A beloved, twinkly blue-eyed doyenne of stage and screen, actress Jessica Tandy’s career spanned nearly six and a half decades. In that span of time, she enjoyed an amazing film renaissance at age 80, something unheard of in a town that worships youth and nubile beauty. She was born Jessie Alice Tandy in London in 1909, the daughter of Jessie Helen (Horspool), the head of a school for mentally handicapped children, and Harry Tandy, a traveling salesman. Her parents enrolled her as a teenager at the Ben Greet Academy of Acting, where she showed immediate promise. She was 16 when she made her professional bow as Sara Manderson in the play “The Manderson Girls”, and was subsequently invited to join the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Within a couple of years, Jessica was making a number of other debuts as well. Her first West End play was in “The Rumour” at the Court Theatre in 1929, her Gotham bow was in “The Matriarch” at the Longacre Theatre in 1930, and her initial film role was as a maid in The Indiscretions of Eve (1932).
Jessica married British actor Jack Hawkins in 1932 after the couple had met performing in the play “Autumn Crocus” the year before. They had one daughter, Susan, before parting ways after eight years of marriage. An unconventional beauty with slightly stern-eyed and sharp, hawkish features, she was passed over for leading lady roles in films, thereby focusing strongly on a transatlantic stage career throughout the 1930s and 1940s. She grew in stature while enacting a succession of Shakespeare’s premiere ladies (Titania, Viola, Ophelia, Cordelia). At the same time, she enjoyed personal successes elsewhere in such plays as “French Without Tears”, “Honour Thy Father”, “Jupiter Laughs”, “Anne of England” and “Portrait of a Madonna”. And then she gave life to Blanche DuBois.
When Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece “A Streetcar Named Desire” opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947, Jessica’s name became forever associated with this entrancing Southern belle character. One of the most complex, beautifully drawn, and still sought-after femme parts of all time, she went on to win the coveted Tony award. Aside from introducing Marlon Brando to the general viewing public, “Streetcar” shot Jessica’s marquee value up a thousandfold. But not in films.
While her esteemed co-stars Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden were given the luxury of recreating their roles in Elia Kazan’s stark, black-and-white cinematic adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Jessica was devastatingly bypassed. Vivien Leigh, who played the role on stage in London and had already immortalized another coy, manipulative Southern belle on celluloid (Scarlett O’Hara), was a far more marketable film celebrity at the time and was signed on to play the delusional Blanche. To be fair, Leigh was nothing less than astounding in the role and went on to deservedly win the Academy Award (along with Malden and Hunter). Jessica would exact her revenge on Hollywood in later years.
In 1942, she entered into a second marriage, with actor/producer/director Hume Cronyn, a 52-year union that produced two children, Christopher and Tandy, the latter an actor in her own right. The couple not only enjoyed great solo success, they relished performing in each other’s company. A few of their resounding theatre triumphs included the “The Fourposter” (1951), “Triple Play” (1959), “Big Fish, Little Fish (1962), “Hamlet” (he played Polonius; she played Gertrude) (1963), “The Three Sisters (1963) and “A Delicate Balance.” They supported together in films too, their first being The Seventh Cross (1944). In the film The Green Years (1946), Jessica, who was two years older than Cronyn, actually played his daughter! Throughout the 1950s, they built up a sturdy reputation as “America’s First Couple of the Theatre.”
In 1963, Jessica made an isolated film appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds (1963). Low on the pecking order at the time (pun intended), Hitchcock gave Jessica a noticeable secondary role, and Jessica made the most of her brittle scenes as the high-strung, overbearing mother of Rod Taylor, who witnesses horror along the California coast. It was not until the 1980s that Jessica (and Hume, to a lesser degree) experienced a mammoth comeback in Hollywood.
Alongside Hume she delighted movie audiences in such enjoyable fare as Honky Tonk Freeway (1981), The World According to Garp (1982), Cocoon (1985) and *batteries not included (1987). In 1989, however, octogenarian Jessica was handed the senior citizen role of a lifetime as the prickly Southern Jewish widow who gradually forms a trusting bond with her black chauffeur in the genteel drama Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Jessica was presented with the Oscar, Golden Globe and British Film Awards, among others, for her exceptional work in the film that also won “Best Picture”. Deemed Hollywood royalty now, she was handed the cream of the crop in elderly film parts and went on to win another Oscar nomination for Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) a couple of years later.
Jessica also enjoyed some of her biggest stage hits (“Streetcar” notwithstanding) during her twilight years, earning two more Tony Awards for her exceptional work in “The Gin Game” (1977) and “Foxfire” (1982). Both co-starred her husband, Hume, and both were beautifully transferred by the couple to television. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1990, Jessica bravely continued working with Emmy-winning distinction on television. She died of her illness on September 11, 1994. Her last two films, Nobody’s Fool (1994) and Camilla (1994), were released posthumously.