Tallulah Bankhead? Apocryphal?
Dear 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.
- 1960 May 25, The Terre Haute Tribune, Walter Winchell of New York, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩