Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How Tallulah Bankhead Influenced Aliens

I recently finished Felice Picano's collection, Portraits from My Past, essays nostalgically recollecting personalities he's known - some famous (Bette Midler), some not (a suicidal roommate)- and in one he's watching Tallulah Bankhead's final Broadway bow in Tennessee William's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
The actors are in tableau and Tallulah steps forward to deliver a monologue - when some queen in the audience tosses a popper onto the stage. In 1964, poppers were glass ampules that you cracked to whiff. Tallulah picks up the popper, holds it up to the light, snaps it, inhales deeply, and carries on (divinely). 
When I read that, I'm like, WHO IS THIS WOMAN? I've always known of Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968) but never really go it... until now. Investigating further, I find her infamous sotto baritone “dahhhhling!” salutation originated because Tallulah couldn’t remember names. 

“I once introduced a friend as Martini,” she told a reporter, “Her name was Olive.”

And because of that guttural smoky voice of hers, a male reporter once asked, “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” “No,” she responded, “Have you?” The same exact quip stolen and delivered by butch Latina Vasquez in the 1986 film Aliens.

In her youth, Tallulah would introduce herself, “I’m a lesbian, what do you do?” And who else was daring this kind of thing in the early 1900's? Though not a lesbian, she did dabble in everything sexually. At 31 years old, she contracted a case of gonorrhea so bad she underwent an emergency hysterectomy. As she was wheeled out of the hospital, she turned to her doctor and snapped, “Don’t think I learned a lesson from this!”

I love that, I mean - was she supposed to apologize? Repent? Heaven forbid: cry!? Not her.

Tallulah Bankhead is a reductive back burner figure in history (Aliens notwithstanding), probably because she was a grande dame of the stage - not of film. The bygone era of stage stars (the Lunts, Barrymores) leaves scant tangible record. We all know Bette Davis in Dark Victory, Jezebel and the Little Foxes – all starring roles which originated on the stage with… Tallulah Bankhead. Designer Edith Head modeled Bette Davis’ stage star Margo Channing in All About Eve on...  Tallulah Bankhead - instensifying the faux feud between the actresses.

You decide: Bette Davis as Margo Channing (Left) and Tallulah Bankhead as herself (Right)
But Talullah was more than an actress, she was a (tour de) force of personality that could not be contained. Rushed into the hospital shortly before her death, a newspaper headline read: “Tallulah Hospitalized; Hospital Tallulahized” – testament to the hurricane power of her own personae. Indeed, when she did die several days later, her last two (coherent) words were: “Codeine…Bourbon”. 

When I learned this bit of take-it-to-the-grave cosmic genius, I declared her my hero and the 600-page biography Tallulah!
Life and Times of a Leading Lady by Joel Lobenthal landed in my lap! What a life!

Born in Alabama, her mother died due to complications from her birth, and her father Will Bankhead went on to become the speaker of the US House of Representatives. Both these influences being perhaps just part of what propelled her to become the most ouragaeous, outspoken and uninhibited woman of her day.

Lobenthal's book itself is over-researched, taking pains to focus on her professional work and keep the curtain down on much of her off-stage antics. She did come alive through its pages, oh she did, but I felt her suppressed by long passages exhaustively/ingly outlining each of her many plays and their often piffling plot points. I wasn't looking for the history of 20th century theatre, but rather the woman - and just where was the scoop on the Lizbeth Scott affair? Don't make me read another biography! 

Leaving Alabama at 15, Tallulah scored in silents and vaudeville in NY, went to London for a decade where she became a sensation. Went back to Broadway, then Hollywood where she made a succession of films for Paramount, retreating to the New York stage when it was determined she posed no threat to Garbo or Dietrich. Besides the stage, she made frequent guest appearances on TV (her final appearance was as the Black Widow in Batman & Robin) and she made a splash hosting the variety program The BigShow, radio’s last spirited gasp before succumbing to television. 
Bankhead chain-smoked and drank, popped pills and slept with everyone from Marlon Brando to Billie Holiday, and yet she was known as one of the most professional, hardest working women in entertainment. She may have been a tyrant when crossed, drunk or feeling vulnerable, but there are many, many instances of her kindness and generosity. She personally intervened to save Jews (Otto Preminger’s family) in WW2, stood up for the rights of blacks as she toured the South, and bravely spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy during the heyday of his HUAC witchhunts. 

At the same time, she found underwear extremely inhibiting and never wore them. Though when sober she was known to pull up her dress, when drunk it became an imperative. Nights out with Tallulah became 36 hour affairs. At one point, when her husband refused to continue on, she dropped him off at their home, rolled down the window to say, "If I'm not home by 6 am, start without me!" and roared off. 

Because of her unapologetic outrageousness, voracious sexual appetite and capacity for camp - she became, inexorably and for better or worse - a gay icon. Theatre houses were packed with her "cult", and to appease (and fuel) them, she might resort to playing a caricature of herself at the expense of the play. "You have no idea what I'd do for a laugh," she'd claim, hindering her reputation as a legitimate actress.

Reviews of her greatest roles, once read like this:

“Miss Bankhead specializes in the deadpan and often deadly squelch. Her general air of graciousness is never completely reassuring. For there is always the possibility that that marvelous voice of hers is about to pass from a purr of honeyed hospitality to an outraged bellow of professional rage. She is, in a word, terrific” 
- Collier's

And later began to read like this: 

“The extraordinary endowments which distinguish her also imperil her. She is as much a victim to her talents as she is the product.” – Saturday Review

In the late 1950's, she worked tirelessly to overcome her tendency to "Tallulah" and perfect her role of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, but the audience hooted and hollered at the inappropriate moments, at even the slightest hint of double entendre. Ribald fans there for her and not the story, much like the one who ultimately threw a popper on stage at her feet.

No other actor in the ensemble was able to compete, not even the play could compete, with her compelling personality - and though she didn't give in, she now couldn't control what she had long encouraged. She resisted caving, and at one performance of Streetcar, a co-star recalls Tallulah walked down to the footlights and begged the audience, "Please give me a chance!" 

Privately, she began to despise the “dahhhling" gargoyle, though she never seemed to say no to going out with the gang, and above all she hated to be left alone. She would even accompany guests to their cars pleading for them to stay just a little bit longer. In the end, it appears gays who were the only ones who could keep up/put up with her, entertaining a person as she was. Delighting as she’d spew out fast ones, like:

“Cocaine’s not habit forming, I should know… I’ve been doing it for years!”

Her fans would ply her with more and more alcohol just to see what would come out of her mouth. (Hey wait, Bam has been doing that to me for years!)

Lobenthal notes, "She offered herself to her claque with a certain amount of cynicism and despair. It was her default strategy. Fulfilled her on some of her darkest levels, these fans a fun-house mirror reflecting her own distorted picture of herself."

But although the squandering of her talent, looks and stamina has been absorbed into legend, she never played the victim. In her last years, she spoke of her cult. “The boys didn’t do it to me," she said, "they did it for me.”

It all makes me want to stay up late with her, dahhhhrling, even if, now, I'd respectfully decline to toss poppers at her professional feet. There are many words to describe Tallulah Bankhead, and so contradictory: Sincere, Ridiculous, Tyrant, Professional, Insomniac, Addict, Shrewd, Indulgent, Hardworking, Generous, Iconoclast. The sum total, I'd say, adds up to bonne vivante.

2 comments:

KC said...

Hi Jesse...
Fascinating woman...I've worked with some older
actors who did theater with her and their stories are amazing!
One of my favorites was told to me by Maureen Stapleton. Mo as a young actress was at
a "theata party" and was sitting near Betsy Von Furstenberg who was talking to two
older producers and bragging that "I have been working in the theater since I was 16 years old
and I'm now 23 and I still have my cherry." Just as Maureen overheard this comment, so did
La Bankhead who leaned over to Betsy and asked "Doesn't it get in the way when you fuck?"
Enough said...they don't make 'em like those broads any more!
Wishing you and Bam Happy holidays and sending much love...

Anonymous said...

IT HAPPENED ON A CHRISTMAS EVE IN THE 1950's....

TALLULAH WAS AT A PARTY AND TWO OF THE GUESTS, A PAIR OF YOUNG, GAY CHORUS BOYS
TOLD HER THEY WERE LEAVING TO GO TO THE MIDNIGHT HIGH MASS AT THE BROADWAY ACTORS
CHURCH, ST.MALACHI'S. SINCE IT WAS CHRISTMAS EVE, TALLULAH THOUGHT IT WOULD BE PROPER TO GO WITH THEM TO CELEBRATE BABY JESUS' BIRTHDAY. SHE WENT TO THE LOO AND DID A FEW LINES OF COCAINE FIRST SINCE SHE HAD BEEN TOLD IT WAS "HIGH" MASS.

WHEN THE TRIO ARRIVED AT THE PACKED CHURCH THEY WERE SEATED ON THE CENTER AISLE JUST AS THE PROCESSIONAL BEGAN. TALLULAH WAS DAZZLED BY THE PAGEANTRY BUT AS THE FIRST PRIEST PASSED WITH THE SMOKING INCENSE, SWINGING IT TO AND FRO, SHE REACHED OUT AND GRABBED HIS ROBES.

SHOCKED, THE PRIEST LOOKED DOWN TO TALLULAH'S SWIRLING EYES AS SHE SAID...
"DAHLING...I LOVE YOUR GOWN BUT I THINK YOUR PURSE IS ON FIRE!"

MERRY CHRISTMAS !