom of the Paradise, where she played Phoenix, an aspiring performer who’s discovered by Paul Williams’s nefarious music mogul and nearly ground up in the star-making machinery. “We connect with her because she’s innocent but with her own source of power,” says Harper. “Same with Suspiria. People say, ‘Oh you’re like Snow White in that movie, sort of a deer in the headlights.’ But I feel both those characters have a really serious strength to them and power, underneath their big eyes and helpless aspect.”

Harper’s look made her voice a surprise in Phantom, when the tremulous Phoenix suddenly hits a powerful register in songs like “Special to Me” and “Old Souls.” Yet her voice is an afterthought in Suspiria, where nearly all the dialogue is overdubbed and all of her will had to be expressed through her face. At 69, Harper’s voice is more assertive, but it does have a wandering quality, like she still looking for answers.

For Harper, an acting career was both accident and predestination. Before her parents got married and moved to the Chicago suburbs, they were aspiring artists in New York City. Her mother started in theater and sang at nightclubs—many of the Harpers can carry a tune, as Jessica does in Phantom of the Paradise and the Rocky Horror Picture Show sequel, Shock Treatment—and her father tried his hand at screenwriting before ceding to a career in the advertising world. “They ultimately opted for the more traditional choices their parents had made,” says Harper, “I think partly because they both came out of the Depression, where there was so much uncertainty.”

Harper entered show business more casually. She took the obligatory theater class at Sarah Lawrence College, where she learned she could sing by belting out old jazz songs and Burt Bacharach hits. She was a couple of years into her degree when Mademoiselle magazine asked to photograph her for their college issue—and not only that, they were promising the cover. After months of anticipation, the issue finally arrived—without Harper on it, only a disembodied shot of her hands on the inside. Yet the camera still beckoned: Not long after that disappointment, she was recruited for an appearance on the long-running panel game show To Tell the Truth, where she convincingly pretended to be someone she wasn’t—as good an entrée into acting as any.

It was Harper’s mother, however, who was instrumental in helping her land her first professional job in Hair on Broadway. She had seen a notice in The New York Times that there were open auditions to replace the original cast a year into its run. “I went down to this church in Greenwich Village, I forget which one it was,” says Harper, “And I lined up with 500 other hippies with their guitars and their love beads. I took my boyfriend with me to play the guitar and he and I both got into the show.” She played a member of the tribe and apprenticed for a couple of major roles during its run, and she recalls the libertine values of Hair finding their way backstage at the Biltmore, too. At that point in her life, a bad trip led Harper to forswear mind-altering substances, but she accepted a brownie from a fellow cast member named Keith Carradine before curtains up and recalls feeling like “my head might roll off my shoulders and bounce into the lap of the guy in row A.”

Hair helped define what would become the Harper image: a hippie adventurer who could sing and dance, yet carried an open-faced naivety, that “Snow White” look of her early films. (Her audition scene in Phantom of the Paradise ends, charmingly, with her spinning and galloping right off the stage.) But Harper remembers her big break coming in Richard Foreman’s 1972 off-Broadway play Dr. Selavy’s Magic Theater, an avant-garde musical that earned a rave review from Clive Barnes in The New York Times. “That meant everyone in New York had to see it,” says Harper, “Brian De Palma saw it, and I think Woody Allen’s representatives.” From there, she was called out to Hollywood for her Phantom screen test. “I was competing, by the way, with Linda Ronstadt for the role. I’m just saying. Sorry, Linda.”

A tour through Harper’s filmography is a tour through some of the most eclectic movies of the day: In addition to Phantom of the Paradise, Inserts, Love and Death, and Suspiria, Harper won a more substantial role as Allen’s love interest in 1980’s Stardust Memories, his peculiar black-and-white riff on Fellini’s 8 1/2. She played Janet in 1981’s Shock Treatment, taking over the role immortalized by Susan Sarandon in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film inevitably tanked with critics and audiences, but the songs are nearly as good as the original, and a small but fervent following exists for it. That same year, she played Steve Martin’s wife in the incomparable downer musical Pennies From Heaven, which also bombed but remains a staggeringly beautiful Depression-era torch song, with Harper, Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken lip-synching along to period classics by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and others. She stood toe-to-toe with Peter O’Toole in 1982’s My Favorite Year and was recruited, over a decade later, by Todd Haynes for 1995’s Safe, playing a denizen of the New Age camp where Julianne Moore’s affluent homemaker goes to recover from a mysterious breakdown.

Was this all just happenstance? Actors can’t curate their careers like directors or screenwriters; they make decisions, like choosing a big part in Suspiria over a small one in Annie Hall, but sometimes even that can be a luxury. But still: Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria, Stardust Memories, Shock Treatment, Pennies From Heaven, Safe, even the last season of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (she played Shandling’s wife). How could one actress be in so many cult classics?

“There’s a huge accidental factor because, as you know, you’re only getting offered what you’re getting offered,” says Harper. “There were times when I would turn something down because I just thought it was too ordinary, not that interesting.”

“But I wasn’t always in a position to turn things down. Ever since the beginning of my career, though, I’ve been attracted to things that were unusual … and I’ve always believed in any artistic endeavor to do something unusual, to do something that hasn’t been done before. I never saw the point in doing something that was bland and insignificant, because why bother?”

Though Harper has made a couple of appearances on television in the interim, the new Suspiria is her first film role in the 16 years since a small part opposite Max von Sydow in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. (“Being drowned in that movie was extremely unpleasant as a process,” she recalls. “I was being shoved underwater all day in a pool. But watching Spielberg make that scene happen was an incredible experience.”) When she heard Guadagnino was remaking Argento’s film, Harper says she was hoping for a cameo, but Guadagnino offered her a much more significant part in the final stretch of the film. Provided, of course, that she would be willing to speak the dialogue entirely in German.

“I said, ‘Oh yeah, no problem,’” she recalls. “And then when I hung up with him, I literally went right to the phone again, called the Berlitz school, and said, ‘I need to learn German right now. Can I come over?’ And I took the script over and sat with a professor all afternoon.”

Learning German for a role suits the creatively restless Harper. In the ’90s, motherhood inspired her to record seven children’s albums. She’s authored numerous illustrated books for kids, too, with titles like Uh-oh, Cleo and I’m Not Going to Chase the Cat Today. She’s a blogger. She channeled her culinary frustration into The Crabby Cook Cookbook, an irreverent recipe-and-rant collection for home chefs who have picky children and spouses who don’t know their way around the kitchen. (Harper’s husband, the movie mogul and Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Pictures Group chair Tom Rothman, “did make a tuna melt back in ’96,” but is otherwise helpless.) She recorded a series of supplemental Crabby Cook videos, too, like one where she muses about glow-in-the-dark gefilte fish and another where she takes a power drill to Halloween pumpkins. Some of those clips have YouTube viewerships in the low hundreds, but she has the impulse to keep performing, whether it’s for a sold-out audience at the Biltmore in 1969 or the invisible few.

Now, Harper’s autodidactic impulses have led to a beautiful new 10-part memoir podcast called Winnetka, named after the North Shore suburb where she and her five siblings were raised. Though Harper includes anecdotes about her own upbringing and nascent career, Winnetka is about her family, particularly the legacy of her father, a war veteran whose PTSD contributed to alcoholism and frightening moments of physical abuse. At the same time, Harper considers his steadfast commitment to standing against the virulent racism that plagued his side of the family, including her grandfather, who once supplied her brothers with Confederate uniforms for a Civil War reenactment and named his dog “Nig.” While informed by specific memories, some of them tender and funny, the podcast also feels like the archetypal story of a Baby Boomer family, bustling and chaotic, but willing itself through the tumult of dramatic social change.

Harper confesses that she didn’t really know anything about podcasts, other than that she liked listening to them. “There were several times when I thought I was in over my head,” she says, “but I kept doing it. I like to do something I’ve never done before.” She plans to dole out weekly excerpts from Winnetka on November 5 before making the entire podcast available on February 4, 2019.

Now at 69, having acted toe-to-toe with Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow and Julianne Moore, worked with auteurs at peak form like Argento and Allen and De Palma, and established herself as a recording artist, writer, and chef, Harper isn’t slowing down. “I’m basically driven to be creative all the time,” she says. “It’s sort of like a condition I can’t help. If I’m not doing a project of some kind, I get antsy.”

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.

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