Tallulah Bankhead was a character. Playwright Matthew Lombardo calls her “the original celebrity bad girl,” an actress who became more famous for her offstage, off-screen antics than for her performances — which, in a few instances, were magnificent.
How bad was Bankhead?
The Alabama-born daughter of U.S. Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead had a thing about clothes: She didn’t like them. On more than one occasion — including her run as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the Coconut Grove Playhouse — she would answer a knock at her dressing room door wearing nothing but a string of pearls. She famously did cartwheels while wearing a dress and no underwear. She was bisexually voracious, a heavy smoker and enthusiastic bourbon drinker who swore that cocaine — another of her enduring enthusiasms — wasn’t habit-forming.
“She was far more talented than Bette Davis or Joan Crawford,” Lombardo argues. “But they played by the rules.”
So Lombardo, the author of Tea at Five (about Katharine Hepburn) and High (a play featuring Kathleen Turner as an unorthodox, potty-mouthed nun), wrote Looped.
The play, which lasted for 27 previews and 33 performances on Broadway in 2010, earned a best actress Tony Award nomination for its original star, Valerie Harper. She was slated to star as Bankhead in the Looped national tour, which kicks off at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse. But unspecified health problems caused Harper, who became a famous television face as Mary Tyler Moore’s pal Rhoda, to bow out. In her just-released memoir I, Rhoda, Harper revealed she was treated for lung cancer when Looped was on its way to Broadway, something she had never discussed with Lombardo or director Rob Ruggiero.
So now another familiar TV star, Stefanie Powers of Hart to Hart, will be the woman sporting Bankhead’s wavy hairdo and swearing up a storm in Lombardo’s raucous, funny play.
Though Looped was written with Harper in mind and shaped with her playing Bankhead at three theaters (including the former Cuillo Centre in West Palm Beach) on its road to Broadway, Powers brings a special insider’s perspective to the play, one that Lombardo, Harper and Ruggiero simply didn’t have.
The play’s title refers not to Bankhead’s inebriated state — though in Looped, she’s pretty well pickled — but to a 1965 session in which she had to re-record a line of dialogue for the movie Die, Die, My Darling. In the British thriller Fanatic, Bankhead played a religious zealot who goes off the deep end, trying to kill the young woman who had been engaged to her late son. That almost daughter-in-law was played by a young actress in her first big movie role: Stefanie Powers.
“I wouldn’t call this a comedy,” Powers says of Looped. “She was intrinsically a very daring and funny woman. If the dialogue is funny, it comes out of this extraordinary wit. She was always a bit shocking...I want to channel her as much as I possibly can. It has to resonate in my head.”
“Val’s Tony-nominated Tallulah was wonderful. But we had to craft it and work at the rhythms of how she speaks,” says Ruggiero. “With Stefanie, it’s second nature. She was there.”
Lombardo, who splits his time between New York and Fort Lauderdale, has an affinity for plays centered around strong female characters. He had never had a special interest in Bankhead, an actress whose most notable stage work was in The Little Foxes and The Skin of Our Teeth, and who won a New York Film Critics Circle best actress award for the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat. But a chance remark at a party launched Lombardo on the journey to Looped.
A partygoer asked if he had ever heard the story about Bankhead showing up less than sober to re-record this tongue twister of a line from Die, Die, My Darling: “And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me.”
The original mistake wasn’t Bankhead’s. A sound guy hit some shrubbery with a microphone, obscuring most of her line. But because of Bankhead’s condition on the day revisited in the play, what should have been a few minutes’ work in a recording studio turned into hours.
“She had these ‘caddies,’ gay men who followed her around and helped her out, and one of them had recorded the session, unbeknownst to her,” Lombardo says. “The tape is 30 minutes long, and she cannot get the line. I listened to it over and over, and it went from a hysterical, laugh-out-loud experience to something else. The drinking, drugs and promiscuity all caught up with her, and she became a caricature of herself.”
Looped is a mixture of fact and creative license. To give Bankhead an opponent, Lombardo created the character of Danny Miller, a film editor who grows increasingly exasperated with the misbehaving star.
“I threw her in a room with someone who was her complete opposite,” the playwright says, “a very conservative, quiet, meek film editor. A sheep.”
Ruggiero says of Bankhead: “She was a woman who lived her life fully, without apology. She was vivid and unedited. The gay community felt a connection to her because of her sense of humor and camp ...We all care what people think of us, but she pretended she didn’t.”
He adds that having Powers as the larger-than-life woman in that room has been enlightening.
“Stefanie shares stories from the movie set. They pop in and out, like an oral history,” Ruggiero says.
Powers was a 23-year-old ingénue when she made Die, Die, My Darling. She’s 70 now, a woman who can look back on a multifaceted career in movies, TV and on stage; and on a life fully lived, including a romance with William Holden and her own successful battle with lung cancer.
Her assessment of Bankhead, her onetime costar?
“This self-destructive engine that moved her and her personal lifestyle choices were extremely damaging to her artistry. They engulfed her at the end. But the world she came from tolerated great eccentricity in successful people. It was encouraged and enjoyed. It can’t be reproduced in this homogeneous society we have now.”