Friday, April 22, 2011

Tennessee Williams in the Cinema

Marlon Brando con Vivien Leigh
in  A Streetcar named Desire

Tennessee Williams in the Cinema
By Salvador Arias
Translated by Roxana Márquez Herrera

Tennessee Williams, having arrived to the 100th anniversary of his birthday, can be considered one of the playwrights most linked to the cinema, not only by the so many works he wrote which were brought to the cinema (he´s been surpassed by Shakespeare and, probably, by some more); but also by the immediacy with which his first plays and screen versions were released, starting by the production of The Glass Menagerie, in 1950.  This “honeymoon” lasted up to the beginning of the nineteen-sixties; to be more exactly, up to 1964, with The Night of the Iguana, which has no less than nine titles that followed the same path, besides others that took different other ways.
However, during the transition from theater to cinema, something was in between: the code of supposed moral that ruled the film production prevailed at that time, backed up by the commercial nature of the industry, based on the principle of not scaring  so many shocked onlookers off the cinema. But, with Williams, the game was another: different aspects were polished or removed, though there always was some «forbidden thing", which, ironically, served to draw the attention of an important part of the audience.
Although, ultimately, one of the biggest hooks of those films based on Williams´ works, was the cast. Some of the best actresses and actors of that time found suitable ways to show their best skills and techniques through Williams´ characters. Let us remember, for example, Vivien Leight, Anna Magnani, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, among women and Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Richard Burton, among men.
The first screen version on a Williams´s play (The Glass Menagerie) had an excellent cast (Jane Wyman, Gertrude Lawrence and Kirk Douglas), and a not so inspired direction in charge of Irving Rapper, with unnecessary changes as to the texts which led to an unflattering result. Nonetheless, the following year (1951) of the previous version, it almost exploded an artistic bomb with A Streetcar named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan, a man of a strong theater tradition, but who knew to establish an effective relationship with the new medium. Interestingly, this film was so awarded by the Academy for best performance to the main actress, Vivien Leight and the supporting actors, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden.  However, it set aside that one who shocked Broadway and Hollywood first, and the world after, a Marlon Brando, who set a new pattern of performance.
After  A Streetcar... Williams kept an interesting work collaboration with the  famous Italian filmmaker, Luchino Visconti, during the script of the film Senso, 1954. The relationship between the «beautiful" German soldier and the betrayed adulterous matched so well with Williams´ skills, who provided the character of Livia a great moment when she betrayed her lover, a time that the actress Alida Valli used so well.
The movie-theater relationship continued at full speed in the following years, with titles like The Rose Tattoo(1955) with the acceptable direction of Daniel Mann and the intense performances of Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster.  The film was well received by the audience, as well as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Richard Brooks; in spite of the so many changes that were introduced in the latter screenplay. The starring trio was integrated by Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. With Sidney Lumet´s The Fugitive Kind (1959) Magnani returned, excellently accompanied by Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward, in a version of the play Orpheus Descending. But, before these two last films, we must highlight Baby Doll (1956), directed by Elia Kazan, a script especially written for the cinema by Williams, based on one of his unforgotten texts which, at some time, became famous, in more than one sense.
For many, the best screen version on a play written by this playwright has been, without any doubt, Suddenly Last Summer(1958), directed by Mankiewicz, with the great performances of Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.  After this, there came Summer and Smoke(1961) by Peter Glenville, starred by Geraldine Page and Lawrence Harvey; Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) by Brooks, starred by Page and Newman, and The Night of the Iguana, by John Huston, starred by Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr.  Before that,  there was The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), by José Quintero, adapted from a novel by Williams, starred by Katherine Hepburn.
Others like Period of Adjustment(1960) and This Property Is Condemned (1946); as well as the pretentious and failed Boom! (exhibited in Cuba as The Angel of Death), from 1968,  starred by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and under the direction of Joseph Losey.  A last film titled Last of the Mobile Hot Shots, from 1970, is practically unknown.
Subsequently, despite the film divorce, the attraction by William´s roles has allowed some interesting adaptations for the US television. Thus, Hepburn starred The Glass Menagerie in 1970, and, in 1987, Paul Newman directed another version with his wife, Joanne Woodward, and John Malkovich. In 1984, A Streetcar named Desire was performed by Ann-Magret and Treat Williams, while in 1985, Jessica Lange made hers Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. On the other hand, Elizabeth Taylor came back, in 1989, to her old relation with Williams with Sweet Birth of Youth, and Jeremy Irons performed The Night of the Iguana, in 2005.
Now, celebrating the playwright´s centennial, we must think (and encourage)  new performances and hope that Cuba does not remain alien in terms of film screenings.

Cubarte,  March 22, 2011

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