Born June 7, 1909 in London, England to a headmistress and a traveling salesman, Jessie Alice “Jessica” Tandy made her debut on the London stage in 1927 at the age of 18. Among her stage hits were Hamlet opposite John Gielgud; Henry V opposite Laurence Olivier and Autumn Crocus opposite Jack Hawkins whom she married in 1932. Divorced from Hawkins in 1940, she moved to the U.S. where she met Canadian born actor Hume Cronyn who became her second husband in 1942. The two appeared together for the first time in the 1944 film The Seventh Cross in support of Spencer Tracy. Cronyn was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
She made a major impression as Gregory Peck’s nasty wife in 1945’s The Valley of Decision and showed her kinder side in 1946’s The Green Years in which she played Cronyn’s daughter even though she was two years older than him in real life.
She had the first of her two iconic roles as Blanche Du Bois in the original Broadway production
of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, for which she won the first of four Tony awards.
Her portrayal of Charles Boyer’s secret lover who waits for his wife to die only to lose him to Ann Blyth in 1948’s A Woman’s Vengeance earned her the best notices of her still emerging film career. After that it was back to playing less imposing supporting roles in such films as 1950’s September Affair and 1951’s The Desert Fox. When it came time to make the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire the producers chose instead to cast Vivien Leigh who played the role in London over Tandy who was not a film star.
Through the 1950s and 60s, Tandy continued to headline Broadway plays such as Five Finger Exercise and A Delicate Balance which went to bigger screen names Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn when filmed. Her won screen roles during this period were small, if memorable. She was James MacArthur’s mother in The Light in the Forest; Richard Beymer’s mother in Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man and Rod Taylor’s mother in The Birds.
Tony wins for 1977’s The Gin Game and 1982’s Foxfire increased her visibility and she brightened several films of the 1980s such as The World According to Garp; The Bostonians and Cocoon, the latter opposite Cronyn. She also garnered wider recognition for her TV performances, most notably the 1987 TV version of Foxfire for which she won an Emmy.
Incredibly she beat out screen legends Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn for the coveted starring role in the 1989 film of the off-Broadway hit, Driving Miss Daisy. Even more incredibly, she and her film both won Oscars. Tandy at 80 was finally a full-fledged movie star.
Her follow-up film, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes brought her another Oscar nomination. Ill-used in 1992’s Used People, she and Cronyn won career achievement Tonys in 1994. Later that year, she and Cronyn were nominated for Emmys for TV’s To Dance With the White Dog for which he won on the day she died.
Tandy had one more still unseen great role as Paul Newman’s landlady in Nobody’s Fool, released three months after her death on September 11, 1994 at the age of 85.
A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE (1948), directed by Zoltan Korda
Released when her stage career was at its apex as Blanche du Bois in the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Tandy received the best notices of her still emerging screen career as a woman with designs on neighbor Charles Boyer, only to lose him to teenage mistress Ann Blyth when his invalid wife (Rachel Kempson) dies unexpectedly. Despite strong performances by inveterate scene stealers Mildred Natwick and Cedric Hardwicke as well as the film’s stars, Tandy manages to hold center stage, especially in the film’s climactic moments.
HEMINGWAY’S ADVENTURES OF A YOUNG MAN (1962), directed by Martin Ritt
Tandy received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Richard Beymer’s cold, aloof mother opposite Arthur Kennedy as her long-suffering kindly husband in this big screen adaptation of Hemingway’s autobiographical Nick Adams stories. Despite memorable turns from Kennedy, an unrecognizable Paul Newman as a punch-drunk fighter, James Dunn, Dan Dailey and others, Tandy’s is the performance you remember long after the film has ended.
DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989), directed by Bruce Beresford
At an age when most of her contemporaries were sitting around waiting for the undertaker, Tandy beat screen legends Bette Davis, who would die before the film’s release, and Katharine Hepburn to the punch in landing the most coveted role written for a woman of a certain age. Tandy’s portrayal of the elderly Southern Jewish woman and her African-American chauffer over the course of twenty years was close to perfection. That she would win the Oscar was almost guaranteed, but that this simple, yet touching film would also win Best Picture was an unexpected, but welcome bonus for the now 80 year-old star.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (1991), directed by Jon Avnet
Proving that Daisy was no fluke, Tandy’s delightful turn as another old Southern lady two years later earned her another Oscar nomination, albeit one in the supporting actress category. Her Ninny Threadgoode, a nursing home patient who enthralls an unhappy housewife (Kathy Bates) with tales of long ago, was charm personified. The acting of Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker in the flashback sequences, as well as Bates and Tandy in the present was superb.
NOBODY’S FOOL (1994), directed by Robert Benton
Tandy’s last filmed role was as the title character in the unsuccessful independent film, Camilla, but her last released film was this year-end awards bait-y release in which she played another of her life-affirming old ladies, this time as the former schoolteacher, now landlady to near retirement age Paul Newman who had one of his best late career roles as a rascally ne’er-do-well in a small town. It’s Newman’s film all the way, but the interplay between him and Tandy gives the film some of its sharpest moments.
JESSICA TANDY AND OSCAR
- Driving Miss Daisy (1989) – Oscar – Best Actress
- Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) – nominated Best Supporting Actress