Tennessee Williams On The Silver Screen

In Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams presents a poem describing the vicissitudes of life as: “An intercourse not well designed for beings of a golden kind, whose native green must arch above the world’s obscene corrupting love.” His characters seem not to fit into the restraints of consensus reality, and construct fantasies to the ends of their own survival or destruction. Reality itself is open to various interpretations, and the interior landscape of the characters becomes as treacherous and conflicted as the world without. The depth and diversity of the playwright’s characters made the roles in his film adaptations some of he most coveted by Hollywood actors, as well as the most iconic in history.

Elizabeth Taylor took on the role of Catherine in Suddenly Last Summer, a film adapted from a one act play by Williams with a screenplay by Gore Vidal. Her box office draw at the time allowed her to insist that Montgomery Clift co-star in lead role of Dr. John Cukrowicz. Katherine Hepburn presides as the matriarch, Violet Venable, a looming force over the gothic mystery circulating around her deceased son, Sebastian, whose conspicuous absence from the film invokes the intriguing mythology around his life and death.

Violet maintains an obsession with her son for his powers of beauty, philosophy, and poetry. She has committed her niece Catherine to an asylum after Sebastian died in the young girl’s company during a seaside holiday in Europe, insisting that Catherine’s stories about the mysterious death are inane babblings that tarnish Sebastian’s reputation. She agrees to endow Cukrowicz’s hospital with a generous grant if he silences Catherine by lobotomizing her. As Cukrowicz penetrates the bizarre history of Sebastian and his death, he uncovers increasingly sordid secrets and perversions.

Clift was a superb actor with a unique charisma best displayed in his work in the John Wayne film Red River.  But he suffered a violent car accident in the Hollywood Hills one evening after leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s home. His face was terribly maimed, and after dramatic reconstructive surgeries he developed a profound depression fueled by pills and alcohol. Director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) had little patience for Clift’s suffering performance and abused him on the set to the degree that Hepburn spat in the director’s face when production completed. Clift’s masklike appearance adds to the air of eerie horror that penetrates the film, and Katherine Hepburn imposes on the unfolding plot with a regal wickedness.

Suddenly Last Summer is a complex analysis of sexuality and society. Its language is lyrical with Williams’ rich verse, and the performances are entrancing with their dark narratives both on and off screen.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a film of unparalleled cinematic reputation. Director Elia Kazan commands the opus with compelling cinematography, seething music, and performances of legendary magnitude. Vivian Leigh Stars as Blanche Dubois, the southern belle bereft of her fortune, her youth, and her reputation. Her histrionics stifle the atmosphere of the French Quarter tenement of her younger sister Stella (Kim Hunter). Marlon Brando, of course, is Stanley Kowalski, Stella’s husband rough with heavy drinking, animal violence, and a sexual magnetism that swells from the film like a New Orleans mist.

Each interior conflict of the characters is sensed by their subtlety of gesture, their complex drives and suppressed fantasies betrayed by their deft expressions. Brando and Leigh are iconic in their roles, but Kim Hunter carries the film along with them. Her humility, tenderness, and eroticism are delicately conveyed through her gentle performance. The three lead actors harmonize symphonically in the rich gradient of emotion resonant in Williams’ words.

Tennessee Williams is one of the great figures of American literature, theater, and cinema. He shattered taboos with his candid exploration of the mysteries surrounding sex. His plays are rich with a yearning for beauty in a world of decay and loss. The characters he created have brought forth some of the most famous performances in the history of cinema with their depth and variety. Film adaptations of his work intensify his radiant talent through the work of great filmmakers and actors of brilliance.

Words by M.Pellerano