Sunday, January 31, 2016

Born Today January 31: Tallulah Bankhead


Born Tallulah Brockman Bankhead in Huntsville, Alabama to a wealthy and influential political family.  Her mother died three days later of septicemia; Tallulah was baptized next to her mother's coffin.  This sent her and her older sister Eurgenia's father, William, into a depression that he could not over-come; he then began to self medicate with alcohol.  The two were basically raised by his mother, Tallulah James Brockman Bankhead--for whom little Tallulah had been named.  They lived in extremely high style on the family estate in Jasper, AL, in a house they called Sunset.  Bankhead developed an interest in performance when she was quite young.  It is said, a great deal of this came with attention seeking behavior on her part, especially in regards to her father.  She supposedly attended a circus revue that was passing through her part of Alabama and caught the performance bug from this.  She was then said to have taught herself cartwheels, which she would do mostly inside; and would also sing and recite copious amounts of literature that she had memorized.  Part of her attention seeking behavior apparently came down from that fact that she was a child, she was perceived as fat and homely, next to her older more slender sister.  Tallulah, claimed that her first judged performance came at the party that her aunt was throwing for the Wright Brothers, and that it was none other the Orville and Wilbur who judged her imitation of her kindergarten teacher to be the best of the gathering.  Who knows if it was true...  As the girls reached that double digits in age, they became too much for their grandmother to handle.  It was decided that they be sent off to convent school; and where thus enrolled in the prestigious Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan, NY.  Tallulah was just 10 years of age at the time.  Their father's political career eventually brought him to Washington D.C., and the girls were enrolled in series of boarding schools; each one closer to Washington.  At the age of 15, her aunt encouraged her to diet, improve her appearance and take more pride in herself--advice that she headed.  By this time, Tallulah's sister Eugenie, at 16, ever the southern belle, got engaged; Tallulah had her head stuck firmly on an acting career instead!  At time, she submitted her photo to a contest run the magazine Picture Play, but forgot to include her return address.  The contest promised a trip to New York free of charge and bit parts in a motion picture being shot in the area to 12 winners.  She won one of the parts, and luckily found out about it when reading a edition of the magazine, where she saw her photo published, with the caption "Who is she?"  Her father immediately contacted the magazine and she set off for New York.  When she arrived she found the contest win was true to it's word, but flimsy at best.  She was paid $75 for about three weeks work  on Who Loved Him Best?  in 1918.  The film was set in, and shot on location in, Manhattan and was produced by Mutual Film. A copy of the film survives at the Library of Congress. The part was very small, but it marked her formal entrance into acting.  She wound up in the Algonquin Hotel and, despite her age (which she may have lied about), she quickly charmed her way into the (in)famous, and newly formed, Algonquin Round Table, where she quickly discovered drugs and bisexuality.  She would go on to have very small bit parts in three more silent films in the late 1910's before making her stage debut in New York in 1919.  She would not return to film work until the late 1920's.  She starred in several plays in New York for the next 5 years.  Though her performances were praised; the material wasn't up to par, so her star had yet to rise.  Frustrated, she left for the London stage.  While there she finally found fame, with the play They Knew What They Wanted in 1925 winning a Pulitzer.  She was known (as she had been as an un-famous actress back in New York) for making the absolute best out of inferior material.  Much of this was down to her "mezzo-basso" deep voice, which she always ascribed to frequent childhood bouts with chronic bronchitis.  She returned to film work while still in the UK, starring in His House In Order, a melodrama, in 1928 (it now amongst the films listed as lost).  Her first sound film was made in the UK as well, the following year:  a comedic short entitled Her Cardboard Lover, sound by British Photophone.  This would be the last film that she made in the 1920's and wouldn't appear another film until 1931, when she returned to the United States. Upon her return to the U.S. she booned straight for Hollywood, where had limited success in film acting; but, again, wild (and I mean wild) social success, with numerous parties thrown at her rented Hollywood home.  This is when her supposed "libertine" morals began to leak out in the press.  She was known for very "free behavior" in almost every way:  "Sex, Drugs...and...Acting."  This made her rather infamous. It also made many people think she had a much bigger silent film career; especially since a good deal of the 1920's she had lived in London.  She found movie acting boring and returned to the stage.  She did not return to film acting until 1943.  She is, perhaps, best known in the world of film for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat in 1944.  From there, she skipped about from stage to film and even turned in a few television performances.  She was well known for being a hedonist from early on.  When asked about drug use amongst the Algonquin Round Table, she once jokingly quipped "Cocaine isn't habit-forming and I should know because I've been taking it for years."  When she made fast friends in Hollywood with Irving Thalberg, she asked him "How do you get laid in this dreadful place?"  After complaining a great deal about film acting to fellow players in the 1930's, she was asked why she stuck around and accepted a role in Devil and the Deep (1932), which had a crazy triple billing of Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton and Cary Grant. She simply replied "Dahling, the main reason I accepted [the part] was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper!"  She once quipped to a reporter, "I'm as pure as the driven slush!"  So, when she was offered a chance to play a religious fanatic by Hammer Horror in the 1965 Die! Die! My Darling, she jumped at it.  At the end of her career, she even got a little voice work in; voicing the "Sea Witch" in the 1966 The Daydreamer--which her very gruff voice by that time, lent itself to well.  Her last acting appearances came as the character "The Black Widow" in the original Batman series in 1967.  She wasn't all jokes, and didn't joke about her politics, however!  She had come from what might be called southern aristocracy in the Democratic party; they were privileged white, rich people who supported segregation and Jim Crow laws.  She was unaplogetically a liberal Democrat at time when this was unheard of; especially from a member of such a prominent political family.  She was an outspoken supporter of the civil right movement and equal rights for all.  This put her at open odds in the public eye with her family....did she care: NO!  She died on 12 December 1968 in a New York hospital.  The official cause of death was double pneumonia that was seriously complicated by emphysema.  The hospital also noticed that she appeared to suffering from malnutrition, but that is thought to have been previously brought by a serious bout of the flu, which probably gave rise to the pneumonia.  She was 66.  She is buried in St. Paul's Churchyard, near Chestertown, Maryland.

No comments:

Post a Comment