In a More Interesting Direction

In a More Interesting Direction

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jun 7th 2018

The New York Times obituary headline referred to the veteran actress of 100+ stage productions and 25+ movies as a “patrician star of stage and film.” For a time though, now-beloved Academy Award® and three-time Tony® Award winner Jessica Tandy (1909-1994), who would have turned 109 today, spent several years in 1940s Hollywood trying to find her fit as a screen player. There was a brief glimpse of “patrician” in her small role in The Valley of Decision(1945), wherein she’s the expected society match for steel mill business heir apparent Gregory Peck but alas, it was a vehicle for marquee star Greer Garson, portraying a low-born house servant who falls in love with Peck’s scion. Thus, a Tandy/Peck union was never in the cards. 

From the above-referenced Marilyn Berger penned tribute comes this Tandy observation: “She was convinced that she was plain and that there was nothing to be done about it. ‘I had absolutely no dress sense and no money to indulge it even if I did,’ she said. Her self-confidence was not enhanced by her many letters of recommendation. She remembered that each one of them said, ‘Don't be put off by how she looks.’ But if she ever was an ugly duckling – and there are many photographs that suggest she was not – a swan finally emerged, for in her later years she was a handsome woman with gray-white hair and sparkling eyes of cornflower blue. She could look back philosophically, saying: ‘In a way it was rather good. I didn't get the part of the young ingenue. I got more interesting parts.’” So in the mode of servant girl Garson, she took an interesting turn toward a couple of Twentieth Century Fox gigs playing a steadfast sidekick in service to two noteworthy popular historical novelists, Anya Seton and Kathleen Winsor; two of the eras loveliest leading ladies, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell; and a pair of distinctive directors, first-timer Joseph L. Mankiewicz and the more seasoned Otto Preminger. To the gloomy 1840s Hudson Valley homestead of Dragonwyck (1946), inhabited by Tierney’s Miranda Wells and her melancholic, tyrannical benefactor/later husband Nicholas Van Ryn, played with sinister relish by Vincent Price, Tandy’s touching, plain-spoken lady’s maid Peggy O’Malley, a stalwart comfort to her mistress and a repellent annoyance to the lord of the mayor because she’s slightly crippled, brings a much-needed human touch to a household blanketed in sad secrets and headed toward an inevitable, karma-like reckoning. 

In the 17th-century England of Forever Amber (1947), Darnell’s eponymous courtesan-in-the-making Amber St. Clare takes on a succession of paramours across the years while maintaining a passionate, unfulfilled yearning for Cornel Wilde’s soldier-of-fortune Bruce Carlton. During one of her downturns in fortune as a debtor’s prison inmate, Amber finds an able ally in Tandy’s Nan Britton, a chipper cutpurse who becomes her companion in the rise to societal heights, a witness to her romantic stratagems in the court of King Charles II (George Sanders) and a devoted governess to Amber’s and Bruce’s son, the product of their one sexual liaison. Regrettably, Tandy earned little or no mention in contemporaneous reviews of either picture. Fortunately, six weeks after Forever Amber opened to great fanfare and brisk box office, her upstairs ascent from the servants’ hall toward that “patrician” destination in the acting pantheon began in electrifying earnest when she opened on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and commanded a sizable swath of rapturously positive critical ink. When watching Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of Dragonwyck and Forever Amber, see if you recognize in the birthday honoree’s scruffy, lower-caste Peggy and Nan the makings of Blanche DuBois (Streetcar), Annie Nations (Foxfire), Fonsia Dorsey (The Gin Game), Lydia Brenner (The Birds), Daisy Werthan (Driving Miss Daisy) and other characters that grabbed our attention in the 60+-year path of a non-ingenue transforming “interesting” into gold.