Tammy Grimes, 1934-2016
Tammy Grimes died at the end of October, many years after her celebrity had faded. If you went to the theatre in New York in the sixties you knew who she was: the ineffable sprite with the gingery brandy-snap contralto and the slightly preposterous bohemian hauteur who was born to play high comedy. The English-accented voice was her own invention – she was born in Lynn, Massachusetts – and if you listen to the original cast album of The Littlest Revue (1956), the first show in which she was featured (she had understudied Kim Stanley’s Cherie in Bus Stop on Broadway the year before), you can hear her trying it out: tentatively on her first solo, “Madly in Love,” more confidently on her second, “I’m Glad I’m Not a Man.” She was a cabaret singer as well as an actress; Noël Coward discovered her at Julius Monk’s Downstairs and nabbed her for his play Look After Lulu!, in which she played the first of several notable Coward heroines – she was Elvira in High Spirits, the 1964 musical of Blithe Spirit, and Amanda in a Broadway revival of Private Lives six years later. Strangely, though, her breakthrough role was that of the indomitable Colorado millionairess, raised in rural poverty and later one of the survivors of the Titanic, in Meredith Willson’s 1960 The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I saw her in it and was delighted by her performance; at ten it didn’t occur to me to wonder where a Colorado mountain gal acquired so cultivated a vocal effect. She book-ended the decade with Tony Awards for it and for Private Lives, in a part that surely suited her better. Due to a weird glitch in the rules (since modified), the first of these awards was for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, even though she played the title character in Molly Brown and was rarely off the stage during its running time. At the time only actors billed above the title were eligible for a leading actor or actress nod and, since Grimes was not considered a star in 1960, her name appeared below the title.
The Private Lives she performed opposite Brian Bedford was played at breakneck speed; I saw it in its Boston tryout and I remember clearly that it clocked in at almost exactly half an hour for each of the three acts. And though it lacked the depth I found in later productions – especially the one Robin Phillips staged in Stratford, Ontario with Bedford and Maggie Smith – it was uproarious. But the Grimes I had already fallen in love with was the co-star (with Edward Woodward, Beatrice Lillie and Louise Troy) of High Spirits. She was both buoyant and elegant as the insistent, mischievous ghost who sees her husband’s current wife as a rival and plots to reclaim him by tinkering with his automobile. One of my friends points out that though the material is heartless, the musical softens it, and that may explain why I’ve never much enjoyed Blithe Spirit, yet I still enjoy listening to the cast album of High Spirits. Grimes was magical in it (so was Bea Lillie as the medium), and you can hear that magic on the album in her renditions of “You’d Better Love Me,” “Something Tells Me,” “Faster Than Sound,” “Home, Sweet Heaven” and (with Woodward) “I Know Your Heart.” So many songs! (There’s also a trio, “What in the World Did You Want?,” with Woodward and Troy.) Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray must have cherished the opportunity to write for her.
After Private Lives Grimes didn’t get a lot of showcase roles, but she did continue to appear on stage, on TV and occasionally in movies. She’s the only actor worth looking at in Stephen Porter’s lethal production of Molière’s Tartuffe, which was televised on Theater in America in 1978 (she played Elmire). And in Peter Hall’s noisy, overwrought mounting of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending on Broadway in 1989, with Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson in the leads, once again she was the sole grounded actor in the company, playing the character of Vee Talbot as a spooked pixie. It was the last time I saw her live. But some part of her lives on in her daughter (by Christopher Plummer), Amanda Plummer, a wildly unconventional actress with a gift for portraying women of frightening intensity – and with a voice that sounds like her mother’s, minus the aristocratic lilt. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, but it picked up a little grit on the way. Watching Plummer act is, among other things, a touching way to remember Tammy Grimes.
Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.