Jessica Tandy feels comfortable in the role of 'The Story Lady'

December 09, 1991|By Kenneth R. Clark | Kenneth R. Clark,Chicago Tribune

New York -- At 82, Jessica Tandy is a lot like the drum-beating bunny of the battery commercial: Neither time nor age nor infirmity can slow her down; she just keeps going and going and going . . .

Since adding an Oscar for "Driving Miss Daisy" to her Emmy and three Tony awards, thus becoming a rare triple-crown winner in a theatrical career spanning 62 years, Ms. Tandy has been swamped with work.

After an illness last year, she has come back to make two as-yet unreleased feature films, "Used People" and "Fried Green Tomatoes," and tonight she will be in an NBC made-for-TV movie that bids fair to become one of those yuletide perennials.

Ms. Tandy said her role in "The Story Lady" (9 p.m., Channel 2) was a natural because it is about an elderly woman who finds a new career, reading to children.

"It's a very good premise; something I care about a great deal," she said. "Reading to children is a great help in their education. As a child, I was read to constantly as far back as I can remember. I don't know how my life would have turned out if I had not had that grounding."

Ms. Tandy plays Grace McQueen, a vibrant, energetic woman who feels the suffocation of inactivity closing in on her after she leaves her New York apartment and moves in with her daughter, portrayed by her real-life daughter, Tandy Cronyn.

Finding nothing in common with the various senior-citizen groups to which her daughter and son-in-law (Richard Masur) steer her, and turned away from every agency at which she tries to volunteer, Grace breaks out with discovery of public-access cable TV.

Armed with a set of children's books, she goes to the seedy studio and becomes the Story Lady, with a daily program. But Grace becomes an instant hit as children all over the city discover her and start rushing home from school to tune her in.

One of them is Alexandra, luminously portrayed by Lisa Jakub, the daughter of a driven, single-parent yuppie mother whose career at an advertising agency has left her daughter a privileged but singularly unnurtured orphan.

Through the daughter, the ad exec (Stephanie Zimbalist) discovers Grace and sets out to turn her into a network star. Grace's initial joy soon turns to misery as the agency plasticizes her into Granny Goodheart, starched, corseted and bewigged.

Ms. Tandy, who made her stage debut in her native London in 1927, said early exposure to books by her mother ("a remarkable woman who read to my brother and me every night") underpinned a career of interpreting literature on the stage.

However, children today, she said, largely are denied the "rich, full vice," primarily because of the absence of parents, and TV -- a substitute for the storyteller.

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