Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hattie McDaniel? Ain't fittin'!

Tallulah Bankhead, the legendary actress, seductress and bon vivant, died on this day in 1968.

Born in Alabama in 1902, Bankhead moved to New York to be an actress when she was just 15. She got bit parts but was better known for hard partying, her quick wit and her wanton ways.

In 1923 she debuted on the London stage. She won immediate fame playing a waitress in They Knew What They Wanted. The show won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize.

She was as famous for her many affairs. "I'm as pure as the driven slush," she memorably said. She was said to be sexually insatiable, but she also said: "I've tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position makes me claustrophobic, and the others give me either stiff neck or lockjaw."

Success eluded her in films until Alfred Hitchcock cast her in Lifeboat (see picture) in 1944, for which she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. She had been David Selznick's first choice to play Scarlett O'Hara, but he decided she was too old. On the stage, however, she won acclaim as the ruthless Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1939), and in The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and Private Lives, which played on Broadway for two years.

An alleged bisexual, she was romantically linked through the years with everyone from Greta Garbo to Billie Holiday to Hattie McDaniel(!).

She continued to perform in the 1950s and 1960s on Broadway, in an occasional film, as a highly-popular radio show host, and on TV. Her appearance as herself on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show in 1957 is a cult classic, as is her role as the Black Widow on Batman, her final screen appearance (1967).

Bankhead was the inspiration for Cruella De Vil in Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmations.

A lifelong insomniac, pill-popper, smoker and drinker, Bankhead died in New York City of complications from emphysema, at age 66. Her last words were: "Codeine...bourbon."