Summary:

Paragraph nine reads: "Jean Harris developed a growing dependence on amphetamines, painkillers, and antidepressants - most of which were being prescribed by Dr. Tarnower."


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It was one of the juiciest scandals of the early '80s, and the media quickly dubbed it "The Scarsdale Diet Murder."

The victim was Dr. Herman "Hy" Tarnower, a well-known cardiologist and author of the best-selling book The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. The accused killer was Tarnower's longtime lover, Jean Harris, a divorced mother of two and the headmistress of an exclusive girls school in Virginia.

Now HBO is retelling the bizarre tale of love, betrayal, and death in a cleverly constructed docu-drama called Mrs. Harris. It debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday on the premium cable channel.

Starring in the title role and bringing to it a combination of self-absorption, subdued intellect, and gradually increasing despondency is three-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening (Being Julia, American Beauty).

Playing opposite her is another Hollywood heavyweight, Oscar winner Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, House of Sand and Fog), who portrays the enigmatic Tarnower as a charming and arrogant womanizer who appears warm one minute and chillingly soulless the next.

Some facts in the case have never been in dispute: In March of 1980, after an up-and-down 14-year relationship, Harris drove one night from Virginia to Tarnower's home in Purchase, N.Y. She entered the house while Tarnower was sleeping and shot him four times.

Harris later claimed that she'd been planning to kill herself that night, and just wanted to spend a few moments with Tarnower before taking her own life. He accidentally was shot while trying to wrestle the gun away from her, she said.

Police and prosecutors, however, believed that Harris had gone to her former lover's house that night with the express purpose of killing him.

The film depicts two very graphic, and very different, accounts of the fatal night, one at the beginning from Harris' perspective and one at the end from Tarnower's. In between, the 90-minute story is built around scenes from Harris' murder trial, which are interspersed with flashbacks from the couple's time together and documentary-style interviews with friends and family members.

When Tarnower and Harris first met at a party in 1966, there was an immediate chemistry between the confirmed bachelor and the independent and witty career woman. It wasn't long before the two were involved in a serious relationship, despite the fact that the rich doctor had a well-deserved reputation as an incorrigible ladies' man.

Over time, Tarnower became more domineering, while Harris allowed herself to give up much of her independence and self-respect in hopes of holding onto the man she had come to love.

At one point, Tarnower shocked her with a marriage proposal, but when Harris pushed him to set a date, he wound up rescinding the proposal. Despite trying to tell herself that marriage "is not a natural state of being," Harris was clearly devastated, and the relationship began to deteriorate.

As the indignities mounted, Harris became more desperate. At a party when Tarnower was too busy with another woman to notice her, Harris carried a chair to the middle of the room and plopped herself down there, forcing herself to become the center of attention.

Nevertheless, the relationship continued for a number of years, but it became more and more unhealthy, punctuated by a series of violent breakups and make-ups. Harris developed a growing dependence on amphetamines, painkillers, and antidepressants - most of which were being prescribed by Tarnower.

During those years, Tarnower continued to openly consort with other women, the last being his assistant, who was nearly 30 years younger than him.

The movie, which premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, was written and directed by playwright Phyllis Nagy, a first-time filmmaker who based her story loosely on a 1983 book, Very Much a Lady by journalist Shana Alexander.

While there's no denying the considerable talents of the lead actors in Mrs. Harris -- as well as an impressive supporting cast, which includes Ellen Burstyn, Frances Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Chloe Sevigny, and Philip Baker Hall -- it's hard to care much about any of the people in this movie.

As much as we're to believe there was once a hot relationship between Bening and Kingley's characters, most of their scenes together are curiously flat. There doesn't seem to be much of a real connection, or any type of real heat, between the two of them.

And some scenes are just plain odd -- for example, Tarnower's naked stroll through the locker room of his men's club, where all the other guys in the room stare at him in wonderment as he passes by.

Mrs. Harris aims to tell the story of a complex, volatile relationship, but instead it winds up being little more than a sordid tale of two people whose lives were ultimately as empty as the glitzy world they inhabited.