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Photographed April 24, 1949, as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire
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In 1990, when London native Jessica Tandy became the oldest actress to date to win an Academy Award, she had been performing on stage and screen for more than sixty years. By the time of her award-winning performance in the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy, Tandy was a well-respected actress who had appeared in more than one hundred films and theater productions.

After making her stage debut at the age of eighteen, Tandy played a wide range of characters in diverse plays, including comedies and dramas, classical plays and avant-garde theater experiments. Her willingness to take on vastly different kinds of roles made her one of the most versatile performers of her time. Though it challenged her talents and helped her develop as an actress, the diversity of Tandy’s projects may have prevented her from achieving a significant measure of popularity with general audiences.

Tandy left England in 1940, moving to the United States where she had performed in several successful tours with British companies. She soon met and married director and actor Hume Cronyn. Throughout their lives, the couple worked together on a number of projects, including appearing together in productions of The Fourposter and The Gin Game. Of their 1977 production of D.L. Coburn’s two-character play, The Gin Game, Jack Kroll wrote, “Jessica Tandy is . . . probably a saint: she gets more beautiful every year . . . . [She] turns from a frumpy wraith to a silvery coquette, a last flare-up of the warmth and danger of woman.”1 In 1979, Tandy won a Tony Award for her performance in The Gin Game.

Carl Van Vechten photographed Tandy as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire—she was the first actress to play the role. Though Williams’s own first choice to play the complicated, intense, and vulnerable Blanche was Lillian Gish, director Elia Kazan insisted the role go to Jessica Tandy. In his review of the production, Brooks Atkinson praised Tandy’s performance:

  As Blanche DuBois, Jessica Tandy has one of the longest and most exacting parts on record. She plays it with an insight as vibrant and pitiless as Mr. Williams’s writing, for she catches on the wing the terror, the bogus refinement, the intellectual alertness and the madness that can hardly be distinguished from logic. Miss Tandy acts a magnificent part magnificently.2

Tandy appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando in the role of Stanley. Brando, then a virtually unknown actor, was an erratic performer with a tendency to upstage other actors. Though he presented wildly different interpretations of his character from one show to the next, Tandy was able to work against Brando’s unpredictable performance to make Blanche DuBois one of the most successful roles of her career, earning her a Tony award in 1948.
In spite of her success in the theatrical production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tandy was replaced in the film version by Vivian Leigh, a more conventionally good-looking and popular actress. Tandy didn’t achieve major success in Hollywood until the end of her career, appearing in films such as the 1985 hit Cocoon, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café in 1991, and, of course, her Oscar winning performance in Driving Miss Daisy.

Driving Miss Daisy, in which Tandy plays a elderly Jewish woman in the south and African-American actor Morgan Freeman plays her chauffeur, was popular with both audiences and critics. Nevertheless, some criticized the film as sentimental at best, and racist at worst, arguing that “Driving Miss Daisy [sentimentalizes] the canned types of the lovable racist and the adoring servant. This is the same old ‘song of the south,’ with slightly new lyrics for the 1990s.”3 In spite of such criticisms, many believe that Tandy’s performance resisted sentimentalism and revealed layers of complexity in the more than twenty-year relationship between the employer and her chauffeur. Of her character, Tandy said, “She was the product of her time and she had the prejudices of her time. But she does grow. She learns. By the end of the film she’s really changed.”4

1 Jack Kroll “Old Cards” Newsweek 17 Oct. 1977 p. 117
2 Brooks Atkinson “Streetcar Tragedy: Mr. Williams’ Report on” Life in New Orleans” New York Times 14 Dec. 1947
3 Helene Vann and Jane Caputi “Driving Miss Daisy: A New Song of the South” Journal of Popular Film & Television 18:2 (1990) pp. 80-84
4 Glenn Collins “At 80, Jessica Tandy May Add an Oscar to Her Three Tonys” New York Times 8 Feb. 1990

 

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