Deconstructing Harry

by Stephanie Mansfield
Vogue, April 1998

There's something about being saddled with "Jr." that lends a man a terminal aura of adolescence. A flannel softness. Bloodless, sackless, jejune.

It may be time for Harry Connick to lose the Jr. The callow crooner, the boy from blue bayou who burst on the scene as a retro Sinatra in a muscle shirt has had a growth spurt. At six feet two inches, he's always had a creamy charm, but now, opposite Sandra Bullock in his first romantic lead (Hope Floats), Connick -- at 30 -- exudes a Creole cowboy cool weighted by a new ballast. Dead-solid swoonability. A dude who could hoist you over the threshold without ending up on a heating pad.

"Yum," says Lynda Obst, who, along with Bullock and Mary McLaglen, produced the film. "He's a big man," agrees Bullock, clearly besotted. At first, she didn't think he was right for the part of Justin Matisse, the pensive, Texas two-stepping construction worker/house painter who wins her heart. A hundred guys tried out for the role. Then Connick expressed interest.

Connick has, so far, made smart choices about his film career: Memphis Belle, Little Man Tate, and a scene-stealing bit opposite Will Smith in Independence Day. Not to mention Daryll Lee Cullum, the effectively crazed serial killer in Copycat, which The Hollywood Reporter found to be "the ultimate in creative casting, nice guy Harry Connick, Jr., [who] makes for an intensely creepy psycho."

But Bullock saw him only as a crooner. She thought he was too slick to play the potent, blue-collar stud. Then he showed up for the screen test, and before he stepped in front of the camera, the part was his. "Perfect in his imperfection," says the actress. "He was everyone's first choice."

"I've always loved genuine men," says Obst. "They're comfortable in their own skin. Cowboys with a soul and a heart and a head. They're not scared of strong women. Harry embodies that."

Maybe marriage to the former Victoria's Secret Valkyrie Jill Goodacre is responsible for his new gravitas. Or maybe it's parenthood (the couple just had their second daughter). Or age: "I'm wiser. More patient. More understanding. More creative." Or maybe it's just the fact that he's gained 30 pounds.

"I'm really hungry, man," he announces, settling into a chair in a private dining room at New York's Lowell Hotel. He has driven in from his home in suburban Connecticut 40 minutes away for a late breakfast of half a dozen scrambled eggs and a rasher of bacon that he attacks with gusto.

He wears a soft black wool sweater and a simple gold wedding band on his left hand. All my love, Jill. 4-16-94. One lock of glossy auburn hair spills over a high forehead. His eyes are piercing, gray-blue, with a hint of voodoo. But the voice is the lagniappe. It's rich and low and as seductive a weapon as any Southern gentleman could wield. It's like his Mama dipped his tonsils in sorghum. His hands are strong. Butter drips from the toast onto his index finger. Would it be too forward to offer to lick it off?

"I had a terrible time with girls," he drawls. "I had really bad skin. I was really skinny. I have these big features. A small head with a big nose and big eyes and a big mouth. I kind of looked like that when I first met Jill. I was nasty."

And no, he says, he is nothing like his character in Hope Floats. "Justin is pretty awesome," he drawls. "He's really great. I started acting like him for a while, but that wore off real quick. Like two weeks. Acting real sexy. It just wore off. 'Hey, what happ'nd to him?' I would just sit around and look at people. I was brooding. Introspective. I was real sexy, man. I had a real thing happ'ning. I wish I could be like that. Just manly. He's awesome, this guy. It was pretty wild. This guy would have no problem sitting there listening to complete rejection and smiling and saying, 'Aw, she'll come around.' I'm not like that. I'd cry and say, 'Wait, we need to talk this out.'"

And what did his wife think? "Jill knows I'm a flake," he says, shrugging. "She doesn't pay any attention to me anyway." He takes a strip of bacon, waving it slightly. "Not to undermine my own progress as a man. I think I have things to offer, but not like that."

Connick has been offering up his own brand of New Orleans-jazz-infused melodies for years, while covering the standards in countless lounges, piano bars, and concert halls. He has never made a pop record and doesn't aspire to. The critics have not been universally kind, but Connick wouldn't know, because he doesn't read reviews. He appears totally self-contained and possessed of a healthy ego. "Oh yes," Bullock agrees. "Very healthy ego."

"I don't want anybody to be able to sing or play or act better than me," he says. "I did five movies. Learned as much as I could. I didn't even know if I would enjoy the process. Having a huge ego like I do, the concept of being a movie star is extremely appealing."

He acknowledges that part of his character's sex appeal is a deep well of mystery. "That's probably part of the reason for my lack of great relationships," he says, laughing. "There was no mystery. It's like, 'Here I am. This is what I do.'" Are men attracted to women with mystery? He snorts. "I just think men are attracted to women. Know what I'm sayin'?" It had to be you. It had to be you. I wandered around, finally found somebody who... could make me be true...

Connick's healthy ego, Exhibit A: He's swimming in the pool at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood eight years ago. Jill Goodacre walks by. He recognizes her from a Cosmopolitan magazine cover (go figure). Screw it, he thinks, I'm just gonna introduce myself. He leaps out of the pool and follows her to the front desk inside. He's standing there, a wet skinny goober, dripping pool water on the hotel carpet. Big nose, big ears, Adam's apple bobbing. She stares at him. He introduces himself. Will she know who he is? Did she buy the sound track to When Harry Met Sally? Does she recognize him?

No such luck. She is clueless. He asks her to stay for a minute and have something to eat. She declines, saying she has an appointment. He insists. Something comes over him. Something powerful and from the heart. Or loins. "I don't know what possessed me to say this, but I said, 'Really. Just for a minute. Will you get something to eat?' We sat down and had lunch and I shook her hand. I said, 'Great meeting you.'" She told him to call sometime. They had dinner the next night. "I was nuts," he swoons. "Hit over the head. Never felt anything like that. I was completely gone." She called her mother that night. "I think I met the man I'm going to marry."

For every take on Hope Floats, Connick removed his wedding ring and handed it to his assistant. At the end of the take, he slipped it back on. "That's my girl. I'm proud of her, man. She's awesome. She rocks. I'm proud of that. That's my biggest accomplishment. Everything else is after. Nothing is that important. There's no comparison, as a matter of fact. When people say, 'How do you balance your career and your marriage?' I say, 'What are you talking about? It's my family, man. I go on the road. I play. I have to make a living. I love to play. My wife knows that. But I'm not gonna put my career in front of my family. What kind of jerk does that?

"I found a girl who was really cool. That I love a lot. I married her and we're gonna be married until we're dead. Adoration and praise and success, that's important to me. But I talk to my manager about this all the time. I'm presented with these decisions. I could do this and make a ton of money, or I could be happy. I have a life, man. I'm sure my career will take a downward spiral the way most people's do. I was choosy when I couldn't afford to be."

Says Obst, "He's smart about his choices and he knows who he is. Because he has a musical career, he can be selective. There's no desperation." Bullock calls him "morally sound. I couldn't imagine him wavering." Connick sighs. "Everybody makes me out to be some kind of old-fashioned goody-goody. I don't see how my life is different. People don't believe that a happy person can be soulful, or a happy person can deal with pain."

Bullock, who got to know Connick pretty well on the film, says that his strength of character, she feels, comes from an early loss. "There's so much history and pain in his life." His mother, Anita, died at home of ovarian cancer when he was thirteen, after a three-year battle with the disease. She was Jewish, an attorney from New York, and served as a state judge before her death. Her husband was Harry Connick, Sr., a former Irish Catholic district attorney in New Orleans who ran against Jim Garrison and beat him. Connick has one older sister, Suzanna, a medical student in Roanoke, Virginia.

His mother's death, he says now, "was a bad time for all of us. Horrific time. I had a rough time. I just think it saddened us profoundly. I'm not over it. My sister's not over it. My father's not over it. We don't talk about it much. It was unquestionably the most difficult thing." He pauses, staring down at his hands. "There was nothing that could make it better. You just deal, man."

That boyish side of his personality, he reasons, is a result of arrested development. Losing his mother at thirteen "is probably the reason I am the way I am. I am extremely childlike in a lot of ways. I've learned to enjoy that part of my personality. It doesn't consume me; it's in check. But I'm extremely impulsive."

In the recording studio, he says, he works at a fast pace. Quick and dirty. No artistic pondering. No reviewing. Healthy ego, remember? "I'm like, 'OK, on to the next song.'" He started playing piano at three; by six he was playing to drug addicts and prostitutes on Bourbon Street. By the age of ten Connick was onstage with a New Orleans jazz band.

He's always maintained that he's a better pianist than singer. He graduated from the all-boys Jesuit High School and moved to New York at the age of eighteen. A year later he signed a contract with Columbia Records. He thinks all actors want to be musicians and all musicians want to be actors. He's also claustrophobic and afraid of heights. A gadget freak, he collects computer stuff and electronic gewgaws. What's the one CD he'd take to a desert island? "I wouldn't take any. I'd rather listen to the wind. I hate listening to music," he says emphatically. "I'd rather take an electronic device. Like a laser pointer."

He leans forward, grinning widely. "I think taking one thing to a desert island is succumbing to the fact that you ain't gettin' off! That's not me, baby," he says, sitting back smugly. "I'd be gone. I'd start swimmin'."

© 1995-2013 connick.com