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Tallulah Bankhead

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Tallulah Bankhead, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1934

Tallulah Brockman Bankhead (January 31, 1902 - December 12, 1968) was a United States actress, talk-show host, and bon vivant, born in Huntsville, Alabama.

She was the daughter of Congressman William Brockman Bankhead (1874-1940) (Democrat from Alabama 1917-1940, Speaker of the House 1936-1940), niece of Senator John H. Bankhead II (1872-1946) (Democrat from Alabama 1931-1946), and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead (1842-1920) (Democrat from Alabama 1907-1920).

At 15, Tallulah Bankhead won a movie-magazine beauty contest & convinced her family to let her move to New York. She quickly won bit parts, first appearing in a non-speaking role in The Squab Farm.

During these early New York years, she became a peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table and known as a hard-partying girl-about-town. She also became known for her wit, although as screenwriter Anita Loos, another minor Roundtable member said: "She was so pretty that we thought she must be stupid."

In 1923, she made her debut on the London stage, where she was to appear in over a dozen plays in the next eight years. Famous as an actress, she was famous, too, for her drinking, drug taking, and many affairs with men and women. By the end of the decade, she was one of the West End's -- and England's -- best-known celebrities.

She returned to US in 1931 to be Paramount Picture's "next Marlene Dietrich", but Hollywood success eluded her in her first four films of the 30s. Critics agree that her acting was flat and that she was unable to dominate the camera -- and that she was generally outclassed by Dietrich, Carole Lombard, et al.

Nevertheless, David O. Selznick called her the "first choice among established stars" to play Scarlett O'Hara.

Polled, moviegoers thought otherwise. Her screen test for Gone with the Wind put her out of the running for good -- Selznick decided that she was too old (at 34) for Scarlett's antebellum scenes (One also wonders if the cynical Bankhead could have played "Fiddle-Dee-Dee" Scarlett with anything approaching a straight face).

Returning to Broadway, Tallulah's career stalled in unmemorable plays until she played Regina in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939). Her portrayal won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Performance. More success and the same award followed her 1942 performance in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth.

In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock cast her as journalist and cynic Constance Porter in Lifeboat. The performance is widely acknowledged as her best on film, and won her the New York Screen Critics Award.

Bankhead continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s, on Broadway, in the occasional film, as a highly-popular radio show host, and in the new medium of television. Her appearance as herself on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Comedy Hour in 1957 as "The Neighbor Next Door" -- drunk, according to Lucille Ball -- is a cult favorite as is her role as the Black Widow on television's Batman.

But her career was in decline by the mid-1950s. Her outrageous behavior -- fueled by a two-bottle-a-day consumption of Old Grand Dad -- continued unabated. And behavior that was endearingly wicked in a flapper starlet of the Twenties was wearyingly vulgar in an aging, falling star in the Sixties. Bankhead never faded from the public eye, but was increasingly a caricature of her former self.

Tallulah Bankhead died in New York City of pneumonia arising from influenza, complicated further by emphysema, in December 1968.

She was married only once, to actor John Emery from 1937-1941.

Famous Quotes

Some of her lines have become classic quotes, such as the ones below:

  • I'll come and make love to you at five o'clock. If I'm late, start without me.
  • They used to shoot her through gauze. You should shoot me through linoleum. (Referring to Shirley Temple)
  • I'm as pure as the driven slush.
  • It's the good girls who keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time.
  • If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner.


Filmography

Theater Performances

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