By Kate Bobby
“If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes only sooner.”
The author of this celebrated quote was none other than Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68), an iconic star of stage and screen whose mythic persona ultimately cast too long a shadow for the real Bankhead to outshine or outdistance.
“Tallulah was truly a force of nature and I've always found her fascinating,” said actress Tovah Feldshuh, who both conceived of, co-wrote and stars in the one-woman show, “Tallulah,” heading for Queens Theater in the Park Dec. 4 and Dec. 5.
As”Tallulah,” Feldshuh holds center stage as the legendary Bankhead in a performance within a performance. Transporting audiences to New York's City Center circa 1956, “Tallulah” is emcee for the evening at a USO benefit show, filling in for a no-show guest performer, Ella Fitzgerald.
“It was a conceivable situation for Tallulah to have been in,” said Feldshuh of Bankhead, a major source of star power behind the USO, who also happened to be the daughter of a former speaker of the house, and granddaughter and niece of two U.S. senators.
In “Tallulah,” as the hour presses on and Fitzgerald fails to show, Feldshuh as “Tallulah” gamely continues to entertain her audience while beginning to drink, an activity for which Bankhead was equally renown. Not surprisingly, as the liquor begins to flow, Feldshuh's “Tallulah,” in between show tunes and patter, begins to improvise more and more.
“So while she starts out as the hilarious and frothy emcee during the show, she begins to reveal that which she did not intend to reveal,” said Feldshuh, explaining that her “Tallulah” experiences satori, “a sort of lightning bolt of awareness.”
“Tallulah begins to explore her own persona, the image for which she was known and loved that overpowered her career and became the only character her fans wanted to see,” said Feldshuh.
To bring this point home, within “Tallulah” as Tallulah, Feldshuh recounts the nightmarish response to Bankhead's return to Broadway in 1956 as Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams' “Streetcar Named Desire.”
“She had worked very hard at being Blanche and she certainly envisioned herself as a great actress, and here she was being heckled by her fans, by her gallery boys,” said Feldshuh.
“This happens to performers like Madonna. When Madonna did (David Mamet's) 'Speed the Plow,' audiences had a hard time accepting her appearing as anything other than Madonna. The same goes for 'Evita,'” said the actress referring to Madonna's most recent onscreen role.
“Other performers like Bette Midler can go back and forth,” said Feldshuh of Midler's talent for crossing back and forth between celebrity and performance. And Feldshuh mentioned yet another classification of acting.
“There are chameleons like Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro – actors who disappear into roles,” said the native New Yorker, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence and Columbia University who herself can lay claim to the chameleon label.
After early years spent forging a foundation at Minneapolis' renowned Guthrie Theater, Feldshuh made an immediate mark on Broadway, earning an Obie Award for her onstage turn as “Yentl.”
Since then, she has earned a score of New York stage awards. She has also made her mark in television as well as film, most recently as Diane Lane's mother in “A Walk on the Moon,” a role for which the dedicated actress chose to gain 20 pounds.
“It was easy,” Feldshuh recalled with a laugh “I could eat anything I wanted. I had a ball.”
Previous roles for the versatile actress include acclaimed television turns as Katharine Hepburn (playing opposite Tommy Lee Jones in “The Amazing Howard Hughes”) and a Czech freedom fighter in one of television history's most acclaimed miniseries, “Holocaust.”
“After 'Holocaust,' I received two or three offers a week to play this and that Jewish woman and I turned them all down. It would be so limiting for me as an actress, if that's all I chose to do, ” said Feldshuh, whose future film roles include: a turn as Marisa Tomei's mom; a Midwestern housewife and paramilitary leader role in the comedy “Friends and Family;” and a role in “Three Little Wolves” about an Irish woman in Long Island who is pretending to be Jewish.
In between film roles, this New York native never strays far from the stage. Indeed, Feldshuh's upcoming incarnation of “Tallulah” is not, in fact, her first. The stage, film and TV veteran received recent raves from the press, including a glowing review from New York Times critic Peter Marks, for her performance in “Tallulah's Party” at Manhattan's Kaufman Theater.
“I am drawn to Tallulah because she was everything I'm not,” said Feldshuh of Bankhead whose daring public persona only served to underscore an equally outrageous lifestyle underneath: one that reputedly included an extensive history of alcohol and drug abuse and an equally dramatic love life. Feldshuh stresses her show refers to, but resists gratuitously dwelling upon, the darker side of Bankhead's life.
“Tallulah” marks Feldshu's welcome return to the one-woman show format, a favorite venue for this New York actress who starred in “Tovah: Out of Her Mind,” which she has performed in Sydney, Australia and Hong Kong as well as throughout the United States. More importantly, she performed this critically praised, one-woman spectacular at QTIP, too. Naturally, she adds, she is thrilled to return to Queens as “Tallulah.”
“Being from New York, Queens is close to my heart, so we were sure this production was ready before we brought it here,” said Feldshuh, who remains true to New York as she raises her family here.
“Parenthood is wonderful, and it's definitely something you have to show up for,” said Feldshuh, who tries to choose roles that keep her close to home as much as possible with television roles in both “Law and Order” (as recurring character Danielle Melnick), “The Cosby Show,” and a role in the upcoming CBS medical melodrama, “Riverside.”
“Tallulah” will be performed at Queens Theater in the Park on Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 5 at 3 p.m. For information, call 760-0064.