Valerie Harper Plays Tallulah Bankhead in 'Looped' at Arena Stage

Valerie Harper says that despite Tallulah Bankhead's outrageous behavior, "at her core, I think she really, really was a good person."
Valerie Harper says that despite Tallulah Bankhead's outrageous behavior, "at her core, I think she really, really was a good person." (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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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!"


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