Annette Bening (“American Beauty”) and Ben Kingsley (“The House of Sand and Fog”) have officially signed on to star in the independent film “Mrs. Harris,” FilmJerk.com has learned and confirmed with sources. Focusing on Herman Tarnower’s violent death at the hands of his spurned lover — a famous tabloid case from the 1980’s — filming is scheduled to begin February 9 in Los Angeles.
Bening will play the speed-addicted, homicidal school headmistress Jean Harris, a role she was said to be interested in playing at Cannes Film Festival this past May; Kingsley will play Tarnower, the wealthy, bed-hopping cardiologist who created the famed “Scarsdale Diet.” Producers have been wooing the actor to take on the role for at least 6 months now and tapped to direct is first-timer Phyllis Nagy. She also wrote the script, which is based on the 1983 biography “Very Much a Lady,” by Shana Alexander.
Longtime paramours who had been together more than 14 years, Tarnower ended his stormy relationship with Harris in 1980. Several months after the break-up, in March, Harris drove to Tarnower’s home in Westchester County to confront the doctor and shot him, insisting later that the gun had accidentally discharged during a struggle. Tarnower was at the height of his fame when he died. According to the New York Post from this past May, “the riveting trial that followed exposed the seamy underbelly of wealthy suburban living, with defense witnesses painting Tarnower as a conniving womanizer who fed Harris tranquilizers to keep her under a Svengali-like control. But Harris also was unmasked as a clutching, love-starved sociopath.”
In addition, FilmJerk.com has obtained casting documents for several of the other lead and supporting roles, which calls the roles “delicious.” Borrowing a device from “Boys Don’t Cry,” the film is framed by a documentary filmmaker asking questions of many peripheral characters who were acquaintances of Tarnower and Harris, according to the casting notes. Among the roles currently up for audition include:
- Marge Richey Jacobson: Harris’ oldest friend, she is described as “warm and likeable, but not a pushover” and “the girl next door who married well.” The wife of a prominent attorney and contemporary of Harris, Harris is her close friend, who considered her a gutsy woman for leaving her husband and forging out on her own with two young sons. However, Jacobson could never understand how a woman as proud and well-bred as Harris could stand Tarnower’s cavalier treatment, and she urged Harris to break free of her wealthy older lover— to no avail.
- Vivian and Arthur Schulte: Two of Tarnower’s oldest friends, they are described in casting notes as “down to earth and low key.” This wealthy couple lives in Palm Beach, where Tarnower and Harris are their frequent guests; they are also used to watching the stormy couple play out their dysfunction. They possess the ability to deal with them in almost a parental way. Both are privy to several ugly scenes between Harris and Tarnower, which they describe to the filmmaker documenting the case.
- Pearl “Billie” Schwartz: Tarnower’s sister is around 70 years old and is described as “tall and thin, with a deep, masculine voice,” as well as a no-nonsense woman. This older Jewish woman is interviewed by the filmmaker about her brother’s murder. She’s obviously very bitter and angry about Harris’ story of that fateful night, which she considers a crock of lies. She’s also defensive about her brother’s fame and wealth, and extols the diet book that made him famous. Seen in flashback, she has several inauspicious social encounters with the volatile Harris.
- Gerda Stedman: One of Tarnower’s few serious ex-lovers, she’s an extremely beautiful and elegant Jewish German in her late 60s. Described as slim, petite and blonde, the casting notes say that Stedman could pass for an older Harris. She comes from old European money, and is further described as gentle, witty and perceptive, but not a cold woman. Speaking with a slight German accent, she is interviewed by the filmmaker about Tarnower and dwells on how viciously anti-Semitic Tarnower, (himself Jewish) actually was.
- Lynne Tryforos: Tarnower’s petite young blonde medical assistant, she’s 29 years old and looks a great deal like a younger version of Harris, although Tryforos lacks Harris’ polish and education. The mother of two young children, Tryforos becomes Tarnower’s lover, and it is apparent that she is deeply in love with the elderly doctor. Less of a troublemaker than the tempestuous Harris, the deferential Tryforos shares a close and loving bond with Tarnower right up until the time of his death. In fact, to Harris’ rage, Tryforos is made the beneficiary of Tarnower’s will.
- Dan Comfort: Square-shouldered like Robert Forester, Comfort is one of Tarnower’s oldest friends and frequent hunting buddies. A successful Manhattan executive who is surprisingly nice for a real estate mogul, he is interviewed by the filmmaker about Tarnower and Harris’ relationship. As he explains, he loved Tarnower, but knew what a “bastard” he could be. He considered Harris one of Tarnower’s classiest and sharpest women but – as he had observed – Tarnower’s women “came and went,” and his first allegiance was always to Tarnower.
- George Bolen: Described as “thin, wiry, awkward, tactless and brittle,” Bolen is the 34-year-old prosecutor on Harris’ 1980 murder trial; it’s his first big case. A wily courtroom operator, he pulls no punches in cross-examining the bright, brittle Harris – and his personal questions often spark her open contempt and derision – displays that do her no good with the jury.
- Joel Arnou: Harris’ 49-year-old defense attorney, Arnou is a big bear of a man with a sad-sack face and a capable courtroom veteran. A big fish in a small pond, he’s less suave then he thinks. He does his best for her case, which is his first major litigation as well. However, Arnou becomes increasingly exasperated with Harris’ highhanded ways, and her tendency to sabotage her own case. He finds her stricture about not saying anything bad about her dead lover particularly problematic. Later, when Harris opens the door to have an incriminating letter read into testimony, Arnou realizes that their case is irreparably damaged.
- Henri Van Der Vreken: A Belgian man who speaks in heavily accented English, he works as Dr. Tarnower’s chauffeur and general manservant and is described as “trim, meticulous, fastidious.” Van Der Vreken thinks he’s cultured, and has a quiet, sardonic way about him, with producers likening him to Hannibal Lecter. He and his wife, Suzanne, live with Tarnower in his New York home, and have been his servants for 16 years. Both are loyal but are somewhat bitter about the fact that they have not had a raise in all that time. Neither Henri nor Suzanne have much use for the imperious Harris, whom they consider real trouble. Later, when Tarnower is shot, they are the first to render aid.
Executive producers for the production are Elizabeth Karlsen, Pam Koffler and Christine Vashon, whose combined credits read like a “who’s who” of successful independent films that include “The Crying Game,” “Happiness,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Far From Heaven,” “One Hour Photo” and “Camp.” Sources tell FilmJerk.com that a distributor has yet been secured.
Executive Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Pam Koffler and Christine Vashon
Producer: Chrisann Verges
Writer-Director: Phyllis Nagy
Casting Directors: Junie Lowry Johnson and Libby Goldstein
Start Date: February 9, 2004
Location: Los Angeles
Production Companies: Killer Films, Number 9 Films and Scarsdale Pictures, Inc.