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O Canada! O Tallulah!

Charles Wright reviews new biographies of actors Canada Lee and Tallulah Bankhead, who had several things in common. logo
In eulogizing Ossie Davis earlier this month, Harry Belafonte praised the esteemed actor-playwright for his courage and "commitment to social and political causes," comparing him to Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Fanny Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Absent from Belafonte's list was actor Canada Lee, who -- like Robeson -- broke new ground for African-American performers on stage and screen and who -- like all on the list -- contested racial injustice in 20th century America. A household name in the 1940s and '50s whose career became a casualty of Cold War politics, Lee has been largely overlooked by posterity. Mona Z. Smith's thorough new book, Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee (Faber and Faber, 432 pp., $27), is the first detailed profile of a figure who belongs among those heroes of the civil rights movement invoked by Belafonte.

In 1941, when the leading lights of the New York stage had as much celebrity as movie stars, Lee made a name for himself playing Bigger Thomas in Orson Welles' production of Native Son, adapted from the novel by Richard Wright. Five years later, in a high-profile production of The Duchess of Malfi, he was one of the first black American actors -- perhaps the very first -- cast without regard to race in a Broadway production. At a time when classical roles were virtually unavailable to professional actors of color, Lee played Prospero and Othello, though he wasn't able to fulfill the dream of acting the Moor on Broadway.

Lee's father was Afro-Caribbean; his mother, also of African descent, came from the American South. He assembled his memorably staccato stage moniker from syllables of the rather grand name that his parents had given him at birth: Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata. Though his paternal relatives had been affluent in the Virgin Islands, Lee was born in San Juan Hill, an impoverished, rough-and-tumble district on Manhattan's Upper West Side. At an early age, he moved with his family to Harlem. Though he was a violin prodigy, he dropped out of school at 14 and worked as a jockey, a boxer, and a band leader before becoming an actor.

Canada Lee used his fame to oppose lynching and poll taxes, and to draw public notice to the irony of sending a U.S. army segregated by race to fight Nazi racism. After filming Zoltan Korda's Cry, the Beloved Country in South Africa, he lobbied the United States government to oppose the Cape Town regime, raising awareness of South African apartheid among his own countrymen. But, as the Cold War progressed, Lee's liberal pronouncements raised the ire of rabid anti-Communists. In the tumult of the Red Scare, he found himself maligned by right-wing journalists, shadowed by the FBI, and passed over for work in mainstream American movies and on television. When he died of heart failure in 1952, those around him speculated that his medical condition had been exacerbated, if not precipitated, by the stress of the blacklist.

Almost half of Becoming Something concerns Lee's life during the McCarthy era. In depicting the social and political background of the period, Smith relies pretty strictly on previously published sources. Her summaries of other writers' findings have the rote quality of an academic exercise, but her account of Lee himself -- which owes much to conversations with his widow, Frances Lee Pearson, and his nephew, Bill Canegata -- is far more vivid. Though Becoming Something lacks the narrative verve of recent chronicles of the same era -- such as Ellen Schrecker's Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America and Patricia Bosworth's Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story -- it's a complex and sympathetic portrait, often compelling to read, that never risks sentimentality or undue adulation. Smith tells Lee's story with concision, structural clarity and, most of all, an emphatic sense of how each period of the subject's life relates to what preceded it. In the end, the author exonerates Lee of being a communist or a fellow traveler. What she can't settle is whether or not his death at age 45 was caused, in whole or part, by political oppression.

Canada Lee and actress Tallulah Bankhead, though far apart on the social continuum of Jim Crow America, were friends as well as colleagues; they had similarly progressive views on politics, race relations, and sexual morality. Besides traveling in the same circles and supporting the same liberal causes, the two worked together on-screen in Lifeboat, a 20th Century-Fox melodrama directed by Alfred Hitchcock, about a group of Americans adrift on a raft with a German from the U-Boat that torpedoed their ship. In the film, which is loosely based on a treatment by John Steinbeck, Bankhead plays a worldly journalist and Lee -- reportedly against his better judgment -- appears as a sailor whose servile character would be politically verboten in a Hollywood screenplay today. Yet, except for Cry, the Beloved Country at the end of his life, Lee never had a screen opportunity to match Lifeboat.

The film was a high point in Bankhead's screen career, as well. Though Lee and Bankhead each made several movies, both were always better known for their stage work. Viewing Lifeboat today, one can only imagine how riveting these two must have been when their magnetism and the full sonorousness of their voices were experienced in the confined space of a playhouse. Born in Alabama in 1902, Bankhead was Canada Lee's senior by a half decade, and she survived him by 16 years. She came from a Southern family with social pretensions and impressive political connections: Her grandfather spent 33 years in Congress, her uncle was a senator, and after serving in the Alabama legislature, her father became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a flamboyant ingénue in London in the 1920s, Bankhead was venerated by the working-class denizens of the "gallery" -- the auditorium's top tier, which contained the cheap seats. Returning to the United States during the Depression, she reached the zenith of her acting career as Regina Giddens in the original production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. Never averse to hard work, Bankhead played Regina for the year-long run on Broadway and then trouped around the country with the drama, doing stints of varying length in all kinds of municipalities and venues -- yet the role went to Bette Davis in the William Wyler screen version.

Bankhead succumbed to pneumonia and emphysema at age 66. Her badass behavior offstage had always upstaged her gift for onstage pyrotechnics, and hard living -- especially prodigious amounts of booze and cigarettes -- transformed her from a beauty to a scrawny, slouching cartoon. Long before she died, her quirks and mannerisms had hardened into a self-caricature that was as recognizable to the public as the full-length mink she liked to drape around her shoulders. Ultimately, Tallulah was reduced to a camp icon, playing the Black Widow on Batman and the creepy Mrs. Trefoile in Die! Die! My Darling!. As acting opportunities became fewer, she kept her face before her fans with guest shots on TV talk shows, delivering racy epigrams in a husky voice that combined southern diphthongs with a highfalutin mid-Atlantic accent.

One might expect that, 36 years after her death, Bankhead's life and career had been sufficiently chronicled in the nine major books about her that have already been published (including her own 1952 autobiography). It's a little surprising, in 2005, to find a mainstream publisher issuing a gigantic new volume about the actress. In writing Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady (Regan Books/Harper Collins, 580 pp., $29.95), Joel Lobenthal -- an editor at Ballet Review -- has completed the quest that he commenced as a college freshman. "When I began to research the life of Tallulah Bankhead...little did I realize that 25 years later this book would come to fruition," he remarks in an introduction. Lobenthal's hagiographic portrait follows Bankhead's career year by year and project by project. The author has exhumed scripts of forgotten plays in which Tallulah appeared, reconstructing them for the reader and assembling a useful picture of the commercial theater in London and New York from the 1920s to the mid-1960s.

Lobenthal's prose, chatty and fluid, ranges across all known shades of purple. His account of Bankhead's life has the irrepressible drive and unstinting detail of an obsessive's conversation but, for the most part, his enthusiasm is the driving force of this anecdotal book. Lobenthal pooh-poohs the cliché of Bankhead as a volatile, drug-crazed harridan causing chaos backstage; he musters what evidence he can of the actress's professionalism, her appreciation of innovative works such as Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, and her attention to details of characterization in the roles she undertook. He acknowledges his subject's self-destructive nature, speculating about unconscious guilt relating to her mother's death from peritonitis soon after giving birth to Tallulah. Like everything in his book, Lobenthal's psychological analysis is glancing and subordinate to a fast-flowing catalogue of anecdotes. It's telling that, despite the physical bulk of this biography, the author never mentions Bankhead's friend, political ally, and on-screen colleague Canada Lee -- not even when discussing Lifeboat.

Mona Z. Smith and Joel Lobenthal
What's missing in both Becoming Something and Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady is the thing that's most difficult for any theater biographer to convey: a sense of what the subject was like when performing. Smith and Lobenthal, neither of whom actually laid eyes on their subjects, draw copiously on critics' observations but fail to encapsulate or explain the magic of Lee and Bankhead. Overall, Smith is more interested in Lee as activist than actor, and Becoming Something focuses on the significance of his theatrical success rather than the reasons for it. Lobenthal comes closest to evoking Tallulah's art when he quotes Jean Dalrymple on the 1956 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire at New York City Center: "I have seen many actresses play Blanche DuBois, but by comparison they were sparrows. Tallulah was an eagle. At the end of the play, pinioned to the floor, she was like that great bird brought down...."

Whether or not Lobenthal convinces the reader that Bankhead was a great actress, as he tries to do, he has no difficulty defending her position as "one of the most colorful women of her time" and one of the era's "most arresting theatrical personas." Both Lobenthal and Smith leave the reader with an impression of their subjects as compelling company, endlessly animated and articulate. "It's the good girls who keep the diaries," Tallulah said, because "bad girls never have the time." And, according to Lillian Hellman, Bankhead declared at a Little Foxes cast party that "cocaine isn't habit-forming and I know because I've been taking it for years."

Canada Lee was as quotable as Bankhead, but where she postured, he took stands. Smeared as a Communist for espousing liberal causes, he defended himself with characteristic eloquence, skillfully shifting the discussion from the personal to the philosophical: "I believe with 99 percent of the American people...that a man has a right to his individual opinion. Further, I believe he has a right, outside of slanderous remarks and downright inciting of riots, to express that opinion. Actually, my beliefs can be summed up thusly: I believe in mankind, therefore I believe in democracy. Since this democracy does not completely exist for my people and other minorities, it is my duty as an American to fight under our democratic processes (freedom of speech, worship, and thought) for these freedoms of which America so proudly boasts. To fight also for that fourth freedom -- freedom from fear!"

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