BOOKS : Trouble for Tallulah; Tallulah! The Life And Times Of A Leading Lady by Joel Lobenthal, Aurum, pounds 20. Reviewed by Caroline Foulkes.
``Only good girls keep diaries,'' Tallulah Bankhead once quipped.
``Bad girls don't have the time.'' But while La Bankhead might have been too busy being bad to record what she was up to (although she did find time to stump up an autobiography in 1952), Joel Lobenthal has made it his life's work.
Lobenthal began his research into Bankhead when he was a college freshman. A stonking 25 years later, he has finally produced this magnum opus, having become convinced, during a research trip to London in 1978, that ``there was a need for a new appraisal of Tallulah that would acknowledge her often paradoxical emotional, sexual and intellectual dimensions while also studying in depth her 50 year career on stage, screen, radio and television''.
That Bankhead is a fascinating character is beyond doubt. An archetypal Southern Belle, born into a blue-blooded Albama family, she displayed her talent for acting and imitation at an early age by mimicking her stepmother. HerCongressman father rebuked her, saying that ``the place for people to give impersonations is on the stage!''
``And so the seed was planted'', Bankhead claimed.
At 15 she went to New York to make her name, and became part of the infamous Algonquin Hotel set, despite being chaperoned by her strait-laced aunt.
From then on, she was hellbent on fulfilling two ambitions - being a famous actress, and a notorious socialite. With her china doll beauty and risque wit, it wasn't long before she succeededBy the time she came to London at the age of 19, she had already begun to forge a reputation for herself, for her antics both onstage and off.
Answering the door naked, turning cartwheels with no knickers on and introducing herself to strangers with the line, ``My name's Tallulah Bankhead. I'm a lesbian. What do you do?'' were among her tamer exploits.
Her list of lovers was said to include Billie Holliday, Cecil Beaton, Marlon Brando, tennis champion Jean Borotra, former Lord Chancellor Lord Birkenhead andeven possibly Edward VII, not to mention five Eton schoolboys who were expelled after allegedly engaging in ``indecent and unnatural practices'' with her in a hotel.
Many other scandalous stories were attributed to her, but Tallulah never minded whether they were true or not - it was all grist to her mill.
Her notoriety alone would have given her a place in film and theatre history, but Tallulah was also considered one of the foremost talents of her day, becoming a leading stage actress on both Broadway and the West End after turning down the chance to star in silent movies.
But the lure of Hollywood proved too much, and in the early Thirties she returned to the USA to make 18 films, most of which are now largely forgotten. The real tragedy for her was probably that she was born too early to really take advantage of the golden era of Hollywood.
Despite being Southern born, David O. Selznick turned her down for the roles of two feisty Southern belles, giving them instead to English actress Vivien Leigh, who was no angel, either. Selznick apparently felt that Tallulah as a virginal Scarlett O'Hara would turn Gone With The Wind into a laughing stock.
He subsequently rejected her for the role of Blanche Du Bois in AStreetcar Named Desire for being too coarse.
The real smack in the face for Bankhead, though, was being replaced by Bette Davies in The Little Foxes. Having made the role of Regina hers on stage, it must have been deeply galling to have Davies step in and steal the role from under her nose.
With four abortions by the age of 30, a bout of untreated gonorrhea that resulted in an emergency hysterectomy that nearly killed her and a growing reliance on drugs and alcohol, Bankhead became increasingly unreliable and an ever great parody of herself.
Asked in the street ``Aren't you Tallulah Bankhead?'' she replied ``I'm what's left of her''. The overall impression you get here is of a spoilt little girl, constantly vying for attention by performing ever more outrageous acts.
Lobenthal's attempt at a reassessment is admirable and does show there was more to Tallulah than her notoriety, but he's certainly had his work cut out. Unfortunately this means he's stretched out this biography to nigh on 600 pages and while Bankhead's life is undoubtedly fascinating, the amount of extraneous detail means this book is often hard work.
Still, if you've spent 25 years on a project, it's often hard to see the woods for the trees
Tallulah Bankhead stars with Charles Bickford in Thunder Below in 1932 and, below, the actress pictured in 1964
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Apr 2, 2005|
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