Editorial Review

Valerie Harper Channels '30s Diva

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

Okay, daaaalings, gather round: Valerie Harper needs you to know a few things about Tallulah Bankhead, the incorrigible Hollywood hellion she is embodying at the Lincoln Theatre over the next month.

To start, Bankhead was a drunk.

And a coke-head.

She had affairs with both sexes and never gave a flip about discretion.

She appalled studio heads in the 1930s and '40s, refused to wear underwear and regularly answered her door buck naked.

"She was the original celebrity bad girl," Harper says. But also, this: "I love her. I do love Tallulah."

Harper loves the stage siren whose most famous quotes include: "Cocaine isn't habit forming. I should know -- I've been using it for years" and "I'm as pure as the driven slush."

"There were a lot of things about her that were not admirable," Harper admits, "but at her core, I think she really, really was a good person."

It's a lucky thing Harper sees it that way; she might be living with Tallulah for a long time. Her new play, "Looped," premiered in California six months ago and is being staged here by Arena Stage in what producers hope will be a prelude to Broadway.

The show, which explores a life familiar to those in the AARP set but largely foreign to theatergoers in their 20s and 30s, owes its existence to an extraordinary audiotape that fell into the lap of playwright Matthew Lombardo.

Lombardo was in the midst of rehearsals for "Tea at Five," a one-woman show about Katharine Hepburn, when a colleague asked him whether he had considered writing about Bankhead, who was profoundly famous for her work onstage (and for her personal antics) during the first half of the 20th century.

The last thing Lombardo wanted was to dive into the life of another grande dame, but then he listened to the tape his colleague had passed along. It was a "looping session" in which Bankhead was brought into a recording studio to redub a single line from her last movie, "Die! Die! My Darling!"

It took eight hours to get that line.

"I thought it was very hysterical but also very harrowing," Lombardo recalls. "I can just hear her alcoholism and drug addiction taking over."

And he thought: "There's a play in here somewhere."

So the writing began, and Lombardo found himself envisioning Harper as his leading lady.

"You don't think of Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead. But I knew I needed someone with impeccable comic timing," he says. "And she comes on stage with buckets of stage presence."

The 68-year-old actress, best known as Rhoda on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the spinoff "Rhoda," was just off her turn as Golda Meir in the national tour of the one-woman drama "Golda's Balcony" when Lombardo approached her about playing Bankhead.

Harper signed on after reading an early draft of the script, but it wasn't until she listened to the tape that Bankhead became more than a legend in her mind.

"I realized, my God, what a wonderful gift this is -- I don't just have to look at performances," she said during a recent interview at the Lincoln Theatre. Harper talks at warp speed and shifts fluidly in and out of Bankhead's voice: low and throaty, with a touch of affected English accent. "I can hear her in life. Yelling at the producer: 'I've lost my glasses. I can't see it!' I can hear her getting angry. She takes codeine. She says, 'Oh, my God! I spilled my drink.' There's even a moment where she's putting on her lipstick and talking."

Harper knew of Bankhead, of course, but she threw herself into researching the diva to prevent her portrayal from slipping into campy caricature.

"The real task for this play is to make her a real human being, not a sendup that we've all seen," she says.

Harper also says she feels a responsibility to introduce Bankhead to a younger audience -- and not just as a tempestuous prima donna. Bankhead was a complicated person with deep insecurities and a constant need for approval, Harper says, but she was also an actress "with fabulous talent and expertise. If she hadn't been so self-destructive she would've had a career like Meryl Streep."

Mostly, Harper says, Bankhead was a woman of wit: "You know the secret to Tallulah and the secret to her great fame? It was her humor."

And Harper is having a fine time reprising Bankhead's wit for today's audience members, especially those who don't know what they're in for.

"I think they're out there saying, 'Listen to this old broad! What's coming out of her mouth?' " she says. " 'Listen to the way she's talking. Look at her, smoking and drinking and being just a diva.' "