The Age of Tallulah

Add the late Tallulah Bankhead to the list of middle-aged women throwing themselves into the national political fray this year. Though the celebrated actress -- as currently portrayed in the American premiere of Tallulah by movie star Kathleen Turner -- has even less bona fide political experience than either Liddy Dole or Hillary Clinton, she does have the bloodlines. Both her father and grandfather served in the U.S. Congress. More important, Tallulah has the moxie.

And so does Kathleen Turner, who stars in the new one-woman show about the actress who headlined such dramas as Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes in 1939, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire in 1956, and Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 film Lifeboat. Bankhead's star has permanently faded (she died in 1968), but her reputation for outrageous fun lives on. The play about her life, which recently opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse (where Bankhead once performed Streetcar) is also outrageous fun. It's an engaging mix of several overlapping themes: life in the theater, campaigning of various sorts, and the difficulty of finding roles for actresses over age 40. Sandra Ryan Heyward, in her first major production, has written the rare play that explores a woman's difficult midlife crisis, and for that reason alone it's compelling.

Set in 1947, Tallulah opens as the Alabama-born actress, living in New York, prepares for a fundraiser for Pres. Harry Truman. She directly addresses the Playhouse audience as though we were guests in her bedroom, privy to her preparty prattling. (It's an odd conceit, yes, but it works.) As she dresses for the evening, Tallulah dishes dirt on Marlon Brando, takes phone calls from pals Noël Coward and Tennessee Williams, and warms up to old friend Jim Beam, as well as a flute or two of champagne.

The real Tallulah Bankhead (she was named after a waterfall) is remembered for her dynamic personality more than for her contributions to the American stage. She was the proverbial life of the party, a woman prone to making bold statements along the lines of this choice morsel: "Good acting, darling, is like a great fuck." In the play Tallulah talks to her agent about a potential costar, admitting that not only can she "see him in the part," she can see him "bronzed and in my boudoir."

Tallulah's brashness is perfectly suited to Kathleen Turner, whose husky laugh and comfortable sexiness infused not only the film noir Body Heat but also such offbeat comedies as Prizzi's Honor and Serial Mom. Turner, in a manner foreign to any other actress who comes to mind, employs a gutsy verbal tic that suggests both Tallulah's coyness and her insecurity. How does she do this? Simply by inserting unscripted snorts throughout her monologue. At one point, for example, Tallulah (a woman who was famously afraid of the dark) speaks of the urge to "get through the night with a few friends and -- ha! -- some belly laughs."

Tallulah presents a woman prepared for life in the theater by a childhood on the political campaign trail. The future actress grew up stumping for her beloved father. (He was widowed when his wife died from complications during Tallulah's birth.) "All he ever wanted to be was an actor," she recalls. She studied the Bard because her father had said, "You never know when Shakespeare is going to get you out of a jam."

Ironically Bankhead's performance in the 1937 revival of Antony and Cleopatra was critically panned, but Tallulah jokes that at least the play gave her a chance to perfect her death scenes. Two years after flopping as Queen of the Nile, she won raves as Regina in Little Foxes, her most successful role. But apparently it wasn't long before Tallulah realized that worthy parts for middle-aged women come along, oh, once every 400 years. "I can count the great roles I've had on the big toe of my left foot," she says in a drunken stupor. As the play progresses, Tallulah wrestles with the fact that she's a star, a celebrity rather than a theater genius. "Actors Studio. That Method shit, I don't get it," she grumbles.

When we first meet the star, her career, as she puts it, is in "a deciduous state." That's one reason she playfully considers a run for Congress. Just past the age where she's readily getting romantic leads, Tallulah has been invited to host NBC's new radio variety program The Big Show, but she knows it's a dead-end job. As she dresses for the Truman fundraiser, however, she imagines that her support for the President can be parlayed into a bid for her own political run. As with almost everything else Tallulah dreams up, this notion takes off only to crash almost instantly. She considers a photo op: "Harry -- the President -- and I should probably have a go at the Missouri waltz," she says. She tries a few steps with an imaginary partner, then realizes, "Oh shit, that's the wrong state."

Dashed political hopes aside, the most moving aspect of Tallulah is the arc it follows as the actress struggles with the knowledge that she's approaching the end of her youth, at least by the ridiculous standards of Broadway and Hollywood. When Tallulah jealously says of Brando's career that "he has it all ahead of him," she's speaking of his relative age. But she might as well be confronting the different standards that exist for male and female performers. Granted, Brando is a genius where Bankhead was merely charismatic. But almost every actor of Brando's generation has been able to navigate past his time as a juvenile and land adult parts. Women haven't been as lucky.

Indeed better actresses than Tallulah Bankhead have seen their careers dry up because playwrights and screenwriters don't create characters for them. Even Shakespeare, who gave us young lovers aplenty and middle-aged kings, wasn't much interested in the mothers of those lovers or the queens who ruled with those kings.

Having Kathleen Turner utter Tallulah's eulogy for her lost youth only crystallizes this issue. Unlike Bankhead, of course, Turner is a star and a great actress. With her crocodile grin and girlish demeanor, Turner strongly calls to mind another great star, Lauren Bacall. This resemblance might be forgettable if it weren't for the fact that Bacall is a textbook example of a talented actress for whom there were no parts once she reached midlife.

Will the same fate befall Turner? Could the woman who gave voice to sexpot Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit disappear for the next 20 years, only to emerge playing the sort of senior-citizen roles Bacall gets now? (The show's program notes report that Turner has three film projects in the pipeline.) Given the paltry imagination of the typical Hollywood casting director, such a career hiatus seems entirely possible, even imminent.

That's a shame because Turner is fascinating. She waltzes from the liquor cart to the dumbwaiter to the radio to the bed like an exceedingly articulate prom date. (Loren Sherman's set is full of oversize oak furniture, the better to match the scale of its star inhabitant.) Turner is well directed by Michael Lessac, who even stages one scene in which the actress -- as Tallulah addresses a crowd, Evita-style, out her bedroom window -- performs with her back to the house. Turner, it seems, is magnificent from any angle.

If Tallulah isn't absolutely fabulous, however, it's because Turner's performance, while technically wonderful and engaging, is somewhat emotionally reined in. She's playing a character who is always on, always performing, yet Turner never shows us any of Bankhead's unguarded moments. Even a potentially chilling scene in which Tallulah sings a lullaby over the phone to a despondent Tennessee Williams is poignant rather than heartbreaking. She keeps us slightly removed from the character. In Turner's portrayal of her, Tallulah is indeed larger than life. Occasionally, though, we long for her to be just a little bit life-size.

Written by Sandra Ryan Heyward. Directed by Michael Lessac. Starring Kathleen Turner. Through January 31. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami, 305-442-2662.

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Robin Dougherty