Saturday, April 29, 2017

Lillian Hellman and Her 'Little Foxes'


Lillian Hellman's 'The Little Foxes.' This 1941 film, with Bette Davis, is the only film version.
Lillian Hellman’s most famed play, The Little Foxes, is not revived as regularly as Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Perhaps that’s how the perception began that Foxes was dated. Quite the opposite, its similar themes about corruption and greed are timely as ever.

Tallulah Bankhead was the first Regina Giddens.
The Little Foxes debuted in 1939, with Tallulah Bankhead in her best role as Regina Giddens. In 1941, Bette Davis gave one of her most restrained performances as ruthless Regina, with the Broadway cast, in William Wyler’s screen version.

Tallulah Bankhead couldn’t have been thrilled to see Bette Davis play Regina, especially after Davis recently had one of her greatest successes in a film version of a Bankhead stage flop, Dark Victory. Later, Bankhead “jokingly” accused Bette of borrowing her mannerisms when playing Broadway diva Margo Channing in All About Eve, or as Tallulah dubbed it, All About Me. However, Bankhead did get to recreate Regina Giddens in a radio adaptation, as did Davis.
Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are winning raves in a 2017 Broadway revival of The Little Foxes. What’s unique is the two stars are alternating the juicy roles of rapacious Regina and fragile Birdie. Given the chance, I don’t think Tallulah and Bette would have ever done this!

Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney are doubly dynamic in 'The Little Foxes.'
Lillian Hellman was inspired by her mother’s greedy relatives to write The Little Foxes. Foxes’ family is ruled by the pursuit of riches, no matter what the cost. Regina Giddens is a woman staring at middle age, reliant on her husband Horace Giddens’ staid financial decisions. Regina’s brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, have used the family fortune to finance their own business ventures. Regina, as a woman of her time, has no authoritative power. A Yankee developer proposes to build a cotton mill in their town, making them all partners. The brothers say yes, but Regina must get her estranged husband’s consent. She brings Horace home from the hospital—weak heart, beware—to get him on board. Once he’s home, Regina’s motives are obvious. Horace wants no part of the venture, which will exploit their townspeople, and refuses to participate. Let’s just say this decision doesn’t bring out the best in Regina or her brothers.

Tallulah Bankhead in her best stage role.
The Little Foxes is Hellman’s indictment on America’s mindless greed and exploitation of the working class. Hellman was a lifelong political and social activist, finding herself blacklisted during the McCarthy era, after famously testifying, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions…”
The notoriously persnickety Hellman kept tight reins on her plays’ revivals—and apparently this has continued after her death. Still, it may be surprising to know about a few other versions of The Little Foxes.

Ann Blyth as young Regina Giddens: 'Another Part of the Forest.'
In 1948, Universal released Another Part of the Forest, based on Hellman’s stage play “prequel” to The Little Foxes. Forest focuses on the Hubbard clan when Ben, Oscar, and Regina were young vipers, and their father Marcus conniving to capitalize even further on the loot made as a post-Civil war profiteer. Papa Hubbard’s parenting skills trained his children early on how to be rotten adults. Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives) plays patriarch Marcus. Ann Blyth, who played Veda, the daughter from hell, in Mildred Pierce, won kudos as a young Regina.  Edmund O’ Brien plays Ben; fittingly, Dan Duryea plays Oscar, since he played Oscar’s son seven years earlier in The Little Foxes. Betsy Blair, aka Mrs. Gene Kelly, plays young Birdie. John Dall, of The Corn is Green and Rope, plays her cousin. And Dona Drake, famous as Bette Davis’ trashy maid in Beyond the Forest, plays Oscar’s trampy “dancer” girlfriend. Critics highly praised the screen adaptation and cast when Another Part of the Forest was released, but it’s a rather forgotten film today.

Greer Garson & Franchot Tone in '56 'Foxes.'
In 1956, NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame presented their version of The Little Foxes, with MGM’s noble Greer Garson as Regina and Franchot Tone as Horace (once married to Joan Crawford when they were MGM stars!) Eileen Heckart, who made a splash as bereaved and boozy Mrs. Daigle in The Bad Seed, gets to be boozy and bravura again as Birdie. Sidney Blackmer (Rosemary’s Baby) and E.G. Marshall (12 Angry Men) are Regina’s bad brothers Ben and Oscar. One of famed TV director’s George Schaefer’s early efforts, he later directed the only film “fox,” Bette Davis, in two of her best latter day TV films: A Piano for Mrs. Cimino and Right of Way.

'67 'Foxes': Ben (George C. Scott) implores his sister Regina, Anne Bancroft.
In 1967, fresh off The Graduate, Mike Nichols again directed Anne Bancroft, as another scheming mother in a stellar revival of The Little Foxes. As the shyster brothers, George C. Scott played Ben and E.G. Marshall repeated his role as Oscar. British actress Margaret Leighton played Birdie and Richard Dysart (L.A. Law) played long-suffering Horace.

Actor Austin Pendleton, who played the nitwit nephew in the ’67 Mike Nichols production, got a rare opportunity in 1981. Now a director, as well, Pendleton guided Elizabeth Taylor as Regina Giddens, in her Broadway debut. As with all about Liz, the production received a tsunami of publicity. Taylor had recently helped husband John Warner get elected senator in Virginia. Post-election, the junior senator left Liz down on the farm, and went to Washington. Home alone, the actress ate and drank, and her figure and self-esteem went south. Taylor quickly tired as the target of comics’ fat jokes, and started losing weight. 
Elizabeth Taylor played another southern belle in the hit '81 revival of The Little 'Foxes.'
A chance meeting with Broadway producer Zev Buffman led to an offer to star on stage. Several plays were considered, with Elizabeth deciding on The Little Foxes. A canny choice, since Taylor’s best film work was theatrical adaptations of strong dramas, often playing Southern women. Taylor showed her famed determination by putting down the fork and the bottle, knocking off 40 pounds and working hard on her debut.

Lillian Hellman, at the center of attention!
Lillian Hellman, who had a formidable ego, didn’t like the notion of her play becoming The Elizabeth Taylor Show. Luckily, Elizabeth was as much of a strategic charmer as Regina Giddens. Taylor used great diplomacy in deferring to Hellman’s demanded changes in the production, mostly over Liz looking too lavish in the role. Lillian, who gave Bette Davis a run for her money in the cantankerous department, ceased complaining when the money came rolling in. In the pre-internet era, Taylor’s Foxes sold almost $1 million in tickets the first week. Another crusty broad that Taylor won over was the great Maureen Stapleton, who played Birdie. Like Hellman, Stapleton was no beauty. But instead of being envious over Taylor’s beauty, “Mighty Mo” and ET became fast friends. The production received mostly good reviews, with surprise raves from The New York Times and even Taylor’s old nemesis, Time magazine.

Stockard Channing looking very Liz-like in the '97 revival of 'Foxes.'
In 1997, Stockard Channing, looking very Elizabeth Taylor-esque, played Regina, with Frances Conroy of Six Feet Under and American Horror Story, as Birdie. The reviews were mixed and it’s one of Channing’s few stage roles where she didn’t receive a Tony nomination.

And now, we have two great character actresses, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, burning up Broadway in both roles. This production has a “that 70’s show” quirky footnote by casting Michael McKean, Lenny of Laverne and Shirley as Ben Hubbard and Richard Thomas, John-Boy from The Waltons, as Horace Giddens. Lenny and John-Boy as brothers-in-law, together on Broadway!

The latest success of The Little Foxes reminds me of one of Regina Giddens’ big lines: “I’ve always been lucky…I’ll be lucky again.”
The latest Foxes, 2017!

4 comments:

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    1. Thank you, it was fun to do! I just bookmarked your blog, so I will be checking it! Rick

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  2. Hi Rick, thanks so much for this. The timing is amazing, I just saw this on Saturday and really liked it. Both actresses were wonderful. Your article is fascinating. I only knew the Bette Davis movie. I can't believe what a history this play has had. I found the theme of greed and morality most timely.

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    1. The play still truly holds up, doesn't it? Glad your theatre experience was terrific!

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