Saturday, March 20, 2010

Die! Die! My Darling! on Broadway

What, you may ask, was I doing at Looped, a Broadway play starring Valerie Harper (Mary Tyler Moore’s brash pal Rhoda and star of my favorite underrated TV horror movie) as pioneering celebutante Tallulah Bankhead?

Well, I love a vintage Hollywood scandal and Bankhead could shock ‘em in Sheboygan like nobody’s business. A daughter of Southern privilege and influence, if not wealth, she was raised to be a proper lady and willfully fashioned herself into an unrepentant tramp — a beautiful, talented, scathingly witty tramp whose brazen bon mots weren’t just outrageous for the time... they were just plain outrageous."My father warned me about men and booze,” Bankhead once drawled in her honey-and-bourbon drawl, “but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine." Oh no she didn't! Yeah, she did. Bankhead eschewed undies more than four decades before Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton were a glimmer on the tabloid horizon, and she didn’t just flash paparazzi: Her southern exposure was the talk of the set during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Hitchcock, the story has it, drolly wondered which department was best equipped to handle the problem — make-up or hair.

Anyway, back to Looped. Playwright Matthew Lombardo was inspired by one of those show-business anecdotes that would sound too good to be true were it about anyone but Bankhead. In 1964, Bankhead was called to a UK sound studio to loop several lines of dialogue from the Hammer thriller Fanatic/Die! Die! My Darling!, which wound up being her last film. The session, which should have taken no more than an hour, became an all-day endurance test; a 45-minute piece of audiotape survived and bears witness to the antics of an aging star who was unfocused, drunk, very possibly high and thoroughly impossible.

Lombardo used the legendary incident as a jumping off point for his three-person psychodrama: Relocated to Los Angeles, it traps Bankhead and her reluctant director — actually a hapless editor pressed into service because he's there and the real director has decamped in disgust. He tries to coax Bankhead into looping a single line — “As I was telling you, Patricia, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me" — while an unflappable sound technician observes from his second-story booth. Souls are bared, secret traumas revealed and the relationship between image and reality parsed. The play itself is formulaic, but Harper is terrific; if God had granted her Kathleen Turner’s voice her performance would be pitch perfect.

That said, the horror geek in me came away wishing that Fanatic hadn’t been reduced to dramatic shorthand for “crass, humiliating exploitation of aging movie goddesses cruelly discarded by Hollywood," the epitome of hag horror. Whatever the movie’s flaws, I can't help but admire the malicious wit inherent in casting a godless reprobate like Bankhead as a puritanical religious zealot, let alone one unhinged by the strenuously repressed knowledge that the beloved son she lost to a single-car “accident” was gay and killed himself rather than deal with her deluded expectations. After all, Bankhead — the uber-idol of acid-tongued drag queens — loved her gays long before Kathy Griffin. The screenplay was adapted by Richard Matheson from Elizabeth Linington’s Edgar Award-nominated novel Nightmare, and it was was directed by Silvio Narizzano, who made the swinging sixties classic Georgy Girl... my point being that Fanatic was at least as respectable as the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford shocker What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which got five Oscar nominations.

Now remind me again why celebrities like Simon LeBon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Bruce Willis/Demi Moore, named their daughters Tallulah? Yes, Bankhead was fabulous... fabulously tormented, self-destructive and ultimately miserable. You might as well curse your little girl with Tamar and be done with it.

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