Somehow when growing up so close to the fray (1.5 miles to be exact) and so far from the action (south Queens), I missed that class. Damn.
Two years ago Restaurant Florent, where I was working as a host, threw a party in honor of this brassy bisexual sex-pot. When I walked into the restaurant that night I naively asked: “Tallulah, who?”
A queen at the end of the bar eyed me suspiciously. Patrons within ear shoot looked at me with both animosity and sympathy in their eyes. The manager broke the tension with a joke. I wasn’t fired, but I got the sense that if I don’t get with the counter culture program I wouldn’t have a job for long.
When I read her bio on Wikipedia I became a bit sheepish. There I was, thinking I had my finger on the pulse of alternative lifestyles when Tallulah was as bold as any East Village tranny hipster — 60 years ago. I thought myself chic by throwing a faux-queen party — I was edge supreme! Tallulah took edge and stepped on it with a stiletto. She was known to answer the door to her infamous parties stark naked. Brilliant. If only I could have met this woman (and have gone to her parties). What was she like, up close and behind the rumors?
Tonight I got to see my new old hero live and get a sense of the real Tallulah. Valerie Harper portrays Tallulah Bankhead in Looped at the Lyceum Theatre. Set in a sound recording studio at the end of her career, Tallulah is asked to loop a single line of dialogue. This should take five minutes, but instead takes the whole play.
Valerie’s performance incorporated both the humor and the pain in Tallulah’s existence. She breaks down her opposing character — a film production underling and closeted mid-century prude — with her witty remarks and vulgar stories. She scandalizes him by saying things like: “Touching a woman’s purse is like touching her vagina. But for me I can only fit so much in my purse.”
In the second act you find out that the film that they are working to finish with the last touches of post-production will be Tallulah’s last. She has six months to live. It thus becomes immediately obvious why she spent first act snorting, smoking, drinking and wise-cracking her way into delaying the process — she didn’t want it to end.
Valerie kept on the perfect mask. She allowed the character’s anguish to be apparent behind a wink and a smile, but never ever once pathetic. With this finesse she embodied the play’s message, which transforms her antagonist and inspires the audience: She blasts her underling for being afraid to be his true self. Then defends his accusations about her fall from grace by admitting her failures and countering with, “At least I was Tallulah!”
Ms. Bankhead was a straight shooter; was the 20th century “raw real deal.” She looked into the face of self-doubt and laughed, sometimes with the help of a drink. Looped appropriately ends with: “There will always be pain, but the suffering is optional.”