It’s crazy to think that at 24 years of age, Jessica Harper made her onscreen debut in a film that would live forever in the hearts of its passionate fans.
Those who love Brian DePalma’s 1974 rock opera masterpiece, The Phantom of the Paradise, love the film an awful lot, and I certainly include myself in this group. Our love is an old love. I know I’m not the only fan who, although having seen the film countless times, will never cease to show up when it plays in a theater. If banished off to sea, we’d take it with us onto our desert island.
There are many elements of the film that make it so special and each one contributes equally to its overall wonder. There’s DePalma’s Faustian script, bursting with hilariously absurdist disdain for the record industry. There’s his colorful direction, which youthfully delights in all the cinematic trickery that would come to define his impressionistic trademark. There’s Paul Williams, who along with portraying the slick Phil Spector-meets-Satan record producer, also provides the film’s wickedly catchy and perfectly apropos soundtrack, lending it an infectious pulse.
There’s The Juicy Fruits, The Beach Bums, and The Undead: a one-and-the-same all-purpose rock outfit that capitalizes on happening trends. There’s Winslow - The Phantom himself - who, like Job or Candide, falls and falls again in extravagantly cruel twists of fate despite his good nature. Then there’s Winslow’s true heart’s desire, Phoenix, a pure starlet who alone recognizes Winslow as the film’s tragic genius. Harper plays Phoenix with wide eyes, a graceful presence, and killer steps to accompany her penetrating voice.
Lastly there’s The Paradise. In reality, the majestic theater that housed DePalma’s cinematic rock & roll magic back in Winter ‘73-’74 is appropriately called The Majestic and it still proudly stands today in Dallas, Texas. Now for the truly unbelievable part: If you’re a fan of Phantom of the Paradise and you live within a relatively reasonable distance of Dallas, Texas, consider yourself bewilderingly lucky, as the circus is coming to town care of The Oak Cliff Film Festival. Since Oak Cliff is already screening Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s excellent documentary, DePalma, the programmers went full out Santa Claus by also offering the ultimate accompanying screening of Phantom of the Paradise in the actual Paradise theater!
As if this isn’t exciting enough, there to grace the screening with her presence will be the one and only, Jessica Harper, discussing her memories of playing Phoenix. Harper’s career, which got off to an epic start with Phantom, was an especially fascinating one, considering her appearance in many subsequent favorite cult films, like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, two of Woody Allen’s finest films, and most curiously, playing Janet Weiss in Shock Treatment aka The Rocky Horror Picture Show II. Though many consider Rocky Horror to be the cult film, though I love it dearly, I know I’m not the only one who enjoys pointing out that Phantom beat Rocky to the punch by a year. While both initially bombed at the box-office, only Winnipeg, Canada would embrace Phantom as the cult miracle it is.
All this to say, it is with great upset that I myself will not be able to attend the Oak Cliff Film Festival and shake Mrs. Harper’s hand personally. Luckily, I was able to arrange the next best thing: my own Q & A for those who are simply too far from The Paradise. As for those of you who happen to live within a reasonable distance, whether you’ve seen the film or not, GO!!!
Buy tickets to DePalma and Phantom AT The Paradise here
ScreenAnarchy: What kind of feelings did it stir learning that you'll be returning to The Paradise?
Jessica Harper: I was just thinking about the fact that I often get asked to go to certain events and conventions and things like that, none of which I really particularly want to do. I got this communique from this particular film festival and it was about, of course, the fact that the screening is being held at The Majestic - the scene of the crime.
I have such strong feelings about this movie and also about the way the people who organized it are approaching this, which I think is just a genuine love for the films that they're screening in the festival. It's not about hustling me to sign autographs.
They just seemed to have a lovely feeling about it. Of course the idea of going back to that theater is kind of thrilling for me, because I love that movie so much. It was my first movie and I had a wonderful time doing it. I feel very strongly about it and so do the people who like it. They like it very much.
That's very true.
They contact me a lot through Facebook and so on, more than any other movie I've ever been a part of even. Like movies I've done with Woody Allen or Steve Martin or whatever. Nobody cares as much about those as they do about this movie. Not even remotely. It just makes me happy, the whole thing. It's not appreciated by, I'd say, millions of people, but those who do appreciate it are wildly appreciative of it. That makes me happy, too.
So you’re on board with Oak Cliff for the same reasons you’re on board with Phantompalooza, for example (the annual Winnipeg festival entirely dedicated to POTP)?
Yes, exactly. As with people like William (Finley), Gerrit (Graham), Paul (Williams). People in the movie all felt strongly about (Phantompalooza) because there was this unique bubble of fandom up there in Winnipeg, which is beyond explanation, but it's very sweet. I think there's another such bubble in ... Where is it? Somewhere in South America.
Yeah. There's a little pocket there of people too who are beside themselves about this. Also in Paris, they quite liked it. Those may be the only three places.
It should be adored by the masses! Like the ROCKY HORROR.
Yeah, I think it didn't get the attention it deserves, but I am pretty crazy about it. And Phantompalooza was nothing but fun - all the Winnipeg fans.
When did you first catch wind of the response in Winnipeg? You must have been so confused when it initially bombed, as anyone who loved the film must have been.
That was really disappointing. The Winnipeg thing, I don't think I became aware of until years later, actually. Maybe not even until this whole Phantompalooza thing came up and somebody pointed it out to me.
Going back to the beginning, can you remember the first time you heard of the project? How did you get the script?
I was appearing in an off Broadway show called "Dr. Selavy's Magic Theatre", which was a very odd musical directed by Richard Foreman - avant garde director. It got a lot of attention. It got a rave review in The New York Times, which of course meant that everybody in New York had to see it and came to see it including a variety of people who would later hire me for other work. I got a lot of work out of that show.
Yeah, oddly enough. Like Woody Allen's people were there. I did Love & Death with him and then he offered me a part in Annie Hall. That I couldn't do because I was too busy doing a movie called Suspiria.
Anyway, I got a lot of exposure, including Brian DePalma. I can't remember if he actually came or if his sidekick / assistant or somebody came and suggested that I go and sing for Paul Williams. I got to show off my rock and roll chops in the show.
So yeah, I went up and met with Paul in New York and sang "Superstar", the song Karen Carpenter made famous and I believed Leon Russell had something to do with it originally. I can't quite remember. Anyway I sang for him and he liked my singing. Then they flew me out for a screen test, out to LA, which was like crazy for me. I mean, I was just 22 or three or something and I had absolutely no idea that something like this would ever... I'd seen it in the movies, like with Judy Garland and stuff, getting screen tests, but I thought it would never ...
So, I flew out to LA and I did a screen test and I knew I was up against Linda Ronstadt which, of course, made me less than optimistic. Then a few days later I got a call from Brian that I got the part and I was beside myself.
My God. So at that point were you sent the screenplay?
That's a good question. I don't remember when I was sent the screenplay
Do you remember reading it?
It was still, at that point, being called "Phantom of the Fillmore", which of course they had to change because Bill Graham got pissed off or something.
Right. Long list of people who got pissed off by copyright infringements.
Yeah. I don't remember when I saw the script. I must have seen it because when I screen tested I had to do some acting scenes as well as singing.
Do you remember meeting DePalma? What were your impressions of him?
I mean, I knew about him already. I knew about the work he was doing and so on. I already knew and thought he was kind of, you know, hip and interesting and an upcoming director. I met him and he seemed very smart. He was very charming, funny, and all the right things. I felt like I would be in good hands and that his work seemed to be kind of cool and interesting. The big performances he’d get from people were good.
I liked him very much right away. I liked Paul a lot too, Paul Williams is very, Paul is very sweet, incredible gentleman. I felt like I was in a good place.
What was the vibe on set like? It was a lot of young people, right?
Yeah and there were these guys, the Juicy Fruits... We were all a gang. It was just fun. George Memmoli who rests in peace and Gerrit Graham and Bill Finley became a dear friend, also rests in peace, sadly. It was a fabulous group. That's what we were, we were a group... Just look at the movie, you can imagine it was really fun to shoot.
Do you think if I time traveled back and told you on set that PHANTOM would become what it's become, would you believe me?
Possibly. I might have believed you. I would have, I might have been indignant and said, "What do you mean? It's going to be a blockbuster. It's not going to be a cult movie, it's going to take over the world." I don't know.
Everybody has their own favorite song. I think a lot of people like "Old Souls," and not that I don't, but "Special to Me" is one of my favorite song-scenes in the film. I love the choreography of the dance. There's something just so enchanting about the whole thing. Do you remember how that came to be? The process of choreographing and all of that?
I kind of made it up.
Oh, yeah. There was that kind of configuration of the stage where the piece of stage going out into the audience, a strip of stage so I had to move. I had to get from A to B to C and back again so I had to figure out something, some kind of thing I could do that would get me where I needed to go doing some kind of dancey thing that would accommodate the necessity. The famous chicken dance.
I think I just came up with it and I just started messing around on stage and made it work. I had this fedora. I think the costume designer really wanted to kill me because I kept saying, "I think I should wear this," or "I think I should wear this." I really misbehaved with the costume designer including, I brought this fedora in. It was something I wore in real life. I went around with this little fedora at that time. I thought, “This will be a great prop. I'm going to take this hat and I'm going to throw it out.” I like to take credit for that scene in terms of the choreography and the hat.
Well, it's very good work.
I just love it. Even the moments of calm, I guess the chorus, where you're just sort of staring into the camera, it's so hypnotizing. Do you have a favorite song or a favorite scene?
I love that scene. I also love "Old Souls" too. I think it's a beautiful song.
Indeed! (Guillermo del Toro and his wife danced to it at their wedding.)
I was so lucky I got to sing these gorgeous songs, but that was called for, of course. I really liked "Old Soul" and "Special to Me."
Do you recall one scene as being really fun to shoot?
"The freak who killed Beef is up on the roof.” I just remember finding that really hard to say. The freak who killed Beef is up on the roof.
That is a bit of a tongue twister.
That's something you can say three times fast.... Doing "Special to Me" could not have been more fun. Oh! You know what was fun - except it was really hair-raising? The first day of shooting we did all that stuff that was at the beginning where I come in and audition and there's this scene that's kind of hilarious where, first of all, I'm going up this staircase and Finley comes up and we meet and there's a spark.
And then there's the scene, which was also the first day of shooting on the first movie I'd ever done. (DePalma) said, "Hit your mark!" I didn't know! “Who's my Marc and why do I have to hit him?” I didn’t know what they were saying.
There's another scene where I was like in tears all the time. When I say it was fun I would say in addition it was also completely terrifying, because I didn't know anything. I had to run into the casting room, where George Memmoli is standing wearing a velour shirt and huge turquoise trunks, like underpants.
I had to go in there and then the door closed and there's a certain amount of commotion and I come screaming, tearing out of the room again, saying, you know, indignant things because he's obviously jumping on top of every actress who goes into the so-called casting chamber. “I came here to sing!” I can't remember what I said, but some indignant, full of myself remark.
That was just funny because George is so funny and it was just, you know. And again, just so fun because I was getting the hang of what you were supposed to do on a movie set, which up to that point I had absolutely no idea about.