They’ve Absolutely Ruined Your Perfectly Dreadful Play

Tallulah Bankhead? Apocryphal?

orpheus11Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest one-line review of a movie I have ever encountered is the following:

Darling, they’ve absolutely ruined your perfectly dreadful play.

According to a show-business legend, the movie star Tallulah Bankhead delivered this mortifying judgement to the famous playwright Tennessee Williams when she saw the film version of his play “Orpheus Descending”. Would you please explore this tale?

Quote Investigator: In 1940 Tennessee Williams wrote a play titled “Battle of Angels”; however, at that time he was unable to successfully mount a full production. He rewrote and retitled the work “Orpheus Descending”, and in 1957 it was presented on Broadway, but the reception was muted. The construction of the play had been inspired by the tragic ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In 1960 “Orpheus Descending” was adapted into a film titled “The Fugitive Kind” with top performers in the cast: Marlon Brando played the Orpheus-type role and Anna Magnani played the Eurydice-type role. The critical notices were mixed, and the commercial performance was weak.

The earliest evidence located by QI of a match for the quotation appeared in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in May 1960. Winchell stated that Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams had recently resumed a friendship that previously had been strained. Bankhead’s candor was unhampered. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They witnessed the film “Fugitive Kind” (adapted from his “Orpheus Descending”) and she told him: “I think it’s disgraceful. They’ve absolutely ruined a bad play!” Tennessee enjoys being spiked by Talu the tiger.

The use of the pedestrian word “bad” in this version of the quotation reduced its humor. Yet, this instance might be the most faithful to the words Bankhead actually uttered. The word choice evolved as the tale was retold during the ensuing years.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1965 the quotation collector Bennett Cerf shared a sharp instance in his newspaper column. The tale was transmitted by a best-selling novelist: 2

When Tallulah Bankhead saw the movie based on Tennessee Williams play “Orpheus Descending,” reports Novelist Merle Miller, she consoled him with, “Tenny, darling, how awful for you. They’ve absolutely ruined your perfectly dreadful play.”

In 1977 a columnist in a New Orleans, Louisiana newspaper recounted a version of the anecdote told by the novelist and playwright James Leo Herlihy: 3

Tallulah fretted that she’d not have the proper thing to say to the playwright. However, what subsequently came out was choice. She burst into Tennessee’s house and shouted, “Tennessee, you poor darling, they’ve absolutely ruined your dreadful play.”

In 1978 Earl Wilson’s popular long-running column presented the following instance with the commonplace word “bad”. Wilson was relaying the instance given in a book by Broadway actress Marian Seldes: 4

Tallulah told her drinking buddy Tennessee Williams that his “The Battle of Angels” was the most disgusting play she’d read. Tallulah didn’t change her mind when Anna Magnani filmed it. She told Williams, “They have absolutely ruined a bad play.”

The 1989 collection “Broadway Anecdotes” by Peter Hay included the following version under the section title “Frankness”: 5

Tallulah Bankhead could be depended upon to speak her mind at all times. After she saw the film version of Orpheus Descending, she told Tennessee Williams: “Darling, they’ve absolutely ruined your perfectly dreadful play.”

In conclusion, substantive evidence supports the conclusion that Tallulah Bankhead made a humorous remark about the film “The Fugitive Kind” to Tennessee Williams. The precise phrasing she employed remains uncertain. It is possible that the version in the 1960 citation is the most accurate. Yet, the remark in the 1965 citation is funnier.

Image Notes: Promotional photo of Tallulah Bankhead circa 1941 via Wikimedia Commons. Painting of Orpheus and Euridice by Frederic Leighton circa 1864 via Wikiart. Images have been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1960 May 25, The Terre Haute Tribune, Walter Winchell of New York, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1965 January 21, Xenia Daily Gazette, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Xenia, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1977 April 1, New Orleans States-Item, Perryscope: Losing the winners: ABC’s plans by James A. Perry, Quote Page B4, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1978 December 7, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Tallulah’s lines recalled in book by Earl Wilson, Section 3, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  5. 1989 copyright, Broadway Anecdotes by Peter Hay, Quote Page 353, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper in 1990 paperback)