For years, Jessica Tandy won rave reviews for theatrical roles that Vivien Leigh or Jean Simmons or Lilli Palmer or Rosalind Russell or Katherine Hepburn wound up playing on film. After creating the Tony-winning role of Blanche duBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire", she was unquestionably regarded as one of the finest actresses of her generation, but her greatest stage triumph is forever locked in the minds of 1947 audiences. Tandy, who didn't receive the Hollywood seal of box office approval until she was eighty, treated those two impostors success and failure the same. Not that there were ever any failures on her part, it was simply that, for many years, producers couldn't imagine Tandy as the star of a major Hollywood movie.
This superb actress began her film career at the age of 22 as a maid in the 1932 British musical, "Indiscretions of Eve". Fourteen years after her screen debut, Tandy was still playing a maid. "A Woman's Vengeance", a 1947 Universal drama by Aldous Huxley supplied a vivid example of Tandy at her best. In one beautifully played sequence, her unrequited passion for Charles Boyer is revealed in bits & pieces until she realises that it is entirely unreturned. In trying to preserve her dignity, she seals up her emotions, but fragments of her intense feelings still leak through with terrifying force. Another of her best performances was in 1957's "The Glass Eye" as a lonely woman who falls in love with the beautiful voice of a ventriloquist. She follows him everywhere and finally is permitted a chance to be alone with him. Alas, a disembodied arm and a rolling glass eye reveal the truth about what she believes to be the love of her life. This Emmy-winning episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" was, thanks to Tandy and co-star Tom Conway, a real spine-tingler, enhanced by deeply poignant truths about its central character.
Tandy made three appearances on the Hitchcock series, always working with director Robert Stevens, but in 1963's "The Birds", she finally had a chance to work under the maestro with whom her husband had first starred in 1943's "Shadow Of A Doubt". You only have to say two words ("Tippi Hedren") to understand why an artist like Tandy was so essential to the success of "The Birds". Hedren's fear could only be conveyed by cutting reaction shots of her immobile face to pieces, but Tandy shoulders the difficult challenge of conveying the real nightmare of Bodega Bay to the audience. It was a meaty part and she made the most of it, before returning to her first love, the stage.
Tandy's enormous later successes are history, but she was not always the queen of Hollywood as one ditzy commentator with a short memory observed. It was a long, hard slog and only a dedicated toughy like Jessica Tandy could have pulled it off with such grace. And, as she and her much-loved husband showed in one goofy interview, when they pretended to be breaking up in front of a national audience, she did it with a smile.
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
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