“If you want to help the American theater, don’t be an actress, dahling — be an audience.”
Spotlight: Tallulah Bankhead
If feels that, today, Tallulah Bankhead is mostly forgotten. Yet she was one of the greatest actresses of our time. She had so many facets to her career and life that sometimes we might lose her accomplishments on the stage, film, radio and television.
When she was 15 years old she moved into the Algonquin Hotel in 1917. Yes, that Algonquin Hotel; home to the Vicious Circle and Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harold Ross and the gang.
And, she began acting on Broadway; moving up in parts to better roles. Then, from 1922 to 1931, she moved to London and became a big star. Then she went to Hollywood. While we will never see her work on stage, it is easy to see her in the leading role of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. She was terrific.
Along the way she was on the cover of Life magazine, won many awards and some began calling her a living legacy of the theater. And she kept working.
She did not get the part in the Glass Menagerie on film, but the director Irving Rapper said of her screen test, “I thought she was going to be difficult, but she was like a child, so sweet and lovely. I was absolutely floored by her performance. It’s the greatest test I’ve ever made or seen in my life. I couldn’t believe I was seeing such reality. Bankhead was absolutely natural, so moving, so touching without even trying. The crew was stunned, too.” Imagine!
By the 50s, she had been so good and famous for so long that she almost became a parody of herself. Take a look at this scene with Lucille Ball:
As Dorothy Parker worried that her legacy would be her witty remarks and not the body of her writing, I wonder of Tallulah Bankhead felt the same for her antics; clearly she lived a full life!
Stories of her life followed her everywhere because they were great or sad.
In London, she loved to drive her Bentley but would get lost and call a cab and follow it to her home.
She had so many lovers, male and female, that when she met an old lover at a party she said, “I thought I told you to wait in the car”.
She did cocaine, booze and marijuana all of her career and it did make directors worry about hiring her. One of my favorite quotes is, “Good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don’t have the time.” She lived and lived and lived.
Stories of her doing cartwheels at parties with no panties are believable once you start to learn her story. It makes you want to read her biography (there are at least ten of them)!
She was a great actress. Iconic. Jump to the 18:24 mark on this episode of 1965 of What’s My Line? She is so known that they guess it in under a minute! DAHLING! I love how she boldly writes her first name only.
Equally powerful in drama and comedy, Tallulah Bankhead was an acting legacy in her own time. Cherished and enjoyed on the stage, screen and behind the scenes.