Jessica Tandy’s obituary in “The Guardian” in 1994
Jessica Tandy has several claims on posterity, not least for being the first actress to play Blanche Dubois in one of the century’s best plays, Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, on Broadway in 1947. We have no record of that performance, but we can hire from the local video store Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which won Tandy an Oscar for Best Actress at the age of 80. No 80-year-old actress had received an Oscar before.
Not being blessed with the sort of looks Hollywood equates with the box-office turnstiles, Tandy had until then played mainly supporting roles in movies: but those in charge of making them pursued her thereafter, leaving Katharine Hepburn to languish, the sole female survivor of Hollywood’s golden age and one of its authentic glories. Hepburn had no intention of retiring but was offered only an occasional television movie – which Miss Tandy, a jobbing actress, wouldn’t have turned down: but, as it turned out, there were richer pickings for an elderly actress, if with only one Oscar to Hepburn’s rather incredible four.
Tandy was born in London in 1909, trained at the Ben Greet Academy, and made her stage debut at the age of 18 in The Manderson Girls; she did a stint at Birmingham rep and made her first London appearance in 1929, in The Rumour, and her New York bow in The Matriarch in 1930.
Returning to Britain, she was invited by the Oxford University Dramatic Society, which traditionally liked to cast professional actresses alongside their undergraduate amateurs – to play Olivia in Twelfth Night. It was a play she liked, but she longed to play Viola, and did so, at the Old Vic in February 1934, at the Manchester Hippodrome in April 1934, and at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, in July 1939. During this decade she was hardly ever out of work, with occasional forays to Broadway and to the movie studios, including a quota quickie for Fox in which she starred opposite Barry Jones, Murder in the Family (1938). But the high points of her British career were her excursions into Shakespeare: she played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet in his celebrated production at the New Theatre in 1934, directed by himself. Shakespeare had been consigned almost exclusively to the Old Vic since the days of Beerbohm Tree; Gielgud had not only brought the Bard back to the West End but had established himself the pre-eminent Shakespearian interpreter of his generation.
He had also become a commercial star of Shaftesbury Avenue. His return to the Vic – where he had made his name – in 1940 was therefore of great interest. Lewis Casson and Harley Granville-
Barker directed him in King Lear, with Tandy as Cordelia; and George Devine and Marius Goring directed The Tempest, with Gielgud as Prospero and Tandy as Miranda. Playing Edmund and Caliban was Jack Hawkins, to whom Tandy had been married since 1932.
These were the last productions in the Waterloo Road before the theatre was bombed. Tandy accepted another engagement in New York, in Jupiter Laughs; and most notably she met Hume Cronyn, whom she married in 1942. Fred Zinnemann cast them in The Seventh Cross (1944), an untypical MGM picture in which Spencer Tracy was an anti-Nazi in Hitler’s Germany. Cronyn played a man who admires Hitler till learning better. Their performances were ‘outstanding’ Zinnemann said: ‘They were enormously moving in their portrait of a loving family threatened by an invisible power.’
The Cronyns remained in Hollywood for several years, and among the films which Tandy made was Dragonwyck (1946), a Gothic melodrama in which she played Gene Tierney’s Irish maid. It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz who thereafter regarded the Cronyns as perhaps his closest friends. He and his wife Rosemary spent their honeymoon on the Cronyns’ island in the Bahamas in 1962 – a respite from his chores on the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra – and Tandy became godmother to their daughter Alex. Rosemary Mankiewicz described Tandy yesterday as: ‘A great actress and a great lady.’
Another of the Hollywood elite, Elia Kazan, found himself saying the same thing in the Forties. Cronyn, an old friend of his, mounted a production of Tennessee Williams’s A Portrait of a Madonna at the Actors Lab in Los Angeles, knowing well that it was a preliminary sketch for A Streetcar Named Desire, which Kazan was to direct in New York. Tandy played the lead: Williams and Kazan went to see it and, as Kazan put it: ‘She’d solved our most difficult problem in a flash.’ The second was finding an actor of animal magnetism to play Stanley, Blanche’s brother-in-law, who recognises beneath her Southern gentility a lady who has accommodated many a passing stranger.
Blanche was, in the lingo of the time, a nymphomaniac, and Kazan saw it as his task to get audiences sympathetic towards her at the end, if not at first. She also had to contend with a new kind of actor, Marlon Brando, whom she once called ‘an impossible, psychopathic bastard’ – partly because he seldom did the same thing twice, but as Kazan said: ‘Jessie’s size was in her generosity . . . (she was) show-smart: she knew that actors give better performances when they work with partners whose talents challenge their own.’ She won the first of her three Tonys for her performance and played the role for two years, on Broadway and on tour. There was never much chance of her repeating the role on film, since it needed a box-office star and was offered to Olivia de Havilland before going to Vivien Leigh, who had played it in London.
In 1950 Cronyn directed Tandy in Hilda Crane in New York and they appeared together in The Little Blue Light in Brattle, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and they co-starred in The Fourposter (1951), a two-hander about the ups and downs of married life which has a particular appeal to real-life couples – Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray in London, Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer in the film.
The Cronyns were more likely than not to be found playing together, though Tandy was much more adventurous in continuing to return to the classics, both at Stratford, Connecticut, and at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Cronyn joined her there in 1963 when they played the Lomans in Death of a Salesman, among other roles, and again in 1965 when she played Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. In 1965 they were invited to the White House, by President Johnson, for a recital, Hear America Speaking.
In 1962 they appeared in London in Big Fish, Little Fish in which he, without her, had achieved great success in New York. They returned in 1979 playing welfare veterans in D. L. Coburn’s play The Gin Game, for which Tandy had won her second Tony; as directed by Mike Nichols it had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in New York. Since no British management was interested, they financed it themselves with Nichols and others; but London was distinctly unappreciative.
Tandy’s occasional movie roles included Joseph Cotten’s unfeeling wife in September Affair (1950) and the wife of Rommel (James Mason) in The Desert Fox (1951). Another director who was a close friend, Alfred Hitchcock, cast her as the probably monstruous mother in The Birds (1963). Her movie appearances began to become more frequent in the Eighties, when she played Cronyn’s wife in John Schlesinger’s Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) – and an alcoholic, which she denies by ordering Five Old Fashioneds on the go; and they were Glenn Close’s parents – and hence Robin Williams’s grandparents – in The World According to Garp (1982). They were two of the oldies in a big box-office success, Cocoon (1985) and its sequel, Cocoon: the return (1988). In 1987 they made a film of the play which had won Tandy her third Tony, Foxfire, partly written by Cronyn, about a proud mountain woman who refuses to leave her home because she believes her dead husband is with her. This performance won her an Emmy.
Around the same time they were in a Spielberg-produced comedies about UFOs, Batteries Not Included. She gave a neat cameo as the tetchy blind woman who employs Kelly McGillis to read to her in The House on Carroll Street (1988), but it was her full-length portait of the cantankerous Southern Jewish matriarch in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) which brought her many new admirers. In fact, Driving Miss Daisy was more than good: the director, Bruce Beresford, took Alfred Uhry’s play and screenplay and removed everything which was cosy and kitsch. Tandy had less natural charm than Julie Harris, who played the role on tour in the US; but Tandy presents merely an old woman of no distinction with common sense when needed. The greatest criticism levelled against the film was that she loves her black chauffeur, played by Morgan Freeman, because he knows his place, but that is one of its greatest virtues: she likes him eventually, but in Miss Daisy’s eyes he remains a black man, a black man whom she likes. She and Freeman were both magnificent.
Among Tandy’s other recent films are Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1991), about the friendship between an elderly eccentric and the frumpish Kathy Bates, another recent Oscar winner, and Used People (1992), in which she was Shirley MacLaine’s mother. Once again her integrity and the intelligence and humour she brought to her work were pleasures not always found in senior actresses.