Jessica Tandy, 1909-1994: She Performed in More Than 100 Plays and Movies
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I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Rich Kleinfeldt with the Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA.
Today, we tell the story of Jessica Tandy who died in nineteen ninety-four. She won many awards for her acting during the almost seventy years she performed.
Jessica Tandy probably is best known for winning an Academy Award in nineteen eighty-nine for the movie "Driving Miss Daisy. " She was the oldest person to have won the award. But for many years, she had received praise for her great performances.
Tandy appeared in more than one hundred stage shows, twenty-five movies and on many television programs during her sixty-seven years of acting. Most of her performances were in the United States, although she did not become an American citizen until nineteen fifty-four.
Jessica Tandy was born in London, England in nineteen-oh-nine. Her father died when she was twelve years old. Her mother taught and took other jobs at night to make extra money for her three children.
Jessica's older brothers showed an interest in the theater. They would put on shows in their London home. Jessica said later that she was terrible in all of them. But she said taking part in those plays as a child created a desire in her to be someone else.
Jessica loved going to the theater. And she loved British writer William Shakespeare. Years later, she acted in many of Shakespeare's plays, with great actors like John Gielgud and Lawrence Olivier.
This love of the theater led her to attend an acting school in nineteen twenty-four. When she was eighteen years old, she performed in her first play. It was called "The Manderson Girls." She did not earn enough money to pay for the five different dresses she had to wear in the play. She solved the problem by sewing them herself.
Jessica Tandy always thought she was plain-looking. So did most theater professionals. She said people in the theater knew she was a good actress, but did not believe she was pretty enough to be a success. She noted that they said: "She is plain but on the stage she looks all right. "
Pictures of Jessica Tandy do not suggest that this is true. She just looked different from the leading women actors of the day. Later, she said that it was good that she was not considered pretty. She said she got more interesting parts that way.
In nineteen thirty-two, critics in London recognized her great acting skill in her performance in the play "Children in Uniform." That part gave her what she said was one of the moments she loved most in the theater. She said at one performance, people watching were so moved they continued to sit quietly when the play ended.
That same year, she married actor Jack Hawkins. They had a daughter, Susan. Tandy continued to work in the theater in London. By nineteen forty, her marriage was ending. So she took her daughter and moved to the United States to escape World War Two. In New York City, she met a young actor named Hume Cronyn. Two years later they married and moved to Hollywood. By nineteen forty-five, they had two children.
In California, Hume Cronyn was getting good parts in movies. But Tandy was not. She got only small parts, when she got them at all. She said the producers in Hollywood did not take her seriously as an actress. She began to feel like a failure.
Jessica Tandy was considering not acting anymore. But then her husband did something that changed her life. He gave her the lead part in a play he was directing in Los Angeles. It was "Portrait of a Madonna" by Tennessee Williams. She played a lonely woman. Critics praised her.
Tennessee Williams came to Los Angeles from New York just to see her in the show. He said later that he knew he had found the actress to play the lead in his new play, "A Streetcar Named Desire. "
That play opened in New York in nineteen forty-seven. Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter were the stars. It won a Pulitzer Prize and many other awards. Tandy won the first of her four Tony awards for best actress in a play. One director said that she was full of surprises. He said that she always did things better than expected.
During the nineteen fifties, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn began working together in theaters in New York City. Their first appearance together in a major Broadway theater was the hit play "The Fourposter. " Through the years, they appeared together in nine other plays on Broadway, including "A Delicate Balance," "The Gin Game" and "Foxfire. " Their last Broadway appearance together was in "The Petition" in nineteen eighty-six.
Tandy also worked with her husband in local theaters across the United States. They liked doing it because they had a chance to play parts in the older well-known plays.
In nineteen sixty-three, for example, Miss Tandy played Gertrude in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Olga in Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," and the wife of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." She also acted in plays in the Shakespeare festivals in Stratford, Connecticut and in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.
Jessica Tandy said she hated seeing herself in the movies. She said she never was as satisfied making movies as she was working in the theater. But she thought it was important to accept the acting jobs that were offered. It helped pay expenses when she performed in small theaters for less pay.
Tandy played Hume Cronyn's wife in four movies during the nineteen eighties, including "Cocoon" and "Batteries not Included." In nineteen ninety-two, she played an old woman in the movie, "Fried Green Tomatoes. " But she never really thought of herself as a movie actress. Perhaps that was because of her experience earlier when she was not accepted in Hollywood.
Even after her success in the play "A Streetcar Named Desire," Hollywood producers did not choose her to be in the movie. Vivien Leigh replaced her in the part of Blanche Dubois. Tandy said she was surprised when she won the Academy Award for "Driving Miss Daisy." She said then that the wonderful part she had made up for her lack of experience in movies.
Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn were married for fifty-two years. During their years of acting together, they won almost every cultural award possible. In nineteen eighty-six, they won the Kennedy center lifetime achievement award. In nineteen ninety, President George Bush presented the National Medal of Art to them. A few months before she died, Tandy and Cronyn were honored with a special Tony Award for their work in the Broadway theater.
Reporters always were asking them how they were able to work so closely together for so long. Tandy said they never discussed their work at home. She said they always honored each other's ideas if they did not agree about something.
Jessica Tandy suffered from stage fright that became worse as she grew older. It made her feel sick before a performance. Yet her husband said she was at her best when she was working. She was in great demand as she grew older. Tandy took good parts and bad ones. She always said a person is richer for doing things. If you wait for the greatest part, you will wait a long time and your skills will decrease, she said. You cannot be an actor without acting.
Tandy was an actor until the end. She had problems with her eyes and her heart. Yet they did not slow her down. In nineteen eighty-eight, she won an Emmy Award for a television movie of the play "Foxfire. "
Three years later, Jessica Tandy had a cancer operation. But she continued working. She did not let her pain lessen the effectiveness of her performance. She appeared in more television movies in the years before her death. And she made several movies that were released after she died September eleventh, nineteen ninety-four. She was eighty-five.
Jessica Tandy said as an actor her job was getting the best out of what the writer expressed in the play or movie. The critics said she did. They said she always was able to show deep meaning in the people she played. One critic wrote that she was such a good actor that only poets, not critics, should be permitted to write about her.
This Special English program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Lawan Davis. I'm Rich Kleinfeldt. And I'm Shirley Griffith. Listen again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.