Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Dueling Bankheads

She knew, of course, that in a way she was immortal. Looking in her mirror, Tallulah must have sensed that what she had created had taken on a life of its own, and that long after the little girl from Alabama had gone on before...

She'd show up the damnedest places - as, for example, in a TV movie, played by Mrs. Dick Cavett.

Or as part of the one-man repertory company that is the legendary Jim Bailey.

The essentials of the impersonation are consistent: the sweep of hair and slash of lipstick; cigarette of course; frequently a mink, for clutching and throwing off the shoulders; most generally a cocktail...

She can be played younger, with a dose of the glamour that dominated her life in the '20s and '30s (Miss Kathleen Turner seems altogether too gamine for the part, but the setting is suitably deco)...

Or older, dire and in her cups - although here, Miss Valerie Harper looks less Talluvian than like Mayor Rudi Giuliani on a bad night.

She's been played by the great - as here, by illusionist supreme Mr. Charles Pierce (we saw him do Tallu, darlings, yonks ago, and were greatly twisted affected by his performance, which was if anything more astonishing even than his Bette)...

And she's been played by the simply inevitable - is there a one-woman show that Tovah Feldshuh hasn't done? I'd look it up to make sure, but frankly I don't want my suspicions that this was a musical confirmed.

She's most recently been taken up as the subject for their ongoing cabaret/drag/performance art act by the duo who give this post its title. They venture pretty far afield from the source material, but the fundamentals - liquor, lipstick, excess, and a knack for the outrageous - are true to life.

What makes it work - whether for a roadshow turn like Harper's or Feldshuh's or for the alchemy of Pierce - is that the lady herself rose above the persona, or rather inhabited it so fully and unstintingly, with a talent and a kind of greatness of spirit that shine through, on some level, even the broadest burlesque, even the ones (and they were many, too many for the good of her reputation as an artist) she inflicted on herself.

Ah, but on a good night - I have been assured by Ones Who Were There - ah, then the angels sang. I've heard it on good authority that on some nights, during her too-short run in a revival of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, she could by sheer force of personality and utter fabulosity, strike gay not only the entire audience, but passers-by of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for a distance of up to two blocks.

She's a kind they just don't make these days, but at least we can enjoy, to varying extents, the ways that others bring bits of her to life...


  1. "Tallulah Hallelujah!" was not a musical, really, but Tovah Feldshuh opened the proceedings by doing cartwheels in a mink coat before singing "Bye, Bye Blackbird" on one note. It was great fun, but I trembled in my aisle seat when the actress ventured forth into the house to tease the men in the audience.

  2. Oh my God: Carrie Nye as Tallu in the NBC miniseries Movieola. LOVED HER! But as Sharon Gless, playing Carole Lombard said, "Too true Tallu." And Nye got the best lines which she delivered in perfect Bankhead style. To "George Cukor" upon being offered a role in The Women, Nye's Bankhead gave the delightfully disbelieving "No men, at all? How do I play my love scenes?"

    1. So funny I remember watching that show on TV as a kid. To this day, One of my go-to lines is "Too true Tallu", when I am in adamant agreement with someone.

    2. You are clearly our kind of people, Mr. Allen, as well as this year's recipient of the Comment on the Post from the Furthest, Darkest Past. Stick around!

  3. When I someday become a Big Lady in the Theatre...and make no mistake, I will someday be a Big Lady in the Theatre...I plan to stipulate in writing that not only can Ms. Feldshuh never portray me in a one-woman (or any number of persons) show, she also cannot come and see anyone (including drag queens) portraying me in a one-woman show.

    I saw Ms. Feldshuh play (well, at least for the first act) Dolly Gallagher Levi in the formerly indestructible Hello, Dolly! (yes, the musical), and she sent the show the way of the unsinkable Titanic.

    I am waiting for Kate Mulgrew to take up the Bankhead mantle. I think she'd be marvelous.

  4. i saw kathleen turner and though i had had high hopes, they weren't merely dashed......but pounced, beaten, pulverized, masticated & vomited & chewed again! she was awful. we left at intermission. i left that theatre feeling as if I'D been the biggest backer of the bomb. so disappointed.

  5. Oh, Norma; I hate to, but I have to agree. I saw another of her stage outings, the B'way adaption of Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles, and if it hadn't been for stretches during which Jude Law was naked as a jaybird, it would have been unendurable.

    The best thing about her performance was her Act Two suit, which had more stage presence than anything else on display...and yes, I'm including those stretches of Jude Law.

  6. muscato, what can one do? between her looks & voice, i thought turner was perfectly cast! i didn't enter the theatre saying, "convince me," i entered saying, "i'm convinced!" i suppose that is why my disappointment was so profound. and i suppose i should mention having watched "rhoda" doing her turn as the fabled tallu. hardly convinced prior to pressing the play button, viewing didn't change this mind. i think harper may have come thru town & i avoided it. until another of charles pierce's talent comes along, best to read lee israel's book or rewatch "lifeboat" or the lucy-desi comedy hour.

  7. Darlings, have you listened to Talu's crazy/insane radio broadcast of All About Eve? Of course, a 2 1/2 hour movie has to be truncated for radio, but besides completely ripping the screenplay apart, Tallulah takes the supporting cast's most famous lines for herself (even stealing Addison DeWitt's exposure of Eve's sordid past!), talks over her co-stars, and generally "Tallulah"'s the thing to death. It's supremely entertaining in its own way, of course...