Brando on Tandy: The Heart of A Hummingbird

Jessica Tandy, photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Tennessee Williams had given me a Rosary in 1982, renaming the beads for those people--primarily women--who had inspired him and who taught him what had mattered and what continued to matter.

In the summer of 1990, battered by grief and health concerns--not to mention a looming deadline for an autobiography--Marlon Brando decided to attempt a similar exercise, using Tenn's Rosary, described via long distance, to focus on those women who had inspired, shaped, moved, and astonished him. One of the first women he spoke of was Jessica Tandy.

 It is never good to be adamant about a person: it's good to stretch your mind on occasion. I wasn't impressed or terribly excited when I heard that Jessica Tandy was going to play Blanche. Jessica Tandy was, to me, the sort of British actress who starred in costume films and spoke very correctly and wanly: She left no lasting impression on me.

[Elia] Kazan knew--in his magical way--what I was thinking, and he tracked me down by phone and told me to hold tight, to be patient, to wait and see. I didn't know yet that he was to be trusted in these things, in almost all things, but I did as he said. I tried to forget Jessica Tandy as Blanche, but every once in a while, while running or just waking up or sitting in a car, I'd think to myself 'Jessica Tandy?' I kept trying to brush it from my mind.

I think that I--and Kim and Karl--thought we had a lot to teach Jessica (I could never call her Jessie with any ease). I think we thought we are all so well-trained in all things real, all thing analyzed, and here was this rep actress.

Jessica was very small and seemed very frail. She was as pale as a leek, but regal, pretty. She did not make eye contact with me very often in those early days of rehearsal, and I think she was amazed at the openness of Kim in discussing sex and analysis and the maneuvers of a career. I don't think Jessica thought it inappropriate; I think she was amazed that a woman spoke so openly and freely.

Her ability to search for and retain a character was flawless, and it was fascinating to watch her move toward Blanche. It is true that she was nowhere near the character for a long time, but Kazan worked with her; Tenn worked with her. Jessica worked like an athlete, persistently and economically and powerfully. She was a wonder.

She taught me a lot about discipline, which has always been a problem for me: I am emotional and I can understand people, but I am not a good...what's the word?...steward of my equipment or my time. Jessica was militaristic in her work, getting every ounce of energy she needed, applying it well, applying it consistently.

She had the ability--magical, really--of allowing us to see her character grow and experience things. To watch her Blanche, you smelled what she smelled, felt what she felt, grew and shriveled as she did. She was a most empathetic actress.

She was remarkably generous--kind, really. Jessica gave of herself to the part, to Kazan, to Tenn, to all of us: She had a sweet way of shifting the scene toward you in a way that served the play and all the characters. It had to do, I think, with her eye and her ear: She knew where things should be placed and how they should sound, how they should feel.

Everyone wants to compare the two Blanches: Jessica and Vivien [Leigh]. Both were British actresses, finely trained, gifted, but the process by which Jessica arrived at Blanche was entirely different: It was incremental. You saw her walk in, see the apartment, take in its squalor, watch as the realization of her future sunk into her heart and her bones. You saw time having its way with her. You could see her drink the booze and imagine its warm journey through her body. You could see the distaste and the desire she felt in submitting to Stanley. You really felt the desperation to survive from Jessica.

You saw the fear and the desperation in Vivien and you could sense the development of Blanche through her mind: Hers was a mental performance--everything began in the brain and then was made manifest on her body.

Jessica's desperation was in her heart, and you--or I--could sense that heart beating frantically--in fear--in that tiny body. It was the heart of a hummingbird, and she was stranded, grounded, and surrounded by cats. You saw Jessica descending into madness, and I think you saw Vivien rising to a level of hysteria that was madness.

They were both brilliant actresses, and I learned so much from them, but Jessica was kind to me, patient with me, taught me to husband my art.

She is in my heart still.

COMING SOON: Brando on Maureen Stapleton and Ellen Burstyn


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