Long before celebrity bad girls Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie gained notoriety for their outrageous behavior, there was Tallulah Bankhead.
Besides being a film and stage actor, Bankhead had a political lineage that may have helped her feel comfortable in the spotlight. She was born into a family of Alabama Democrats. Her grandfather and uncle were U.S. Senators, and her father was a three-term Speaker from 1936 to 1940. But that’s not why Bankhead stood out during the early to mid-1900s.
Bankhead was famous not only for her promiscuity and propensity for profanity but also for her flamboyant personality and honest wit. “Dahlings, I was wonderful,— was her famous remark when in 1944 she accepted a New York Film Critics Circle Award for her role as the cynical journalist in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat.—
“She’s an icon … larger than life,— said Rob Ruggiero, director of “Looped,— a play that is bringing Bankhead to life at U Street’s Lincoln Theatre.
Produced by Arena Stage, “Looped— is based on the re-recording (or looping) of Bankhead’s dialogue in what would be her final film, “Die! Die! My Darling!—
“I don’t normally say this, and I’ve done many comedies. Looped’ will make audiences experience a laugh-filled evening. You will get a delicious cake under your frosting,— Ruggiero said.
Written by Matthew Lombardo, the 90-minute play explores the life of Bankhead as she exploits an outrageously uptight, hapless sound editor Danny Miller, played by Broadway veteran Jay Goede, with her sardonic humor.
“Matthew took a real incident and created a lovely, hilarious side-splitting laugh piece of theater. Some of them are Tallulah’s lines … but most of the big jokes are Matthew’s,— said Valerie Harper, a four-time Emmy Award winner, most famous for her role of Rhoda in the 1970s television newsroom comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.—
Harper plays Bankhead, with whom she has nothing in common. “Except maybe our love of the theater and our work ethic,— said Harper, who neither smokes nor drinks and has been married to the same man — Tony Cacciotti — for more than 20 years. In contrast, Bankhead was a chain-smoker, an alcoholic and a drug addict.
“Cocaine isn’t habit forming. I should know, I’ve been using it for years,— Bankhead said in one of her interviews. Bankhead was also notorious for her sexual exploits. In a 1932 interview with Motion Picture magazine, she reportedly exclaimed, “Six months is a long, long while. I want a man!—
But to Bankhead’s credit, “She rarely worked drunk. As bad as an alcoholic she was, she’d wait until after the performance,— Harper said. “She was wild and had all these affairs with men and women. She was an open book that there was no artifice in her life. And I think that’s why people loved her.—
Given Bankhead’s resplendent personality, Harper said the challenge for her was “not to parody— this Hollywood icon. “My responsibility is to make her a real, feeling human being on top of her extraordinary style.—
With Ruggiero’s help, Harper worked on speaking the Bankhead way: with a deep and husky voice. As for the looks, costume designer William Ivey Long has made sure Harper has the right Bankhead appearance complete with thin eyebrows and golden mane.
Even though she has previously played Bankhead at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, Calif. and later at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach, Fla., Harper said she is excited about reprising her role for the Arena Stage. “I’ll be happy to be in D.C. again and meet some of my friends on Capitol Hill,— including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Harper said.
“Looped— runs until June 28.