' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Estelle Harris

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

In Memoriam: Estelle Harris

After giving up acting until her kids were grown, Estelle Harris did not earn her first proper Film/TV credit until she was nearly 50 years old, evoking Robert Duvall’s “Crazy Heart” observation that it’s “never too late.” In explaining her gradual ascent to the Los Angeles Times in 1995, Harris noted that one year she did 27 national commercials. And that makes sense, given the need for a distinct voice in ad land and given the unique nature of her voice, a New York accent that even when deployed at a low volume still sounded like a powerful shriek on charge, biding its time, a voice she would deploy to great effect in the role that made her a pop culture icon: Estelle Costanza, mother to George (Jason Alexander), on “Seinfeld.”

When you think of the famed “Serenity Now,” you think of how Frank Costanza, as played by Jerry Stiller, minimized the mantra’s ostensible tranquility by bellowing it. Truth is, the fiercest line reading in that episode might well be Harris’s, when Estelle discovers her husband plans to give away their Waterpik as a prize in his cockamamie scheme to sell computers out of their garage. “You’re not giving away our Waterpik!” she screams. And she’s not even on screen when she screams it! This not only suggests how Estelle always had one ear out for Frank’s idiocy, but how Harris could leave an imprint on a scene she was not even technically in.

Her first appearance on the show was in perhaps the series’ most celebrated episode, “The Contest,” in which our fearful foursome sees who can go the longest as master of their, ahem, domain. This contest is born of Estelle falling and hurting her back when she returns home, suddenly confronted with her son’s mastery of his domain being nullified by an issue of Glamour. Thankfully we do not see this scene, we only hear about it, Harris tasked with describing it from a hospital bed. “I find my son,” she recounts, “treating his body like it was an amusement park.” This is proof that with Harris it was not just the amplitude of her voice but the elocution, the way she drew out the second syllable in amusement, like the whole terrible episode was this nightmare she could not rid herself of projected before her. You heard that elocution in other places too, like when she declared her son a bum, emphasizing the b so much it burst. 

In other scenes, Harris didn’t need to speak at all. When George is forced to move home at the beginning of Season 5, you needed one quick moment, one quick shot, to clarify in considerable comic detail just what depths George had sunk to. And that moment was Estelle munching on a bologna sandwich, which Harris plays by mindlessly looking up, an expression devoid of all thought, a manifestation of someone being one (bologna) sandwich short of a picnic. When George turns away in horror, you feel his pain because Harris has made you feel it. 

Still, the yelling. It was never on better display than the episode in which Frank and Estelle announce their intention to get divorced, than renege after some advice from fabled Donna Chang (Angela Dohrmann), then renege on the renege when they discover Donna Chang is merely from Long Island (it’s complicated). In the brief moment of reprieve, when George asks about a mysterious figure in a cape who turns out to be his dad’s lawyer, husband and wife duel over who does and does not have an eye for fashion.

Listen to her; look at her! She truly becomes unhinged. And yet what makes this scene just as funny, is the way how Harris keeps her eyes glued to the TV throughout most of it. Here she is, amid so much marital strife, on the verge of separation, and it hardly seems to register, evoking George’s line in a different episode about the need for television in their relationship. Harris made choices.

She made another choice in the unforgettable episode when Frank and Estelle are made to meet their future in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Ross (Warren Frost and Grace Zabriskie). The Rosses serve Cornish game hen, causing Frank to expound on the nature of, uh, poultry copulation. The Rosses are disgusted, of course, as are George and his fiancée Susan (Heidi Swedberg), but Harris has Estelle just keep cutting into her hen and nodding along, like she, and she alone, gets what Frank is driving that.

Later, after they are driving home, Estelle expounds herself on the Rosses’ failure to put out cake after dinner. I love this moment. It always reminded me of my grandmother on my mom’s side, who had very specific rules about how mealtimes should proceed. “We’re sitting there,” Estelle declares, “like idiots,” and Harris absolutely rocket launches “idiots” into the air, “drinking coffee,” and then she pauses, like she can’t imagine a worse sin, “without a piece of cake!” And then she turns away, not so much literally from Frank as figuratively from the whole concept of ignoramuses who would shun serving cake with coffee. 

In that moment, that split-second as George discovers the infamous marble rye has been taken back, the way Frank and Estelle sit there, not looking at one another but wholly content in their shared aggravation, you can see how they really were meant for one another.

Estelle Harris died on Saturday April 2, 2022. She was 93.

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