Tallulah and Her Legendary Streetcar

PlayBlog   Tallulah and Her Legendary Streetcar
Diva followers know that Jan. 31 would have been Tallulah Bankhead's 107th birthday, making her older (by mere months) than Broadway's oldest continually operating legitimate theatre — the Lyceum, where Valerie Harper will play her (starting Feb. 19) in Looped, about a tense film-dubbing session in L.A.

Bankhead's theatrically thick accent might be described as 'Bama-British. She was from Alabama — born in Huntsville, brought up in Jasper — but, at the formative age of 19, she fled to the London stage, where she acquired a full-throttled, full-throated theatricality that never deserted her. Toward the end of her life, it imprisoned her.

Harper, currently up for the Helen Hayes Award in Washington for Looped, cites the actress' two rides on A Streetcar Named Desire as cases in point.

Tennessee Williams wrote Blanche DuBois for her, but she turned the role down, says Harper. "It was a huge mistake not doing it, but she felt it was too close to her own life. I mean, how would it look — an aging, promiscuous, Southern woman who drinks too much playing an aging, promiscuous, Southern woman who drinks too much? By the time she did decide to do it, Jessica Tandy had gotten the huzzahs and it was her play. Tallulah did it in 1955 at Florida's Coconut Grove Playhouse, and her camp followers lined up around the block to see her. When she'd say to Mitch, 'I'm not accustomed to having more than one drink. Two is the limit — and three! Tonight I had three,' the audience went crazy laughing because of her persona. Her persona had preceded her, and it had trapped her."

Harper continues, "She wanted to play Blanche, and it was almost as if the audience wouldn't let her, so she says to them, 'Oh, I know what's going on here. You didn't come to see Tallulah Bankhead play Blanche DuBois. No, you came to see Tallulah Bankhead be Tallulah Bankhead. You want camp, fellas? I'll be more vulgar than you can bear. Then, she went the other way and got laughs. Tennessee was furious.

"He said, 'It's the only time Blanche has been played by a drag queen.' She was very hurt by that. The following year, she redeemed herself with a Streetcar in New York: She worked really hard and got lovely reviews at City Center, but that version doesn't serve our play. We're going with the Coconut Grove — the humiliation of her trying to do Blanche and being laughed at as Tallulah. It was almost like she was a prisoner of her own media."

Is there a modern analogy to the Tallulah-as-Blanche story?

Harper observes, "I mean, if Paris Hilton ever got herself together, studied and tried to be a serious actress — Lindsay Lohan, too — all the celebrity bad girls — it wouldn't be the same. I don't think they've paid many dues. They just don't have the body of work, talent, acumen and experience. Tallulah had someplace to fall from."

— Harry Haun

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