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Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead

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Also Known As: Died: December 12, 1968
Born: January 31, 1902 Cause of Death: pneumonia
Birth Place: Huntsville, Alabama, USA Profession: Cast ... actor
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BIOGRAPHY

Though primarily a talented stage actress, Tallulah Bankhead appeared in a number of features despite her distaste for Hollywood. In the 1920s and 1930s, Bankhead dazzled theater audiences in London and New York, though she ultimately became more famous for her tempestuous personality and endless string of love affairs than for her stage performances. In fact, it was the idea of Tallulah Bankhead - with her uninhibited nature, hard-drinking lifestyle and sultry come-hither voice calling everyone "Daaahling" - that became her claim to fame. She made her film debut with "Tarnished Lady" (1931), directed by George Cukor, and proceeded to make a handful of unsuccessful pictures like "The Cheat" (1931) and "Faithless" (1932) before turning back to the bright lights of Broadway. Bankhead was both acclaimed in "The Little Foxes" (1939) and "The Skin of Our Teeth" (1942) - both of which catered to her flamboyant nature - and ridiculed, as she was for "Antony and Cleopatra" (1937). Lured back to Hollywood by none other than Alfred Hitchcock, she delivered her strongest big screen performance in "Lifeboat" (1944), but fell under the weight of Otto Preminger's heavy-handed "A Royal Scandal" (1945). Following stints on anthology television and the success of her autobiography, Bankhead's star faded amidst a haze of alcohol and pills, as evidenced by her ragged appearance in "Die! Die! My Darling" (1965). Still, while other stage actresses fell into obscurity after their deaths, Bankhead remained a source of constant fascination that stood as a testament to both her talents and her over-the-top persona.

Born on Jan. 31, 1902 in Huntsville, AL, Bankhead was the daughter of William Brockman Bankhead, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives and a former Speaker of the House, and Adelaide Bankhead, who died weeks after she was born from blood poisoning - an event that left her father bereft, alcoholic and absent from family life. Meanwhile, she came from a family steeped in national politics: her grandfather, John H. Bankhead, was a U.S. senator for Alabama from 1907-1920; her uncle, John H. Bankhead II, was also the senator from Alabama in 1931-1946; and her cousin, Walter W. Bankhead, was a U.S. representative and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1940. As a child, Bankhead displayed a natural gift for performance, though she also demonstrated a penchant for getting into trouble, which led to her attendance at a number of religious schools, including the Convent of the Holy Cross in Washington, D.C. When she was 15, Bankhead won a film magazine beauty contest and persuaded her family to give their blessings for a move to New York City. While there, she began landing bit parts and made her first appearance with a non-speaking role in the play "The Squab Farm."

Even at such a young age, Bankhead quickly developed a reputation for being a girl-about-town, drinking and carousing while also partaking in illicit drugs like marijuana and cocaine. She also became a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a celebrated group of artists who were known for their wisecracking daily luncheons and boasted a membership that included Robert E. Sherwood, Edna Ferber and Dorothy Parker. While continuing to appear on stage, Bankhead made her screen debut in the silent film, "When Men Betray" (1918), and later had her first major stage performance in "Footloose" (1920). She went on to appear in a number of productions on Broadway and also in Baltimore, including "Nice People" (1921), "Sleeping Partners" (1922) and "The Exciters" (1922). Bankhead crossed the Atlantic and began performing in London, wracking up credits like "The Dancers" (1923), "This Marriage" (1924), "The Green Hat" (1925) and "They Knew What They Wanted" (1926), which helped solidify her fame. Her popularity derived in part from her extravagant personality and willingness to sleep with just about anyone, famous or not.

Bankhead spent eight years performing on the London stage, where she became known for delivering quality performances despite mediocre material. She also returned to the screen, appearing in British films like "His House in Order" (1928) and "A Woman's Law" (1928). Following stage turns in "He's Mine" (1929) and "The Lady of the Camellias" (1930), Bankhead made her way to Hollywood and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, where she made her first major feature, "Tarnished Lady" (1931), directed by George Cukor. Aside from her talents, Bankhead brought along her wild reputation and began throwing anything-goes parties in her rented Hollywood home. In 1932, she participated in a notorious interview with Motion Picture magazine, where she unabashedly detailed her views on her sex life - an embarrassment to her prominent political family. Meanwhile, she failed to gain any career traction with forgettable pictures like "The Cheat" (1931), "Thunder Below" (1932), "The Devil and the Deep" (1932) and "Faithless" (1932). Even though Paramount wanted to renew her contract, Bankhead - who quickly grew to dislike Hollywood - put her film career on hold in favor of returning to Broadway.

During her self-imposed Hollywood exile, Bankhead had a brush with death following an emergency hysterectomy due to contracting gonorrhea. After recuperating at home in Alabama, she returned to New York to perform on stage in "Dark Victory" (1934) and had a disastrous turn in "Antony and Cleopatra" (1937), a role for which she was miscast due to her lack of classical training. Also in 1937, Bankhead married stage actor John Emery - a surprise, given her hedonistic lifestyle and rumors that she engaged in a number of lesbian affairs, including with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Billie Holiday and Patsy Kelly. The couple remained married only a few years and divorced in 1941, though they continued to remain on good terms. Meanwhile, she earned critical acclaim for her performances in Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" (1939) and Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" (1942); during production of the latter, she engaged in a long-running feud with the play's director, Elia Kazan. Over a decade removed from Hollywood, Bankhead made a triumphant return as one of the stars in Alfred Hitchcock's ensemble thriller, "Lifeboat" (1944), playing a sophisticated New York journalist trapped on a drifting lifeboat with other survivors of a Nazi torpedo attack in the North Atlantic. Bankhead's performance as the cynical journalist stood out from the rest of the cast and remained one of her best onscreen moments.

Finding new life on the big screen, Bankhead aptly portrayed the bawdy Catherine the Great in Otto Preminger's romantic comedy, "A Royal Scandal" (1945), but again found herself tiring of Hollywood. She returned to the stage and earned a mint with a touring production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," which culminated in a successful run on Broadway. Her career began to fade in the early 1950s - a time when she was drinking heavily and consuming pills - though she kept herself in the public eye, including on television, where Bankhead appeared on anthology dramas like "The All-Star Revue" (NBC, 1946-1979) and "The United States Steel Hour" (ABC/NBC, 1945-1953). After publishing her autobiography Tallulah (1952), Bankhead hit a career slide from which she never recovered. Her appetite for drink and pills increased, while the spotlight on her continued to diminish. She was featured as herself in the showbiz comedy "Main Street to Broadway" (1953), while appearing in episodes of "General Electric Theater" (CBS, 1953-1962), "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1957-1960) and "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68). Her last movie was the cheeky "Die! Die! My Darling" (1965), playing a fanatically religious old woman who turns out to be a murderer. Having long pined for her own death - she had attempted suicide in the past by downing a handful of aspirin - Bankhead's wish was granted on Dec. 12, 1968 after succumbing to double pneumonia. She was 66 years old.

By Shawn Dwyer

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