Tallulah Brockman Bankhead (January 31, 1902 – December 12, 1968) was an American actress.
While she made many appearances in films and on television during her career, Bankhead is mostly credited as a stage actress, one of the greatest of the 20th century. Her characters tended to be Ms. Fanservice deadpan snarkers, and her persona has been imitated and parodied as much as Mae West's. Most notably, Bankhead's family were prominent in American politics and Tallulah herself was often vocal about politics as well,note being supportive of the Civil Rights Movement. Although she acted a lot during The Pre-Code Era and The Golden Age of Hollywood, her most successful screen role was in Lifeboat. She also memorably appeared as herself in an episode of the The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.
Bankhead married once and had no children, but debates regarding her sexuality have existed since her death. She was said to have had a reputation of being The Casanova with men, but there have been many arguments that she also went with women as well. These rumors were helped along by Bankhead herelf, who reportedly once described herself as "ambi-sextrous". Much of her maneating reputation made her a public enemy with the Hays Office, which apparently kept a list of actors that needed to either be censored or banned from acting, and Bankhead was at the top of it.
Known for her smoking, Bankhead died in hospital from respiratory issues, as well as malnutrition, the flu, and "double pneumonia". Her final words (from what could be made out by staff) was said to be a request for codeine, followed by a bourbon whiskey.
Blanche DuBois was said to have been inspired by her, as were Cruella DeVille and Ursula the sea witch. It is also commonly assumed that Margo Channing of All About Eve was essentially her, and although the character was actually based on Elisabeth Bergner, inspiration was definitely taken from Bankhead's wardrobe. She's portrayed in Z: The Beginning of Everything (about Zelda Fitzgerald) by Christina Bennett Lind.
Works with TV Tropes pages:
- Actor-Inspired Element: Her character Mrs Trefoile in Die! Die! My Darling was heavily influenced by her real persona; when she was cast, they wrote in a backstory that the character used to be an actress, and pictures of Tallulah from The Little Foxes were used. Mrs Trefoile also calls Patricia "darling" a lot, which Tallulah was known for calling everyone, usually because she had forgotten their names.
- Awesome, Dear Boy: She joked in an interview that she accepted her second Paramount role, in Devil and the Deep, because she had the hots for costar Gary Cooper.
- Friendship on the Set: Although the press tried to promote a 'feuding stars' narrative surrounding Die! Die! My Darling!, she and actress Stefanie Powers got on well and remained friends after filming.
- I Am Not Leonard Nimoy: Tallulah Bankhead was known as an acid-tongued Hard-Drinking Party Girl, glamorous and quite sexually forward for the time. Because her screen career was secondary to her theatre performances, which weren't recorded for posterity, her persona has endured more than her work. Her best known film role, Lifeboat, fully emphasises this.
- Looping Lines: In her final film, Die! Die! My Darling, she had to ADR the Title Drop and infamously turned up drunk and four hours late to the recording session, where it took her the rest of the day to dub the line.
- Money, Dear Boy: When she first went to Hollywood, she wasn't too keen on making films, as she preferred the stage. However, the opportunity to earn $50,000 per film was quite enticing.
- Poor Man's Substitute: Bette Davis told a story of how Tallulah approached her once in a bar and declared "Miss Davis, you played all the parts that I have played. Only I played them so much better." For what it's worth, Bette responded "I couldn't agree more" and continued to talk about Tallulah with great respect for the rest of her life.
- Star-Derailing Role:
- The six films she made under Paramount, where she was wildly miscast in roles that were later admitted to have been given to her because no one else wanted them, deflated the hype that had surrounded her arrival in Hollywood. Her outspokenness about sexuality and general preference for the stage led to her departing before her contract had ended.
- While it looked like Career Resurrection was on the cards after the success of Lifeboat, which was widely praised for utilising her abilities and persona at long last, the follow-up was A Royal Scandal, which received lacklustre reviews, even if her performance was praised. She went back to the stage, only making one more film and only appearing As Herself on television.
- Stunt Casting: Alfred Hitchcock said of casting her as Constance in Lifeboat:"It was the most oblique, incongruous bit of casting I could think of. Isn't a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic the last place one would expect Tallulah?"
- What Could Have Been:
- She was supposed to play the lead in the original stage run of Jezebel, but she was hospitalized for severe gonorrhea and had to have a hysterectomy. While the production had hoped to wait for her to recover, they ultimately had to cast Miriam Hopkins to replace her.
- Although she had left Hollywood by the mid 1930s, she was keen to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. She took three months to prepare for her screen test (as she was now 36, and playing Scarlett in the first half would be tricky). While her screen test was strong, she was deemed too old to convincingly play the teenage Scarlett too. They offered her the role of Belle Watling, but she turned it down.
- Hollywood also tried to lure her back with the offer to play Mildred in Of Human Bondage. She was unconfident about her cockney accent, and worried about upsetting her English friends, so she turned the part down. It became the true breakout role for Bette Davis.
- It was neck and neck between her and Greta Garbo for the role of Catherine the Great in A Royal Scandal. Garbo had left Hollywood after the disaster that was Two-Faced Woman, but was interested in returning for this. As Tallulah was riding higher for the success of Lifeboat, and Garbo hadn't been in a film in three years, the part went to Tallulah.