Twenty years ago, Turner debuted as a sexy screen siren in the film noir Body Heat. Today, the actress still struts enough star quality to blow away an audience. She almost did just that when she recently brought the one-woman play Tallulah to the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas. Penned by former Hollywood Reporter writer Sandra Ryan Heywood, Tallulah is clearly still a work in progress, not yet a seamless tour de force. But, in Turner's clutches, it is beginning to show great promise.
Tallulah Bankhead was born in 1902 into a politically prominent family in Huntsville, Alabama. Days later, her mother died from delivery room complications, and her father--Speaker of the House William Brockman Bankhead--blamed the newborn Tallulah for her mother's demise, then proceeded to retreat into bottles of Jim Beam. As a child, Tallulah's vocal cords were damaged by chronic croup, resulting in her famous foghorn voice. Her acting career was launched at age 15 when she won a "screen opportunity" contest in Picture Play magazine. Later, she achieved popular and critical success on the London stage and became a peripheral member of the famed Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel. She even screen tested for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.
Despite star turns on stage in such plays as Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes and on screen in Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Bankhead was primarily famous for being an outrageous lush. A world-renowned lover, the bisexual Bankhead was rumored to be romantically involved with a bizarre roster of celebrities ranging from John Barrymore to Aimee Semple McPherson. The unfathomable list of her sexual conquests also supposedly included Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Hattie McDaniel, and even Winston Churchill. Her last word on her deathbed, however, was "bourbon."
Set in 1948, Tallulah reveals a middle-aged Bankhead preparing to throw a political fund-raiser during which she intends to introduce President Truman to a glittering gathering of her famous friends, then follow up with an announcement of her own candidacy for the U.S. Senate. The dramatic tension of the play arises when Bankhead's blind ambition runs headlong into her notoriously self-defeating behavior. While her bosom buddy Tennessee Williams insisted that Bankhead possessed genuine talent, the playwright also admitted that she often parodied herself onstage and off, especially when she catered to her obsessed, largely lesbian fans.
In attempting to create the Tallulah illusion, Heywood's fast-paced 90-minute script leans heavily on Turner's commanding presence. Although the impetuous Bankhead was perhaps the least inhibited actress to ever win the public's voyeuristic gaze, the Tallulah script occasionally succumbs to the inevitable pitfalls of one-actor stage biographies that require characters to reveal dark secrets they might not even discuss with their closest confidents. For most actresses, Tallulah would be a daunting challenge. (Once, after entering a "Tallulah" drag queen contest and losing to a truck driver, Bankhead said of herself: "Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes, even I have trouble doing it."
Coming to Dallas following a two-week hiatus from her tour, Turner was radiant as she burst onto the set of Tallulah's boudoir at her home in Bedford Village, New York. Her entrance was preceded by an offstage flush of the toilet, an obvious reference to Tallulah's scandalous habit of leaving the bathroom door open so she could continue to participate in conversation beyond its confines. Bankhead was equally infamous for answering her door nude; however, Turner remains clothed throughout the evening, notwithstanding her startling nude scene as Ms. Robinson in last year's London stage adaptation of The Graduate.
Precariously draped in loose-fitting Bob Mackie designs, Turner seemed to be riding high on nervous energy. Her delivery--despite her trademark sultry, near-baritone voice--was overly staccato and breathy, as if she had jogged around the block a couple of times just before attacking the stage. Turner embraces Bankhead's Southern belle persona with only the hint of a Southern accent. She tends to drop final consonants, which sometimes made it difficult for her words to be understood in the barn-like, sound-absorbing Majestic.
Since October, Turner has been touring the country in preparation for a Broadway premiere of Tallulah next fall, but what made the opener of the Dallas Summer Musicals' Broadway Contemporary Series unique was that it marked the actress' first delivery of reportedly substantial rewrites. Changes presumably penned by Paul Selig--who's given a program credit for "additional material," but no bio of his own--no doubt contributed to Turner's spotty performance.
When Turner is good, she's electrifying. However, she became momentarily tongue-tied more than once during the show. Backstage buzz revealed that the script underwent major rewrites that very morning. But Turner's occasionally brilliant performance really needs no excuses; the exhilarating moments of stage magic far outnumbered the infrequent blunders. There's little doubt that Turner eventually will relax into the new material. And, when she nails it all, Tallulah could become the ticket for a career-boosting Broadway smash.
[Tallulah was presented by the Dallas Summer Musicals' Broadway Contemporary Series at the Majestic Theatre through January 14; it is now playing at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, through February 11, before moving to the Fisher Theatre in Detroit, February 13-March 4, and then to the Palace Theatre in Columbus, Ohio, March 6-11. Click here for further information.]