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Tallulah Bankhead biography


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#1 dirac

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Posted 03 May 2005 - 03:58 PM

I’m reading Joel Lobenthal’s recent biography of Tallulah Bankhead ( “Tallulah!” )and though as a rule I avoid works in any field with exclamation points in their titles, I’m glad I made an exception. This is a wonderful if ultimately sad book. Readers who don’t have a pre-existing interest in departed divas of the stage or the theatre of the era may find some of the details slow going, but persistence pays off. Bankhead, one of the great stage stars of her time, was born in Alabama in 1902, the daughter of a Speaker of the House and the niece of a Senator. After a brief period as a pudgy girl with bad skin, she blossomed into a beauty and turned her thoughts to the stage. She made her first hit in London and was a star at 21, but her offstage peccadilloes (affairs with men and women, alcohol, drugs) soon overshadowed her onstage accomplishments, with deleterious long term consequences for her career and reputation. This book is a gallant attempt to retrieve the situation. It’s not entirely successful in that respect – not through any fault of the author’s, however. Bankhead became a star perhaps too soon for her own good; she got used to the high life and apparently she never met a script she didn’t like. She was not alone in this -- one thinks of the Lunts frittering their unparallelled technique away in one piffling drawing room comedy after another -- but there is a lingering sense that she didn’t accomplish all she might have. She did give two performances for the record books, originating the role of Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” and Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” In addition, she starred in the original production of Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat,” uttering the immortal line, “Boy died for purity.” (Don’t ask.) I hesitate to use the term "meticulously researched" after reading Safire's Sunday piece, but it applies here, in a good way. Lobenthal looked up everything and talked to everyone, and there are riches here in theatre lore and good dish.

Bankhead might be better known today if she had become a big film star, but she did not make it for several reasons. Bad timing – she arrived at Paramount when Marlene Dietrich was already in place and at the top of her box office; Norma Shearer over at MGM had a patent on the naughty modern woman roles that would have been naturals for Bankhead. Also, like many oversize stage personalities, she lost something in front of the camera. She returned to the stage and made infrequent film appearances from then on. (She can be seen to best advantage in Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” IMO although many people, including Lobenthal, like “A Royal Scandal” better than I do. I’m also partial to “The Devil and the Deep" in which Tallu drives ship captain Charles Laughton bananas with her yen for Gary Cooper; a callow Cary Grant shows up in the backwash. ) Bette Davis became her movie star doppelganger, improving on the stage productions of “Dark Victory” and “Jezebel” (but Tallulah retained the acting honors for Foxes; Bette just wasn't at her best and reportedly followed the Tallulah template for the role too closely. I should imagine, also, that Bankhead had a lushness and vibrancy that Davis missed).

Lobenthal gives us a thorough accounting of the mostly unmemorable Bankhead vehicles. Much of it is fascinating, but I have to admit it’s not exactly like reading about Scofield’s Hamlet or Ralph Richardson in Peer Gynt. All in all, great book. Buy at once. I recommend Bankhead's autobiography, too, although it should be read in tandem with this one.

#2 cargill

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Posted 04 May 2005 - 06:46 AM

She was certainly a great beauty. As I recall, she once said about herself that she was "pure as the driven slush."

#3 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 04 May 2005 - 07:33 AM

I remember seeing her on a very odd Tonight Show in 1968, which was being guest hosted by of all people former baseball player Joe Garagiola. The other guests were John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It was indeed interesting. There is no video of it because the Tonight Show didn't keep all their videos, but there is a complete transcript from an audio tape a fan made (not me! :angry2: ). This is an exchange between the three from that transcript:
********************************
TB: "May I ask you, a big favorite all over the world, a question? Are the other two gentlemen... of the four of you... are they still in India?"

JOHN: "No, they're in England."

TB: "I want to ask you something, because I wish I'd learned to meditate, and I can't... I don't know how you do it. I would love to."

JOHN: "Well you gotta go and find out, haven't you."

TB: "Well I'm not going that far."

JOHN: "Oh well."

(laughter)

PAUL: "Forget it."

TB: "If it's taken me this long, and couldn't do it, I couldn't learn there."

JOHN: "Well, you can't learn to swim if you keep inland, can you? Unless you've got a pool around you."

TB: "Oh honey, I can float sitting up. Don't be silly."

#4 Farrell Fan

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Posted 04 May 2005 - 09:12 AM

Thanks, dirac and Mme. Hermine. I'm definitely going to read this. I remember in the waning days of radio shows, she was on one called "The Big Show." I think most of her remarks went over my head.

#5 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 04 May 2005 - 09:38 AM

One film of hers that I like very much is called "Lifeboat" (1944); it's a Hitchcock film about a group of people stranded in a lifeboat with one of the people who sank the ship they were on.

#6 atm711

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Posted 04 May 2005 - 09:52 AM

As it was with John Barrymore, she became an unflattering parody of herself in her last years.

#7 dirac

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Posted 04 May 2005 - 10:39 AM

Alcohol does dreadful things.

Also, then as now there were very few good roles for older actresses. A few women stars went on and on, but many worked on snagging a Good Provider with the idea of leaving the spotlight while they were looking good. Lobenthal records Bankhead’s unsuccessful efforts with Jock Whitney in this direction.

Thanks for that “Tonight Show” anecdote, Mme. Hermine. I read in a Carson obituary that he was livid about NBC’s copying over those old tapes.

#8 dido

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Posted 05 May 2005 - 05:51 AM

I believe it was Tallulah who claimed "There have only been two authentic genuises in the world, Willie Shakespeare and Willie Mays."

#9 dirac

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Posted 09 May 2005 - 01:14 PM

A very nice piece by Robert Gottlieb on Bankhead’s life and career, in The New Yorker:

http://www.newyorker...516crat_atlarge


Tallulah, with her signature “dah-ling”s and her notorious peccadilloes and her endlessly caricaturized baritonal gurgle of a voice—a voice that the actor-writer Emlyn Williams said was “steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning”—would be easy to dismiss as a joke if she hadn’t also been a woman of outsize capacities. As it is, the story of her life reaches beyond gossip and approaches tragedy.



Gottlieb observes that “Not one of Tallulah’s most important rivals crashed and burned the way she did.” I’d suggest that the crackup of Jeanne Eagels – dead before forty – qualifies. (Yes, she was a decade older than Tallulah and so not really a "rival," but Ethel Barrymore, included the list of Tallulah’s rivals, was 22 years older.)


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