Valerie Harper Triumphs as Tallulah Bankhead in “Looped”


Published: April 1, 2010

Four-time Emmy Award winner Valerie Harper opened on Broadway on March 14 in the new comedy “Looped” playing legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead. Harper won three consecutive Emmy Awards as Best Supporting Actress for playing Rhoda Morgenstern, best friend and neighbor to Mary Richards, on the 1970s television classic “Mary Tyler Moore.” She repeated the role on her own series, “Rhoda,” which earned her an additional Emmy, this time in the leading category.

“Rhoda” was the most immediately successful spin-off ever on television up to that time. When Rhoda married on the series, the ratings scored were roughly the same as the highest rated entertainment program of the last decade, the series finale of “Friends.” After “Rhoda,” Harper found success on television again in “Valerie,” which made a star out of Jason Bateman, who played her son. Having started her career as a dancer in Broadway shows such as “Li’l Abner,” “Take Me Along” (with Jackie Gleason) and “Wildcat” (starring Lucille Ball), Harper has returned to the Great White Way playing another legendary actress.

Tallulah Bankhead was known as one of the great actresses of the stage, but her outlandish behavior offstage seemed to overshadow everything else. The daughter of the Speaker of the House and part of a powerful political family, Bankhead smoked and drank excessively, used cocaine, had scandalous affairs with both men and women and usually thought clothing was only optional.

Bankhead spoke frankly about all these things at a time when no one else did. She originated the leads in the “The Little Foxes,” “Dark Victory” and “The Skin of Our Teeth,” among others, as well as starring in acclaimed productions of “Private Lives,” “Rain” and “Camille.” However, Bankhead did not have the same success in film as she did on stage. Bette Davis was nominated for two Academy Awards for roles Bankhead originated on the stage. Bankhead’s most famous film remains Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 classic, “Lifeboat.”

Although Bankhead was named best actress of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle, she did not receive an Oscar nomination. Many have suspected this was because her freewheeling behavior was not approved of.

Bankhead is probably best known by those who never saw her onstage for her television work where she played the villainous Black Widow in a campy—even by 1960s “Batman” standards—appearance on the superhero series, and most memorably, as herself, feuding with next-door neighbor Lucy Ricardo on “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.” The oft-parodied Bankhead, who usually began or ended a sentence with the world “dahling,” also served as the inspiration for Cruella De Vil in “101 Dalmatians.” Tennessee Williams wrote the role of Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” for Bankhead, but the actress saw too many similarities between the character and her own life and turned the part down. She played the role years later, but the audience came to see Bankhead play her outrageous self and not a character.

Bankhead’s final film was the bizarre 1965 horror film “Die! Die! My Darling!,” and “Looped” is based on an incident during post-production during this movie. Bankhead took eight hours to rerecord (or loop, as it is known in the business) some dialogue, which should have only taken minutes.

In “Looped,” Tallulah struggles to rerecord a single line: “And so, Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has, in literal effect, closed the church to me.” This unwieldy line gives the audience some idea about the quality of the movie. The play, scripted by Matthew Lombardo, shows Tallulah arriving already drunk (giving the title “Looped” a double meaning) and getting progressively so as the evening goes on, as well as being under the influence of cocaine and codeine.

The first act is nonstop hilarity in which Harper flawlessly delivers some of Bankhead’s best known quotes (example: “Cocaine? Addictive? Nonsense. I ought to know; I’ve been doing it for years.”). Harper captures Bankhead’s famous baritone voice perfectly. The actress is able to excellently portray the campy and serious aspects of Tallulah, including performing selections from “A Streetcar Named Desire” in the play. The play is not a one-woman show, however. Harper is joined by Brian Hutchison as uptight film editor Danny Miller, who is forced to deal with Tallulah when the director skips town, and Michael Mulheren as Steve, the sound engineer tries to play middle man between the two. Both performers are fine in their roles. The play does have some more serious moments in the second act when Tallulah convinces Danny to reveal to her some of the problems in his life, but some of the biggest laughs of the show occur in the second half. Harper makes the audience completely forget that the actress onstage is the same one who played Rhoda Morgenstern for so many years.

“Looped” starring Valerie Harper, Brian Hutchison and Michael Mulheren, written by Matthew Lombardo and directed by Rob Ruggiero is now playing at the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th St., New York. Running time: 2 hours.