The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Tuesday, September 13, 1994            TAG: 9409130062
                                             LENGTH: Medium:  100 lines


JESSICA TANDY never acted like a grande dame of the cinema or stage, even though she had every right to all its titles and honors.

She always spoke of the ``privilege'' it was to be a working actress. She spoke of her roles as if they were fortunate experiences that a kind fate had allowed her to possess.

I remember standing with her for over an hour backstage at the Golden Globe Awards. She had just won the award for her performance in ``Driving Miss Daisy,'' a film that most Hollywood businessmen felt would be a hard sell to the American public. Miss Tandy was dutifully waiting for other winners to finish so that she could take her turn with the television interviewers. She was 80 at the time, and it seemed rude for them to keep her waiting for so long, but she didn't grumble.

I rushed off to find a chair for her, but she regally pushed it aside. ``If I sit down,'' she said, ``I'd probably never get up again.'' As she clutched the tiny Golden Globe Award, I suggested that this was only the beginning. ``You're sure to win the Oscar, too,'' I said.

``Oh, no. I don't think so. I'm primarily a stage actress, you know,'' she said. ``I rather hope I don't win, in a way. To go through this all again would be quite a challenge. I love the acting - creating a part - but all this is extra. They tell me it's necessary and, of course, I am grateful, but it is just, well, just EXTRA.''

Jessica Tandy's death Sunday, after a four-year battle with ovarian cancer, leaves us lacking a major craftswoman. She was that, a craftswoman, more than a star. Technique - clear, clean, precise technique - was the hallmark of her work, particularly on stage. In ``The Gin Game'' and ``Foxfire'' on Broadway, she developed her roles, layer upon layer, as if they were characters unfolding easily and naturally.

Her power was mysteriously couched in gentility. She could whisper and be heard in the last row, yet she never seemed to be ``projecting.'' She seemed thin and frail, but she knew how to play to the second balcony as well as the front row.

Her career on film has been a curious one. Up until ``Cocoon'' in 1985, she was featured primarily in character roles, often as the unfortunately plain ``other'' girl, or as conniving villainesses.

Search television screens, or video stores, and you'll see the younger Jessica Tandy. She was the rich snob who competed with Greer Garson for Gregory Peck in ``Valley of Decision.'' She was Field Marshal Rommel's (James Mason's) wife in ``The Desert Fox.'' She was a possessive mother in ``Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man.'' Perhaps her most-seen character role was as another possessive mother in ``The Birds.''

Hollywood never thought she was pretty enough to be a star.

You would think that the greatest tragedy of her career was that she did not get to play the role of Tennessee Williams' wilted Southern belle Blanche Dubois in the movie version of ``A Streetcar Named Desire.'' She created the role on stage, but the screen nod went to a well-known movie star, Vivien Leigh, who went on to win the Oscar for it. It happened often to her. Her stage role in ``Five Finger Exercise'' went to Rosalind Russell on film. Her role in ``The Fourposter'' went to Lilli Palmer.

It was 38 years after the ``Streetcar'' role and Oscar went to Vivien Leigh that Miss Tandy got her own Oscar for ``Driving Miss Daisy.''

``I was never bitter about that,'' she said. ``I never really expected to get the film role. I won't deny that I would have loved to have played Blanche on film, but acting is a business. You get some jobs. You don't get others. You always look toward the next job. Never behind.''

She, in fact, wasn't sure until the last moment that she would get her now-famous role in ``Driving Miss Daisy.'' Insiders were betting that it would go to Katharine Hepburn, a genuine movie legend. Tandy's work in the hit ``Cocoon,'' coupled by the fact that it was a box office hit, helped.

Another Oscar nomination came for another big film hit, ``Fried Green Tomatoes'' (yet another movie the money boys had said wouldn't do business).

Her 52-year marriage to actor Hume Cronyn was fabled. She was also married for eight years (1932-40) to British actor Jack Hawkins (robust veteran of spectacles like ``Ben Hur'' and ``Land of the Pharoahs'').

It was typical that she continued to work during the radiation treatment that was a part of her fight against cancer. Her close-cropped gray hair betrayed the ravages of the treatment, but her manner was perky and strong when she appeared to accept an honorary Tony Award in June. ``I feel fortunate to appear on any stage, once again,'' she said then.

Yet to be released are her roles in the films ``Nobody's Fool'' (as Paul Newman's landlady) and in ``Camilla'' (as an elderly woman who persuades young Bridget Fonda to help her search for an old beau).

I once had an interview arranged with her at 8 on a Saturday morning. There was a blinding snow storm outside and much of New York City was closed. A starlet wouldn't have showed up. She arrived exactly on time, not a minute early and not a minute late. Her proper outfit was accessorized by little white gloves and a fur hat. She proceeded to work hard to give me a good interview - and a good story. She was that kind of professional. She knew what was expected and she expected to deliver.

She always viewed her career from one job to the next, the working actress. She was the consummate professional - a steel magnolia who provided the most gentle, genteel illusion. ILLUSTRATION: Photo

Jessica Tandy won an Oscar for her performance in ``Driving Miss


by CNB