Posted by Hannah Miller
Today’s theatre artist is the legendary Broadway and Hollywood actress JESSICA TANDY, born on June 7, 1909 (pictured to the right). The world celebrated her 99th birthday a week ago Saturday. Tandy died in 1994 of ovarian cancer at the age of 85, but last week she was remembered by her legion of fans as one of the great actors of the 20th Century.
Tandy is the first woman to have made it into this blog series. In recognition of her ushering our gender into Word of the Week, I’m giving her (or I should say that Tennessee Williams gave her) two Words instead of one. Her Words comprise the provocative phrase, RUTTING HUNK.
Now please don't get offended or mad or nervous just yet. Jessica Tandy was a highly esteemed actor of the stage and screen, and enjoyed a career that lasted over sixty years. She was born in London as Jessie Alice Tandy, and became involved in theatre as a child when her parents enrolled her in the Ben Greet Academy of Acting.
Her early years were marked by one success after another. She made her professional debut at the age of 16 in a regional production of The Manderson Girls, and was soon invited to join the full time acting company of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. At the age of 20 she made her West End debut in London. One year later she achieved transcontinental success when she appeared on Broadway in The Matriarch. A short two years after that, she was featured in her first Hollywood movie, The Indiscretions of Eve.
Throughout her 20s and 30s she remained busy focusing on her stage career, and charming audiences on two continents. In 1942, she met and married actor and director Hume Cronyn, beginning a 52-year partnership that was destined to become one of the most successful and respected marriages in America’s entertainment industry.
Tandy’s encounter with history came in 1947 when, at the age of 38, she created the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. She is pictured with Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando to the left. She won the Tony Award and immediate national recognition. Since '47 she has been, and will continue to be, inextricably associated with the iconic Southern stage role of her era.
When the film version of Streetcar was produced, all of Tandy’s Broadway costars were invited to recreate their characters: Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch. Ironically, it was another British superstar who was invited to play the role of Blanche.
Vivien Leigh (pictured to the right as Blanche with Marlon Brando as Stanley) was four years younger than Tandy. Leigh had won her first Oscar and become an international household name playing another iconic Southern belle in the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind. When the film version of Streetcar was made in 1951, Hollywood had a choice—Jessica Tandy who had created the role of Blanche on Broadway to universal acclaim, or Vivien Leigh who had starred as Blanche when the play transferred to London’s West End. Internationally beloved as Scarlett O’Hara, Leigh was the more bankable star, and so she beat out Tandy for the coveted role, performing brilliantly in the film and earning her second Academy Award.
Tandy’s Hollywood superstardom was still to come.
In Act I, Scene 5 of Streetcar, Blanche begins writing down in a little notebook colorful words said by other characters. “I must jot that down in my notebook,” she tells her rough brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.
Blanche -- Ha-ha! I’m compiling a notebook of quaint little words and phrases I’ve picked up here.
Stanley -- You won’t pick up nothing here you ain’t heard before.
Blanche -- Can I count on that?
Stanley -- You can count on it up to five hundred.
The first phrase that Blanche records in her book is RUTTING HUNK. But here’s the surprise—at least it was a surprise to me. That term is not used to describe the musclebound Stanley Kowalski, played by the young and buff Marlon Brando. It is used by Stanley and Stella's upstairs neighbor Steve to describe his wife Eunice.
The word RUT can be applied to non-human mammals, either male or female. When used as a verb, RUTTING means to be in “a state or period of heightened sexual arousal.” It comes from the old French word rut, meaning “to roar.” When used as a noun, the phrase “in RUT” is synonymous with the phrase “in heat.”
Whereas the word HUNK today refers to an attractive man in admirable physical condition, the word HUNK historically referred to either a man or woman. It most likely was derived from the Flemish work hunke, meaning "a piece of food." HUNK is defined in the thesaurus found at Answers.com as “a person regarded as physically attractive: beauty, belle (used of a woman), lovely, stunner. Slang – babe, doll, knockout, looker, stud (used of a man).”
Going by this historical definition, not only was it appropriate for Tennessee Williams to have Steve refer to his wife Eunice as a RUTTING HUNK, it would also have been appropriate for Frank Loesser to have renamed his classic musical, which opened on Broadway only three years after Streetcar, Guys and Hunks.
Isn’t it interesting how the popularly perceived meanings of words change over time?
But one thing that doesn’t change is talent. Jessica Tandy may not have been selected to make the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, but she did go on to make many other films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1953, The World According to Garp in 1982, and Cocoon in 1985. Finally, in 1989, Tandy starred as another memorable Southern woman, the octogenarian heroine of Driving Miss Daisy, earning her first Oscar at the age of 80.
Driving Miss Daisy will play at Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern this fall, starring one of Richmond’s great actresses, Joy Williams.
--Posted by Hannah Miller