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Jessie Alice Tandy (7 June 1909 – 11 September 1994) was a British-American actress. Tandy appeared in over 100 stage productions and had more than 60 roles in film and TV, receiving an Academy Award, four Tony Awards, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe Award, and a Primetime Emmy Award. She acted as Blanche DuBois in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948. Her films included Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and The Gin Game. At 80, she became the oldest actress to receive the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Driving Miss Daisy.
The youngest of three siblings, Tandy was born in Geldeston Road in Hackney, London to Harry Tandy and his wife, Jessie Helen Horspool. Her mother was from a large fenland family in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and the head of a school for mentally handicapped children, and her father was a travelling salesman for a rope manufacturer. She was educated at Dame Alice Owen's School in Islington. Her father died when she was 12, and her mother subsequently taught evening courses to earn an income. Her brother Edward was later a prisoner of war of the Japanese in the Far East.
When she was 18 when she made her professional debut on the London stage. During the 1930s, she acted in many plays in London's West End, playing Ophelia (opposite John Gielgud's legendary Hamlet) and Katherine (opposite Laurence Olivier's Henry V). She entered films in Britain, but after her marriage to Jack Hawkins failed, she moved to the United States hoping to find better roles. During her time as a leading actress on the stage in London she often had to fight for roles over her two rivals, Peggy Ashcroft and Celia Johnson.
In 1932 Tandy married English actor Jack Hawkins and together they had a daughter, Susan Hawkins. Susan became an actress and was the daughter-in-law of John Moynihan Tettemer, a former Passionist monk who authored I Was a Monk: The Autobiography of John Tettemer, and was cast in small roles in Lost Horizon and Meet John Doe. After Tandy and Hawkins divorced in 1940, she married her second husband, Canadian actor Hume Cronyn, in 1942. Prior to moving to Connecticut, she lived with Cronyn for many years in nearby Pound Ridge, New York, and they remained together until her death in 1994. They had two children, daughter Tandy Cronyn, an actress who would co-star with her mother in the TV film The Story Lady, and son Christopher Cronyn.
by Carl Van Vechten
In the 1940s she played supporting roles in several Hollywood films. Tandy became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1952. Like many stage actors, Tandy also worked in radio. Among other programs, she was a regular on Mandrake the Magician (as Princess Nada), and then with husband Hume Cronyn in The Marriage which ran on radio from 1953–54, and then segued onto television. She made her American film debut in The Seventh Cross (1944). She had supporting appearances in The Valley of Decision (1945), The Green Years (1946, as Cronyn's daughter), Dragonwyck (1946) starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price and Forever Amber (1947). She appeared as the insomniac murderess in A Woman's Vengeance (1948), a film-noir adapted by Aldous Huxley from his short story "The Gioconda Smile". Over the next three decades, her film career continued sporadically while she found better roles on the stage. Her roles during this time included The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) opposite James Mason, The Light in the Forest (1958), and a role as a domineering mother in Alfred Hitchcock's film, The Birds (1963).
On Broadway, she won a Tony Award for her performance as Blanche Dubois in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948. After this (she lost the film role to actress Vivien Leigh), she concentrated on the stage. Carl Van Vechten photographed Tandy as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire—she was the first actress to play the role. Though Williams’s own first choice to play the complicated, intense, and vulnerable Blanche was Lillian Gish, director Elia Kazan insisted the role go to Jessica Tandy. In his review of the production, Brooks Atkinson praised Tandy’s performance: As Blanche DuBois, Jessica Tandy has one of the longest and most exacting parts on record. She plays it with an insight as vibrant and pitiless as Mr. Williams’s writing, for she catches on the wing the terror, the bogus refinement, the intellectual alertness and the madness that can hardly be distinguished from logic. Miss Tandy acts a magnificent part magnificently. Tandy appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando in the role of Stanley. Brando, then a virtually unknown actor, was an erratic performer with a tendency to upstage other actors. Though he presented wildly different interpretations of his character from one show to the next, Tandy was able to work against Brando’s unpredictable performance to make Blanche DuBois one of the most successful roles of her career, earning her a Tony award in 1948. In spite of her success in the theatrical production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tandy was replaced in the film version by Vivian Leigh, a more conventionally good-looking and popular actress. Tandy didn’t achieve major success in Hollywood until the end of her career, appearing in films such as the 1985 hit Cocoon, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café in 1991, and, of course, her Oscar winning performance in Driving Miss Daisy.
In 1976, she and Cronyn joined the acting company of the Stratford Festival, and returned in 1980 to debut Cronyn's play Foxfire. In 1977, she earned her second Tony Award, for her performance (with Cronyn) in The Gin Game and her third Tony in 1982 for her performance, again with Cronyn, in Foxfire. The beginning of the 1980s saw a resurgence in her film career, with character roles in The World According to Garp, Best Friends, Still of the Night (all 1982) and The Bostonians (1984). She and Cronyn were now working together more regularly on stage and television, including the films Cocoon (1985), *batteries not included (1987) and Cocoon: The Return (1988) and the Emmy Award winning television film Foxfire (1987, recreating her Tony winning Broadway role). However, it was her colourful performance in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), as an ageing, stubborn Southern-Jewish matron, that earned her an Oscar. She received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in the grassroots hit Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) and co-starred in The Story Lady (1991 TV film, with her daughter Tandy Cronyn), Used People (1992, as Shirley MacLaine's mother), television film To Dance with the White Dog (1993, with Cronyn), Camilla (1994, with Cronyn). Nobody's Fool (1994) proved to be her last performance, at the age of 84.
In 1990, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she also suffered from angina and glaucoma. Despite her illnesses and age she continued working. On 11 September 1994 she died at home in Easton, Connecticut, at the age of 85.
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