Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Act! Act! Tallulah!

One of the cherished genres of film down here in The Underworld is the (as Wikipedia calls it) Psycho-Biddy movie. That term doesn’t necessarily describe the exact type of film I’m talking about. If a movie merely has some old woman either causing or going through horror, it isn’t enough. For me to really enjoy it, the woman needs to have been a once-great star.

In 1962, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford got the ball rolling with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, startling their longtime fans with the depiction of two aged sisters, living in a decaying old home with one of them hell bent on slowly exterminating the other. The film’s resounding success led to a follow-up (Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, though Crawford exited the film and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland) and a spate of other movies with similar attributes, namely a formerly elegant and glamorous star suddenly being shown as either a deranged battle axe or a disheveled victim.

By 1965, having seen how this newly formed concept had worked out so well, both in money and publicity, for several of her contemporaries, the rarely seen (on the big screen, anyway) Tallulah Bankhead hopped on board the bandwagon of older stars starring in exploitive suspense films.

Bankhead, a major success time and again on the Broadway stage, had only had middling breakthroughs in the cinema. A valiant attempt at conquering the movies in the late—1920s- early ‘30s didn’t pan out, though she did headline Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful little set piece Lifeboat in 1944. After one more film the following year, she would not be seen again by movie audiences until 1965 when she signed on to do a Hammer Films picture in England called Fanatic. (This would be re-titled for U.S. audiences as Die! Die! My Darling!, a title Tallulah felt exploited her famous use of the word darling when referring to practically everyone, though this phrase is actually used in the film itself. It could also have been retitled in order to echo the cadence of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which was a big hit.)

By now, she was ill of health after a lifetime of infamous boozing and bedding. Throughout her life, Tallulah was a dazzling personality with a shocking tongue and an outrageous air about her. Rarely seen without her shoulder-length hair, a smear of dark lipstick and, perhaps, a mink cascading to her ankles while barely holding onto her shoulders, she was a persona that engendered a significant cult following. (This following, to be truthful, sometimes interfered with her attempts to present legitimate stage work, especially in her later career.)

Even though Claudette Colbert was the original choice to play Margo Channing in All About Eve, by the time she injured her back and was out, with Bette Davis stepping in, the role had clearly become more than a little inspired by Tallulah. Take note of this publicity portrait of Tallu from 1947, three years before the release of Eve! (Bankhead and Davis were anything but friends, Davis having inherited more than one role of Bankhead’s while it came time for a movie rendition and eventually playing a version of her on the big screen!)

So what sort of role did this larger than life zenith of nightlife and urban sophistication take on? Try a demure, severe, plain, unquestionably aged widow who lives her live as a diehard, fundamentally religious, near shut-in! It was a fascinating 180-degree portrayal and, you know what? It worked extraordinarily well!

Fanatic concerned a young American lady (played by Stefanie Powers) on a trip to England with her British fiancé who decides to pay an afternoon call on the mother of her previous boyfriend, a troubled young man whose engagement she finally had to break. Having never met the woman, and knowing that the young man had died without having seen her one last time, Powers thinks it only polite to pay a call on her.
After a lengthy drive through the countryside, she arrives at the dilapidated house to find Mrs. Trefoile (Bankhead) and a trio of servants. The groundskeeper (Peter Vaughan) is creepy and lascivious. His wife (Yootha Joyce) runs the household and is rather severe, not to mention quite strong. Also on site is a mentally disabled handyman (played by a young Donald Sutherland) who has a childlike demeanor and naiveté.
Bankhead is simply dressed in black, with her gray hair drawn back into a bun and not an iota of makeup (aside from foundation) on her face, her little legs poking out and landing in a pair of sensible shoes. This alone would be a shock to her followers (and to herself as she once apologized to a viewing party for “looking like God’s wet nurse”), but her entire attitude and demeanor is so different, too. From the instant her character appears on the screen, she is mesmerizing to watch and listen to.
Practically against her will, Powers is “invited” to spend the night, her car put away and her luggage transported to an upstairs room. Things go a bit awry rather quickly, though, when she comes downstairs to supper and is lambasted for wearing the scarlet, “the color of the devil!” She is then taken to task for wearing lipstick and is order to “go upstairs at once and remove that filth” from her mouth.

The food served is a vomitous looking “meatloaf” consisting of soy and wheat germ with no seasoning. (As Bankhead puts it to Powers’ character: “You’ll find no condiments of any kind in this house, Patricia. God’s food is to be eaten unadorned!”) Even this paltry and unappealing meal only comes after a lengthy prayer session in which Tallu hilarious reads from The Bible in a voice that no one else on Earth could ever truly replicate.

By the way, no one then or now ever came close to speaking in the same sort of growling, drawling, half-slurred manner that Tallulah affected. Its gravelly and unusual tone had grown, by this time, into a hypnotically captivating siren song of crackling, guttural utterances, each one belonging in its own shrine for worship.

The next day, Bankhead takes Powers into the nearby town for a visit to church and the two discuss the relationship that Powers had with Bankhead’s deceased son Steven. Powers is horrified to learn that Bankhead considers them forever linked in the eyes of the Lord, based on their betrothal, and intends to keep her clean and untouched in an effort to preserve the sanctity of her dead son’s soul.

From here, things get very dicey as Powers finds that she cannot get away from the crazed old woman and, for some reason, the household staff is willing to join in the plot to keep her there. Joyce acts like a burly bodyguard while Vaughan struggles to keep his hands (and other things) off Powers. Sutherland aimlessly wanders in and out of the situation without really understanding any of it. Powers tries to get him to help her, but it’s ultimately fruitless.

A few more plot twists and turns mean that Bankhead becomes more and more unhinged, giving the actress some delightful opportunities to chew the scenery. Never let it be said, however, that the actress is playing this for cheap laughs or camp value. She is giving a full-on, authentic performance with a dedication and conviction that had been absent from some of her appearances for a time. Though I have never known a religious fanatic to the degree shown here, I have indeed known fundamentalists who are every bit as committed to their beliefs as she is here. It’s a stellar piece of acting, made all the more amazing because of the actress’s precarious state of health during filming.

A lifelong chain-smoker, Bankhead had lived life to its fullest extent, dabbling in everything from drugs to bisexuality to impromptu nudism, and her lungs were a major problem by this time. She had barely survived pneumonia on a few occasions, had emphysema and was considered a significant insurance risk by the company backing the film. Her salary of $50,000 was held as collateral against her not being able to complete filming.

Bankhead adored England and its people, having been the toast of London at many points during her lengthy career, and wanted to do this film badly. After some initial limitations with her workload, she soon became inspired to dive in all the way and began appearing early every day and giving it 100%. Powers was amazed when Tallulah nixed a stunt double for a scene in which she was to be dragged by the 5’3” elderly star down a corridor (Bankhead didn’t like the way the stuntman’s legs looked!)

This film was made, literally, during Bankhead's last gasps of life and she gives it her ALL. Every glance, every nuance, every crackled, garbled word of her performance is so interesting and so right on, it is REQUIRED VIEWING to watch her a second time in order to catch all the hooty lines she spits out. Her inimitable growl of a voice ranges from blithely polite (as she spouts her platitudes on the simplicity of a clean life) to outright maniacal ("He died in a car accident!!") and she's a complete joy to behold.

She would work a bit after this, but not much! She lent her voice to an animated film called The Daydreamer (playing a character called The Sea Witch!) and did an episode of The Red Skelton Hour before taking on her very last role, that of a villain on the campy TV series Batman in 1967. Playing Black Widow, she reverted to her longer dark hair and customary slash of lipstick. (In one hysterical sequence, she dons a Robin outfit in order to impersonate The Boy Wonder!) She would finally expire (in my estimation the perfect word to use for such a signal flare of a human being!) on December 12th, 1968 of double pneumonia, influenza and emphysema. It took three things to do this force of nature in!
One might expect a presence as significant as Tallulah Bankhead, in a role this Grand Guignol, to completely erase her costars, but, to their credit, they hold their own. Even though Powers often overacts certain reactions and intentions in the accepted acting style of the time, she makes a good adversary for Bankhead. They square off against each other pretty well and Powers displays not a small mount of gumption. Her own resonant, very distinctive sounding voice makes a nice counterpoint to Bankhead’s gravelly rattle.

Powers would occasionally visit Bankhead in New York in the few years following the film before her death and Bankhead would, in an amusingly reversed scenario from the film, chide her for not having on (or not enough) lipstick! The two established a connection during filming, though, and enjoyed their occasional visits. Amusingly, Bankhead usually referred to Powers as “Patricia,” her character in the film they did together!

The same year Powers made this film, she also did the Lana Turner movie Love Has Many Faces, so it was a banner year for working with the divas! She would appear in feature films sporadically after this (including the big-star debacle remake of Stagecoach) before segueing into TV as a much sought after guest star and TV-movie actress. Eventually, of course, she would score a hit with Hart to Hart opposite Robert Wagner.

Ms. Joyce had been and would continue to be a very busy British character actress in TV and films there, though she suffered from chronic alcoholism. She died in 1980 at the age of only fifty-three of hepatitis. Blonde for the better part of her career after this, she at times looked sort of like a goofy version of Annie Lennox and the two could easily have played mother and daughter or aunt and niece in some type of project.

Vaughan, likewise, was and is a very busy character actor, often, but not always, as threatening types. He had a featured role in Sam Peckinpah’s violent Straw Dogs in 1971, remaining in demand even as an older gent in Remains of the Day (as Anthony Hopkins’ feeble father) and stealing scenes in a major way in 2007’s Death at a Funeral (as the cranky, wheelchair-bound Uncle Alfie.)

Maurice Kaufmann, who played Stef’s current fiancé, is lesser known, but was by no means less busy an actor. He worked on many, many projects from the early 1950s through the early ‘80s and was married to Honor Blackman for close to fifteen years. He was felled by cancer in 1997 at age seventy.
Sutherland, of course, went on to become a very prominent leading man of the 1970s and is still very busy today. This was not his first film, but it is the first one that gave him a substantial part. Two years later, he would be selected for The Dirty Dozen and that film’s major success would lead to other film work, including MASH (he's fourth from the left in this rather racy publicity photo), until he was a star. Most people under the sun are aware that his son, Kiefer, has also enjoyed a successful career.

The film is dated in its hair/clothing and some of its herky-jerky camera work and oh-so-‘60s music (which, at times, is extremely overbearing), but still manages to be quite creepy and suspenseful. There are a few artful touches by director Silvio Narizzano along the way, though he had his hands full. He and Bankhead clashed several times over things she felt were inappropriate, though in their off hours, they got on famously. (He referred to her as “magnificent, but impossible.”)
It’s also of interest to note how Bankhead’s dead son Steven can be read as a closeted or guilt-ridden homosexual. (Certainly the portrait of him that she worships does nothing to dissuade this notion! Check out his pastel polo with the turned-up collar.) It’s subtle, but it’s there. It's Tallulah's show all the way, though. The relish and devotion with which she attacks this final screen role is a treasure to witness and is, in the final analysis, quite unforgettable.

(Editor's Note: Regular readers here already know I'm half-loony, but I think I've officially gone insane now. When I was 90% done with this "new" post, I discovered that I had already profiled this movie a year ago and had completely forgotten it! So now I have combined the material from that post and this one for what I will call an expanded edition. Sorry for the rehash. I'm off now to look for an affordable mental asylum.)


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