September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jessica Tandy: Missing Miss Daisy

Most younger movie fans know of Jessica Tandy, who died of ovarian cancer at 85 on Sept. 11, from Driving Miss Daisy, the film for which she won a Best Actress Oscar and belatedly became a household name. You can rent it, or others from her remarkable late-season career surge (Fried Green Tomatoes, Cocoon, *batteries not included), to see her inimitable gift for nuanced passion. Yet Tandy’s recent filmography is like the visible edge of an eclipse: There’s so much that lies hidden from sight.

Her greatest work may be lost to theater history. It was on the London stage that she played Ophelia opposite John Gielgud’s legendary Hamlet in 1934. She played Katherine opposite Olivier’s Henry V in 1937. And, of course, she originated the part of Blanche DuBois in the 1947 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Vivien Leigh won the movie role, but it was Tandy who so stunned the critic for The New York Times that he dispensed with Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden in one sentence, writing in awe of her performance that ”this must be one of the most perfect marriages of acting and playwriting.”

By most accounts, her 51-year marriage to-and long-running stage partnership with-actor-writer Hume Cronyn was equally idyllic. But for all Tandy’s bright tact in interviews, her performances are blessed with a hardheadedness that may have arisen from her poverty-stricken childhood in London. She once told an interviewer, ”I’m a very ambitious girl, and I like to be the whole cheese.”

Tandy lived to see her ambitions realized, and in so doing, she helped rescue old age for Hollywood movies. For who can doubt, watching Driving Miss Daisy or the recent TV movie To Dance With the White Dog (for which Cronyn won an Emmy the day his wife passed away), that she was so terrifically alive?

Five to remember her by:
*The Birds (1963, MCA/Universal) Following years of inconsequential roles in such films as The Seventh Cross and Forever Amber, Tandy’s film career received a middle-inning boost when director Alfred Hitchcock gave her the role of a repressed mother facing avian madness.
*The Gin Game (1981, RKO) Taped from the stage, this is one of Tandy and Cronyn’s best: a funny, moving senior-citizen romance.
*Foxfire (1987, Republic) She won an Emmy for her performance in this made-for-TV drama as a widowed mountain woman coming to terms with her ghosts.
*Driving Miss Daisy (1989, Warner) No fool she, Tandy researched the feisty Southern matriarch by meeting with playwright Alfred Uhry’s mother.
*Fried Green Tomatoes (1991, MCA/ Universal) She’s luminous as the aged narrator of Idgie and Ruth’s oddball romance.

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