Born on this day in 1909, Jessica Tandy enjoyed a career that lasted nearly seven decades and became the oldest actress to win an Oscar. We look at her long climb to the peak of her profession.
American film festival in Deauville, France on September 12, 1992 - Jessica Tandy. (Photo by Pool BENAINOUS/REGLAIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Jessie Alice Tandy grew up in London, her father a traveling salesman for a rope manufacturer, her mother headmistress of a school for mentally handicapped children. Sickly as a child, Tandy’s bouts of tuberculosis often kept her housebound. After her father's death when she was 12, her mother taught night school to make ends meet. Tandy often accompanied her to the classroom and it was there she first developed a serious interest in studying poetry and drama. To amuse themselves, she and her two older brothers would often stage plays in their living room.
At age 15, she enrolled in Sir Ben Greet’s Academy of Acting. Three years later, she would make her professional debut in a London production of The Manderson Girls, a part that also required her to sew her own costumes with costs deducted from her salary. She continued getting work and made her West End debut in 1929. But it was her 1932 performance in Children in Uniform that marked her as a rising star. Soon she was acting opposite thespian giants like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.
For the next ten years, she plied her craft, alternating contemporary plays with classics. In 1940, with WWII raging in Europe, Tandy divorced her first husband and relocated to the United States in hopes of launching a film career.
She didn’t meet with instant success, but she did soon meet Hume Cronyn, the actor (and later writer/director/producer) she would soon marry and the man she credits with encouraging her to continue acting during the lean years – those years just after the couple moved to Hollywood and Tandy could only land small, unglamorous roles often playing domestic help.
All that was about to change. Rave reviews of her performance in an L.A. stage production of Tennessee Williams’ Portrait of a Madonna brought the playwright himself to see it, and he came away convinced she would be perfect for a play he was working on called A Streetcar Named Desire.
Nearly everyone associated with the 1947 production became legendary – Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden – and winning a Tony Award for playing Blanche DuBois should have propelled Tandy’s career into a whole new orbit. It did in a way – she and husband both became Broadway mainstays thereafter – but she was the only member of the stage production who didn’t reprise her role in the hit movie, being replaced by Vivien Leigh.
Still, she soldiered on, working on- and off-Broadway, and helping to legitimize regional theatre productions with her presence. She continued appearing on TV and in films, including Hitchcock’s The Birds (she also three times appeared on TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents), but leading parts eluded her.
Tandy made no apologies for taking those parts offered her, though. "You are richer for doing things," she once said. "If you wait for the perfect part or for what sends you, you will have long waits, and you deteriorate. You can't be an actor without acting."
Skills deteriorating through age and disuse was certainly not a problem for Tandy. She enjoyed an astounding late-career resurgence beginning at age 76 with Ron Howard’s surprise hit Cocoon, where she played opposite her husband Cronyn in an ensemble cast. Decades of perfecting her craft finally paid off when she was given the lead in Driving Miss Daisy, a 1989 film adapted from an off-Broadway play by Alfred Uhry.
Driving Miss Daisy was a smash hit critically and commercially, winning a slew of awards including the Oscar for Best Picture (it would be the last PG-rated movie to date to do so). It would also land Jessica Tandy, at age 80, the award for Best Actress, making her its oldest recipient.
Despite being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1990, she continued acting right up until her death four years later. At 85 and still near the height of her powers, she’d adhered to that old theatre maxim – always leave them wanting more.
Originally published June 2011