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APPRECIATION : Jessica Tandy: She Was Just Who She Was

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

If they ever get this time travel thing down and we could attend three performances, here’s what I’d see: Richard Burbage’s Hamlet, Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice and Jessica Tandy’s Blanche DuBois, the last of which made the actress a star in this country and, later, a legend.

Tandy didn’t get to preserve her 1947 role on film because another British actress, Vivien Leigh, was fated to play out the saga of an aging Southern belle for all time in the 1951 movie. But Tandy’s performance in the Tennessee Williams play--which inspired Brooks Atkinson to write, “It does seem almost incredible that she could understand such an elusive part so thoroughly and that she can convey it with so many shades and impulses that are accurate, revealing and true"--somehow has made itself felt throughout the decades even by people who can only imagine it.

And with the death Sunday in Connecticut at age 85 of this incomparable actress, we will continue to imagine it. The reason we can imagine it is that so many of Tandy’s performances have been graceful and seamless. Onstage she often seemed to touch perfection, notably in the last decade as the Appalachian widow who momentarily recalls the euphoric courtship of her youth in “Foxfire.”

Youth was something she never lost. On film she demonstrated how a seemingly selfish elderly woman could learn and achieve surprising compassion in “Driving Miss Daisy.”

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No wonder. Offstage, she aged so gracefully in a youth-oriented culture and business that she was an inspiration simply to look at. No plastic surgery, no vanity--she was just who she was. To her great credit, she always seemed straightforward and plain-speaking, despite her film stardom and the fact that she played opposite some of the greatest actors of the century.

By the age of 31, she had appeared with Laurence Olivier in “Twelfth Night” and “Henry V,” and with John Gielgud in “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” When she moved to this country from London in 1940, she became associated with the work of some of our greatest and most popular modern playwrights, including Williams, Edward Albee, as well as with Peter Shaffer and Samuel Beckett. With her husband, actor Hume Cronyn, she also graced the plays (such as “The Gin Game”) of lesser-known authors who would certainly never have gotten to Broadway without America’s premier acting couple.

Offstage, her 52-year marriage to Cronyn seemed to glow with an enviable, quiet contentment. Tandy was that unusual great actress whose private life appears to have been as rich and rewarding as her public one.

Having come somewhat late on the scene, my memories of her onstage are somewhat limited. In fact, the last time I saw Tandy was in 1983 in a Broadway revival of Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” British director John Dexter supplied what seemed to me a textbookish production that respected the play’s reputation as a masterpiece without proving it definitively. As Amanda Wingfield, Tandy struck me as too cold. I now believe I didn’t have the maturity to understand what I was seeing.

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Yet her performance somehow stayed with me--several years later I dreamed of it. That is the kind of legacy she leaves, a truly theatrical one, ephemeral and yet as powerful as a dream.


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