When she first began tackling the role of Tallulah Bankhead for the play “Looped,” which opened Sunday night at New York’s Lyceum Theatre, Valerie Harper was going through more glue sticks than a kindergartner in art class. In order to achieve the Hollywood provocateur’s improbably high, pencil-thin arc of an eyebrow, she would apply three coats on her own eyebrows, waiting for the adhesive to dry each time before adding powder and makeup. “And it wasn’t special glue,” says Harper. “I used a glue stick from Staples before moving to [a professional sealer] recently. That’s the biggest challenge — the eyebrows. It takes a hell’s long time to hide my own.”
Whatever Harper’s hirsute hurdles backstage, the ultimate effect is staggering. Harper’s most famous role, as Mary Tyler Moore’s wisecracking, Bronx-clipped BFF Rhoda Morgenstern, is light-years away from the boozing, codeine-popping Bankhead with a voice like, as one “Looped” character says, “a moose on a mating line.” Yet when she takes the stage, gussied up in a fur coat and clingy cocktail dress, she is Bankhead. Her hair (a wig, actually) is coiffed just so, in Forties-style waves; her mouth, stretched taut and downward. “It’s a total transformation,” says William Ivey Long, the show’s costume designer.
This story first appeared in the March 15, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The play by Matthew Lombardo is based on an existing audiotape of an eight-hour session in which a sloshed Bankhead attempts to dub lines — looping, as the process is called — for her final film, “Die, Die My Darling.” Whereas in the original, Bankhead taped several lines in London’s Hammer Studios, “Looped” has Harper comically recording (and rerecording) a single line in a Los Angeles sound studio. What results is an emotional tug-of-war between the fading actress and an increasingly frustrated film editor, played by Brian Hutchison. There are salty punch lines aplenty — actual Bankhead bon mots. One fictional, yet no-less-priceless quip: “Joan Crawford was a lousy lay. She kept getting out of bed to beat the children.”
“That [tape] was gold,” says Harper, who listens to the 1965 recording before each performance. “You can really hear her in life, getting angry at the director, being upset, having a few tears” — here, the actress delves into her husky Bankhead impression with its drawn-out vowels — ‘Hohney, dahling, hand me my purse, a light….’”
To prepare for the role, Harper also read a number of Bankhead’s biographies and did research at The Paley Center for Media in New York. “A fan sent me a great ‘Person to Person’ [television interview] with Edward R. Murrow,” she adds. “And as a little girl in the Fifties, I listened to [the radio program] ‘The Big Show,’ which Tallulah hosted.”
The production’s attention to details extends to the costumes: a sapphire blue charmeuse frock Harper wears throughout is based on an actual design Bankhead herself wore. “I read the script and watched Valerie move and flirt,” explains Long. “She’s doing a mating dance in the show. The mink fur comes from Long’s own vintage archives, as does the alligator handbag (inside of which are two vintage pill bottles marked “Ms. Tallulah Bankhead — Codeine 20 mg”). The matching shoes are Bruno Magli, purchased from Zappos.com, and the turquoise scarf, leftover fabric from a dress Long made for Uma Thurman for the 2005 film “The Producers.” Then there is Harper’s Kiki de Montparnasse undergarment, which the designer nicknames The Krakowski: The “30 Rock” actress recommended the boned bodysuit to him when the two collaborated on “Damn Yankees” in 2008.
As for whether Harper has anything in common with her bawdy and blue current alter ego, she does. “Love of being on stage as an actress,” Harper replies, without hesitation. But what about the Bankhead vices? “Oh, no, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink,” says Harper, with a chuckle reminiscent of a bygone Morgenstern. “Food, that’s where my addiction is: brownies, pizza, ice cream and too much bread and butter.”