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CRITIC AT LARGE

Cronyn And Tandy: Writ In Talent

November 20, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy are the best-known acting couple in the country, better known and more widely seen than their predecessors, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who made only one starring film in the sound era ("The Guardsman," in 1931) and did relatively little television.

Tandy's originating portrayal of Blanche Dubois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" was a theatrical experience that is indelible for those lucky enough to have seen it, and a small recitation of their work together would have to include "The Fourposter," "The Gin Game," "Foxfire," their most recent Broadway outing, "The Petition," and last year's film success "Cocoon."

They've taken theater to the country whenever they could, and did a killing series of one-night (and one morning and one afternoon) stands of "The Many Faces of Love," performing in high school gyms and on temporary stages.

In Washington on Dec. 7, the Cronyns will be among the recipients of this year's Kennedy Center Honors, an event to be taped for a later television special.

Like the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Awards, which were also conceived by George Stevens Jr. as a fund-raising device, the Kennedy honors have grown by the dignity of the winners and carry a singular prestige.

The Cronyns are now in Los Angeles, nearing the end of a long and exhausting shooting schedule on "Batteries Not Included," a contemporary fantasy on which Steven Spielberg is executive producer. Matthew Robbins is directing.

They play a couple who run a small, seedy neighborhood cafe and who are leading the tenants' resistance to some ruthless developers determined to demolish the tenement they live in. The actors are being loyally mysterious about just how the tenants fight back, but it manifestly involves special effects of the most magical and unearthly sort.

"It's the most difficult job I've ever had in my life, " Cronyn said during a weekend respite. "You don't need a diploma from acting school, you need an advanced degree from MIT. It becomes extraordinarily wearing, working with these special effects . . .

"It's not exclusively about old people this time," says Cronyn, who is 77. "Just Jess and me."

"That's enough," agrees Tandy, who is 75.

"But how's it going? Who knows? Who can tell? It's the longest schedule we've ever had--17 weeks. Steven sat with us and explained it might be a little tedious. A little ! I hope it gives some pleasure and does some business. I think it might."

The Cronyns consider occasionally, for half a minute, the possibility of retiring. "We live in a hotel in New York and have a house in Connecticut we rarely see," Tandy says.

"You get beyond the three-quarters of a century mark and it's hard work," Cronyn adds. "You think of one day staying by the fire." He makes a cup of instant coffee in their Los Angeles hotel suite and gazes at the hazy city below him. He turns back, grinning. "Forget it!"

"But perhaps not to perform all the time, and not just for the sake of working," his wife says.

"Just doing things you care about," Cronyn agrees. "But they're harder to find all the time, and harder to keep running."

"The Petition," Brian Clark's two-character play about a retired British general and his wife, who find they differ profoundly about the nuclear issue, ran only 100 performances despite good reviews.

"Properties for films are even harder to find, and still harder to finance." Cronyn and his writing partner, the former London journalist Susan Cooper, have done a script on "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," Anne Tyler's much acclaimed novel. Both Sidney Lumet and John Schlesinger have expressed interest in directing it, but thus far no financing is available.

"The trouble seems to be that there's not one big star part."

Cronyn has had a parallel career as a writer from his first days in Hollywood in the late '30s, selling a script to RKO and doing two adaptations for Alfred Hitchcock ("Rope" and "Under Capricorn") after Hitchcock used him in "Shadow of a Doubt."

The script he and Cooper wrote for "The Dollmaker," the television film with Jane Fonda, won the Humanitas Prize. "Foxfire," the play he and Cooper wrote, will be taped as a Hallmark special next April, on locations in Appalachia where it is set. Cooper has done the teleplay.

After "The Gin Game," which Cronyn wrote and which he and his wife toured very successfully, "We didn't get offered anything for a long, long time that wasn't set in an old folks' home," Cronyn says. His writing helped take up the slack until "Cocoon" came along.

Cronyn has done 100 pages of a memoir, but not added to it in recent months. Tandy has no autobiographical intentions. "I prefer to be writ in sand," she says.

I hope the memoir goes on. The Cronyn-Tandy stories are wonderful. He was remembering a performance on a live "Omnibus" television show in the '50s, when he was playing John Adams in a sketch by historian Allan Nevins.

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