"And so, Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has, in literal effect, closed the church to me." It's not a great line to go out on — Tallulah Bankhead would have preferred something raunchier — but it was the last line she'd ever utter on screen.
Looped, now at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, would have you believe she uttered it all day long — eight frayed hours in a Los Angeles sound studio in 1965, regurgitating those same, inane 20 words. Bernhardt would have choked on them. What chance had Bankhead, arriving in a flurry of mink and three sheets to the wind from bennies, booze, codeine and coke? The result may be the best dubbing-booth mad act since Natalie Wood's in "Inside Daisy Clover" — but ever so much more fun, since Tallulah remembered to bring along a full quiver of zingers.
They didn't come any grander than Tallulah Bankhead. She was the way to play Actress — extravagant and sublimely over-the-top.
She inspired Tennessee Williams to write Alexandra Del Lago (Sweet Bird of Youth), Mrs. Goforth (The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore) and Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire), but she only got around to playing the last two — and only in revivals of diminishing returns. Cruella De Vil was modeled after her, and Bette Davis, who hijacked two Bankhead stage hits for herself (Dark Victory and The Little Foxes), did her best work as a Tallulahesque Margo Channing in "All About Eve." The Main Stem hasn't seen the likes of Tallulah since 1964. Now at last, a Broadway beachhead for Bankhead will be established by multi-Emmy winner Valerie Harper. She's quick to credit "my little Italian team" for getting her across the finish line first: lead producer (and Harper's husband) Tony Cacciotti, director Rob Ruggiero and playwright Matthew Lombardo.
Lombardo was prompted to write the play by a 45-minute audio tape that survived the daylong, loop-de-loop re-recording session for Bankhead's final film, titled (after she signed on) "Die! Die! My Darling!" She played a religious fanatic who menaced her late son's fiancée, the aforementioned Patricia (Stefanie Powers). To get into character, Harper plays this tape nightly.
"I am so attentive to the trap that is Tallulah," she readily admits. "People will see what they want to see, but I don't want this to be a send-up. I wanted it to really be the woman. I've enough years on me now to do that legitimately. She's at the end of her life — she says six months in the play, but she lived three more years — so I want her real. She needs to have every aspect of a human being — who just talks like that."