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The Academy Awards: A Look At Jessica Tandy

Since the blockbuster of award shows is this weekend, we thought we would highlight an excerpt from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography‘s Oscar Night section. In 1989 Jessica Tandy became the oldest actress to win an Academy Award for her role in Driving Miss Daisy. Below, in an article by David Parkinson, we learn more about the incredible career of Jessica Tandy. As for this year’s nominees, we wish them all the best of luck. May the best thespian win.

Tandy, Jessie Alice [Jessica] (1909–1994), actress, was born on 7 June 1909 at 58A Geldeston Road, Upper Clapton, London, the third child of Henry Tandy (d. c.1921), a commercial traveler for a rope manufacturer, and his wife, Jessie Helen (née Horspool), the head of a school for mentally handicapped children. Her father died when she was twelve and her mother began teaching evening classes to supplement her income. Frequent bouts of tuberculosis blighted her education at Dame Alice Owen’s Girls’ School, although she regularly accompanied her mother to night school and became an enthusiastic student of poetry, dance, calisthenics, and drama. In 1924 she enrolled at Sir Ben Greet‘s Academy of Acting, under the tutelage of Lillian E. Simpson, and, on 22 November 1927, made her stage début in The Manderson Girls, at London’s Playhouse Six.

Following a spell with Birmingham repertory, she made her West End bow on 21 February 1928 in C. K. Monroe’s The Rumour, at the Court Theatre. She graduated to Broadway on 18 March 1930 in G. B. Stern’s The Matriarch, which also marked her first appearance as Jessica Tandy, a change suggested by the famous producer Lee Shubert. After returning to London, she worked steadily on stage, entered films with a walk-on part as a maid in the musical The Indiscretion of Fear (1931), and on 22 October 1932, married actor Jack Hawkins (1910–1973), with whom she would have a daughter, Susan.

After making her reputation as Manuela in Crista Winsloe’s Children in Uniform at the Duchess Theatre in October 1932, she began alternating between classical and popular roles, most notably playing Ophelia opposite John Gielgud in Hamlet at the New Theatre (November 1934) and Viola and Sebastian alongside Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness in the Old Vic’s Twelfth Night in February 1937. She also spent much time in the United States and, having played Cordelia in Gielgud’s King Lear at the Old Vic in April 1940, decided to emigrate to further her film career.

Despite signing a five-year deal with MGM, Tandy was considered insufficiently beautiful for screen stardom. Moreover, Broadway restrictions meant that alien actors had to wait six months between engagements, and she had to resort to playing Princess Nada in the radio show Mandrake the Magician. As she later lamented, ‘I am just sitting here perfecting cooking recipes—and getting worse and worse at it all the time’ (The Playmakers, 1996).

Salvation came in the form of Hume Cronyn (1911–2003), a Canadian actor and writer, whom she met while appearing in A. J. Cronin’s Jupiter Laughs at the Biltmore Theater. After divorcing Hawkins in 1942, she married Cronyn on 27 September that year. They had two children, Christopher and Tandy, and formed one of show-business’s most enduring partnerships. As she later told the Washington Post, ‘The reason we can live and work together is that in no way do we threaten each other. We’re safe. I can’t play him and he can’t play me’ (23 Dec 1982).

Tandy finally made her Hollywood début when she teamed with Cronyn and Spencer Tracy for The Seventh Cross (1944) and then, despite being his senior, played Cronyn’s daughter in The Green Years (1946). A loan-out to Twentieth Century Fox for Dragonwyck (1946) was followed by her first screen lead, as Janet Spence in A Woman’s Vengeance (1947). Yet still film fame eluded her, despite director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s avowal in a 1947 memo to Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck, ‘I have rarely seen acting the equal to hers … Tandy has it over Bette Davis as an actress, and is certainly more attractive’ (Cronyn, p. 189).

It was Tandy’s stage performance in Tennessee Williams’s Portrait of a Madonna (January 1946) at the Las Palmas Theater, Hollywood, that transformed her fortunes, as it persuaded the playwright to offer her the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Directed by Elia Kazan, Streetcar opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on 3 December 1947 and earned Tandy a Tony award and the best reviews of an illustrious career. Even Brooks Atkinson, the feared New York Times critic, opined, ‘Miss Tandy acts a magnificent part magnificently’ (14 Dec 1947). She finally left the company after 600 performances, but was the only member of the original cast—who included Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter—to be overlooked for Kazan’s screen version, for which Vivien Leigh won an Oscar. Tandy had to settle instead for Frau Rommel in The Desert Fox (1951).

Tandy became a US citizen in 1952 and spent much of the ensuing decade collaborating with Cronyn. In addition to ten stage productions, they also appeared together in seven plays for television’s Omnibus series. They scored notable successes in Jan de Hartog’s The Fourposter (1951–2) and Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise (1959–60), pioneering the practice of first-run stars taking Broadway hits on tour. Yet, they also endured their share of misfires, including a television sitcom, The Marriage (1953–4), which was cancelled after just seven episodes. Consequently the couple had to auction their art collection in January 1958 to pay off mounting debts.

Acclaimed in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at the Martin Beck Theater (September 1966) and Williams’s Camino Real at the Lincoln Center (January 1970), Tandy began converting accolades into awards in her later years. She won a Drama Desk award for Happy Days and an Obie for Not I at the Lincoln Center’s 1972 Samuel Beckett festival. A further Drama Desk and a Tony followed for D. J. Coburn’s The Gin Game at the John Golden Theater in October 1977. She even added an Emmy to the same double scoop as Annie Nations in Susan Cooper’s Foxfire at the Ethel Barrymore (November 1982), as well as drawing another Tony nomination for Andrew Davies’s Rose at the Court Theater (March 1981). No wonder the New York Times’s Frank Rich averred ‘Everything this actress does is so pure and right that only poets, not theater critics, should be allowed to write about her’ (12 Nov 1982). Yet she still found time to earn a law degree from the University of Western Ontario in 1974.

Tandy co-starred with Cronyn for the final time on stage in Brian Clark’s The Petition at the John Golden in 1986. However, by then they were in great demand in Hollywood. Previously, there had been long gaps between screen assignments—seven years between The Desert Fox and The Light of the Forest (1958), a decade between Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and the British-made Butley (1973), and nearly another one before Honky Tonk Freeway (1981). But suddenly a slew of supporting roles came her way, including solo outings in The World According to Garp (1982) and The Bostonians (1984), and Cocoon (1985), *batteries not included (1987), and Cocoon: the Return (1988), which she made with Cronyn.

The pinnacle, however, was becoming, at eighty years and eight months, the oldest winner in Academy award history for her superbly testy performance as a southern matriarch in Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Yet, she still managed to secure another nomination, this time for best supporting actress, for Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), before bowing out with Camilla and Nobody’s Fool (both 1994). Despite the celebrity cinema brought her, she told the New York Times Magazine ‘My parts are never big in films, but that’s all right … Films aren’t as satisfying to me as the theater’ (26 Dec 1982). She died of ovarian cancer in Easton, Connecticut, on 11 September 1994, and was cremated. She was survived by her husband.

Recent Comments

  1. Mindy

    Thank you for this meaningful look into the life of Jessica Tandy. “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Cocoon” are two of my favorite movies. She was a wonderful actress and will be missed dearly .

  2. Jack

    Jessica Tandy was undeniably the most talented and gracious ladies of the stage and screen. She brought dignity to every role she played and advancing age only enhanced her acting and her beauty.

  3. Antonia Krueger

    Thank you for this article!
    One correction, however: Jessica Tandy was awarded an honorary law degree. She did not actually attend law school.

Comments are closed.