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Hello, darling! A diva gets her due

John Rechy is the author of "City of Night," "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens" and the forthcoming "Beneath the Skin: Collected Essays."

The decline of a grand monster is often pitiable, by the very nature of its grandeur. King Kong becomes poignant in his obsessive love for Fay Wray, although his courtship has destroyed thousands of jungle natives and New Yorkers. Even Frankenstein’s monster, having decimated Bavarian villagers, tugs at our heartstrings when he encounters the sappy blind man who serenades him sweetly with a violin. Although certainly not of that caliber, in the long roster of theatrical monsters Tallulah Bankhead shoves her way to the top, a commanding figure bigger than life, one of the last true divas before that word deteriorated into syntactical promiscuity to include everyone from the sassy Jennifer Lopez to the brassy Madonna.

Joel Lobenthal’s “Tallulah!” undertakes the Sisyphean task of redeeming the life of the wondrous actress from the entrenched notions surrounding her. When the author becomes too noble, his subject breaks away from him -- even from beyond the grave, Bankhead can grasp control. The emergent portrait is one of contradictions, excesses, destructiveness.

While unearthing unlikely communists of her own, Bankhead denounced the House Committee on Un-American Activities. A woman who lavished gifts and defended friends, she turned her back on Billie Holiday, her former lover, as related by Lobenthal; she had players fired who might upstage her. A Southern aristocrat, she decried vulgarity, yet converted it into a dubious art, performing without underclothes to the horror or delight of front-row audiences; she might greet houseguests in the nude. At age 36, she pursued the film role of Scarlett O’Hara, supposedly in her teens when “Gone With the Wind” opens. Despite her devotion to the theater, she performed under the influence of alcohol and cocaine. She demanded footlights to flatter her appearance. She claimed more than 180 desultory sexual conquests, with both men and women. And always, always, like a petulant child, she expected love as her due.

The exclamation mark in the title of Lobenthal’s biography asserts the difficulty he faced in reassessing Bankhead’s extravagant reputation beyond the exaggerations. Utter her name among theatrical aficionados and the initial reaction will likely be laughter, at least a chuckle -- not necessarily derisive, often loving -- almost in tribute, but nonetheless laughter at her extreme reputation. What will probably follow from the initiated will be a suggestive anecdote.

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Bankhead’s life is rich in anecdotes, and Lobenthal offers a trove of choice ones, often as evidentiary “truths": Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich, periodic lesbians, weigh the pluses and minuses of sex with women and sex with men. When Bankhead and Lillian Hellman, at odds over Hellman’s enduring support of Stalin, meet accidentally, Bankhead issues her trademark “Hello, darling!” -- realizing, too late, that she has greeted the archfiend Hellman.

To rebut the charge that Bankhead most often “played only herself” at the expense of a playwright’s characterization, Lobenthal analyzes in usually admiring detail everything she appeared in, including the movie clunkers that marked her limited Hollywood career, the only notable one of her films being Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” in which indeed she gave a sumptuous performance as herself. It was the theater that created her extravagant fame.

Continuing his defense, Lobenthal denounces theatrical pedants who demand technique “indiscriminately without clarifying what technique actually means.” He lauds Bankhead’s elegant style. He dismisses Lee Strasberg’s dizzying Method acting technique to support Bankhead’s rejection of it as “amateurish"; and he offers examples of lavish praise she received, as well as the snippy assaults she endured. She was celebrated as Regina in “The Little Foxes” and bravely played Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s drama -- while complaining about the jangling bracelets another actress wore. Lobenthal renders his verdict: The roles for which she was castigated were beneath her, and she brought freshness even to the most turgid dramas.

Lobenthal attributes the Broadway failure of Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More” to director Tony Richardson’s being in hot pursuit of Tab Hunter -- not renowned for his acting skills -- and so miscasting him as the moony poet, rehearsing him privately while denying Bankhead’s request for direction by saying, coldly, “You’re the actress.” Unchivalrous, he disallowed her comforting footlights.

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Elia Kazan, Noel Coward, Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando, along with dozens of male and female lovers -- a gallery of the famed and notorious -- become Lobenthal’s robust cast in his lively restoration of Broadway theater when it was at its peak, glorious and tawdry, a world of ferocious loyalties split in a moment over discriminating stage lights, extravagant declarations of love usurped by peevish competitions, calamitous failures followed by standing ovations, characters of towering dignity brought to life onstage by actors involved in childish petulance.

Among the villains Lobenthal uncovers are the fans who helped make her a giant presence: "[T]he most strident members of Tallulah’s gay following made themselves felt with a vengeance” at the opening-night disaster of the City Center’s revival of Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Bankhead as Blanche. In one scene, Blanche looks up at the sky and utters perhaps the silliest lines the great playwright wrote: “I’m looking for the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, but those girls are not out tonight. Oh, yes, they are, there they are. God bless them! All in a bunch home from their little bridge party.” Gay men in the audience erupted into “pseudo-sophisticated laughter.”

Both Williams and Bankhead were sorrowfully appalled, Lobenthal contends, without noting the feud played out in the letters column of the New York Times after Williams privately accused Bankhead of destroying his play, then retrenched publicly, only to have her fire back at his boozy declamations.

Surely, both actress and playwright knew that the dippy reference to sisters out in a bunch tonight would arouse laughter among a large gay audience that would take this as an insider’s reference to them. To render Bankhead blameless in the debacle, Lobenthal informs that the second night, “with no cult present” -- an absence difficult to believe -- “there was not one unwanted laugh.”

Yet at the performance this reviewer saw of that production, when Bankhead uttered the giddy lines, that audience also burst into laughter. And Bankhead laughed back, her raucous signature laughter. Blanche sank not into despair but camp.

Lobenthal leaves unexplored the implicit contract a gay moll -- and Tallulah Bankhead was considered by many gay men a quintessential gay moll -- makes with her following: Usually in her descent, she courts and receives their worshipful attention. They will adore her but not love her, and she reduces them to fawning “boys.” The boisterous claque Lobenthal decries was both celebrating and castigating, “payback” in that harsh arrangement.

Photographs in “Tallulah!” dispel the notion of Lobenthal and others that Bankhead was a great beauty. A smashingly handsome woman, she appeared increasingly mannish as she aged, becoming finally almost identical to the drag queens who imitated her. Like Bette Davis and the later Joan Crawford, she played only beautiful women, their entrances requiring preparatory tributes to their beauty to suspend disbelief.

In her last years, Bankhead retreated, wounded. And pitiable. In Lobenthal’s depiction, she becomes poignant. In radio and dreaded television, she resigned herself to being “Tallulah,” a caricature of herself. Financially unstable, she sank into the degrading role of a deranged woman in one of her few films. Its English title, “Fanatic,” became in America, against her wishes, “Die! Die! My Darling!” -- a cruel epitaph for the declining actress.

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In this authoritative account of Bankhead’s life, Lobenthal succeeds in providing ample evidence for his arguments. What is unassailable is that Tallulah Bankhead was one of the greatest stars of the theater. That is more than enough to render her triumphant. *


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