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Archive for the ‘Tennessee Williams: writer’ Category

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

22 Mar

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – directed by Richard Brooks. Melodrama. The scion of a huge Southern estate is to die, and everyone is out for the take. 108 minutes Color 1958.
★★★
This rattles along like an old flivver, threatening to fall apart any minute. Individual scenes are well played, such as the long ones between Brick and Big Daddy, but the whole lacks a coherence of style and approach directorially and narratively.

One of the great dampeners on the piece is the art direction, which smells freshly painted and pretty in pastels; it sabotages the play’s underlying forces. It does, however, provide a light background for the filming of Elizabeth Taylor by the great William Daniels. Daniels filmed most of Garbo’s films from the silent era on, and you might say his skill at doing this made her the goddess we know her to be. His camera was in love with a beautiful woman. You can just see the stage light up a certain way as it waits to film Elizabeth Taylor. It’s lovely to behold, but, of course, what does it have to do with this material?

Taylor plays a woman whose husband will have nothing to do with her. Now, Elizabeth Taylor made four films of Tennessee Williams’ plays, but as an actress she is not really at home in this milieu; her Southern accent is put-on; she hasn’t studied it to a particularity. She is now early in that stage of her work when she was taking on heavy dramatic roles; such parts were not really suited to her instinct or her gifts. She had been mightily impressed by Montgomery Clift’s acting when she was 18, but she had never troubled to study with Stella Adler or anyone else. Her roles tended to parallel her life as a heavy in her personal life. Cat is an early chapter of her downward spiral as an artist.

You also might question her casting in a role which Barbara Bel Geddes played on Broadway in the Elia Kazan production. By which I mean, isn’t Taylor too beautiful to play Maggie? Too beautiful to have vulnerability as a woman? As a human? —  yes — but as a woman?

It’s true that she does have a number of gentle moments, when our hearts go out to her. But this version, of the many versions of this play, stumbles from its casting. Madeleine Sherwood plays it just as she played it on the Broadway stage and at just the same pitch, which over-carries in a film. Jack Carson quietens her somewhat, and is excellent as Gooper, touching, real, and funny. Burl Ives is much better in the film than he was in the Broadway production, where Kazan simply stationed him stage center and let him hold forth. He brings the required ruralness to the part. Paul Newman is beautiful, reserved, and fine, but he has nothing inherent in him of the South. (Put a hot-blood like Tommy Lee Jones in the part and you’ve got something.) But the Australian actress Judith Anderson has no business at all as Big Mama. Her essential energy is off; indeed she fades out into Mrs Danvers from time to time. She loosens the movie from its moorings. And Big Mama is the play’s moorings, because she is the only one who cares a rap about anyone.

What would have grounded the piece would have been to have Mildred Dunnock who played Big Mama on the stage do it here. She was from the South, she had specificity of the accent, she was coarse, and vulgar. She would have given the production a foundation in the region and the style and the heart which it lacks.

I feel about the film what I felt about the original stage productions and all productions since. The play is cold. It has no heart. There is no one in it and nothing about it to care about at all.

 

The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale

16 Apr

The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale — Directed by Stephen Porter. Romantic Drama. A Southern spinster sets her sights on the handsome boy next door. 1970’s/2002 Color 120 minutes.

* * * *

Tennessee Williams wrote this material four times, and his rewrites never solved the defects it presented. Samson Raphaelson said that while Williams was a much greater playwright than himself, if he had only fifteen minutes with Tennessee Williams he could have solved the problems of his plays, and he’s right. In this one, for instance, Williams writes a long closet or bedroom scene between the mother and John, but places it at the end of the play. The mother should not appear in the park, and it should be set, if at all, at the beginning of the play after the first scene between Alma and her father. This would invest the piece with the power of suspense, and build to the the seduction scene in Act III. Williams was a great playwright but not much of a craftsman. The essential problem of the play for an audience  is Alma, and the fact that, like Flora in Milktrain, Alma talks too much for an audience to care about. She is flibbertygibbet-boring.  But her tragedy is not that she has eccentricites or that she talks too much or is nervous or laughs oddly. Her problem is she has adopted these to make herself different from what she knows herself to be, which is normally sexed but maybe sexually unmateable. Adapting Eccentricities from From Summer And Smoke, Williams removed the rakes-hell boy next door and all the madness of The Moonlake Casino. But Rosa Gonzales and  little Nellie, while not subplots, at least gave the play something solid to bounce back from, and their light sheds upon the boy next door  the color of his vices. Wiliams replaced the rakes-hell with a nebbish. He replaced his righteous father with an incestuous mother. He replaced the melodrama with nothing. Alma got laid. But nothing improved. And nothing happened. The play declined in power and lost its great and brilliant and moving final scene in the doctor’s office. And in neither version is there is there a subplot, no secondary line of interest feeding the main matter, as there is between Stanley and Stella, for instance in Streetcar, or Mitch and Blanche, or between big Daddy and Brick in Cat, and in any Shakespearean play you might mention. What we have instead is two hours of  the rantings of a frustrated spinster and some voluble locals, and a mother who will not shut up, all of them molasses-Southern and rendered with Williams’ infallible ear, but none of them of sufficient dramatic or comic import to supply the deficiencies of a play which, being underwritten, ends up overwritten to compensate. The long bedroom scene at the end of the first part offers us nothing we do not already know from the mother’s merely taking her son’s arm at the fireworks display. Neva Patterson plays the mother here, a part written so it can only be played one way, witchy, which makes her character one-note-monotonous. It’s not Patterson’s fault, although she and all the players over-Southernize their accents, when Williams, by his diction alone, supplies all the accent needed. Summer and Smoke is certainly the better play, and Geraldine Page as Alma is superb in the role. Blythe Danner is an actress so inherently lovely it seems impossible she could remain a spinster, although she does supply a wince to regulate and demote her beauty and the neurasthenic affectations which make her annoying enough to make us think she is unmarriagable. But the part cannot work, because Williams has not got to the heart of it. Frank Langella brings his rich voice to the characterless part of the boy next door. Langella smiles affectionately throughout, a smart move, but it’s a dog’s-body of a part; here’s nothing there; and all one can do is thank him for not making more of a thankless role than can be made. Their losing their virginity together is a beautifully written scene and beautifully played, and worth the price of admission, but it shouldn’t be in the play. These two actors have played together many times on the stage, where I have seen them, and their high style is well suited to one another, and the respect for the talent and workings of one another make them look like Lunt and Fontanne. I love Tennessee Williams. And I love this material. Yes, as Hal Holbrook says in his introduction, it is different From Summer And Smoke. Different, yes. Better, no.

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Summer and Smoke

04 Apr

Summer and Smoke — Directed by Peter Glenville. Love story. A spinster letches for the ne’er do well boy next door. 93 minutes Color 1961

* * * * *

As a critic, I wonder what good it does to bring to the front things that cannot be remedied. Here, the lighting often fails its needs, and the director should never have been hired, or shot soon after. The leading man is out of place and league. But this movie contains one of the greatest love scenes ever filmed, ever written, ever acted. It also records the performance of it that brought the play out of the obscurity of its original failure on Broadway, and thrust into prominence both the play, the theatre, The Circle In The Square, and the actress who played Alma and plays it here, Geraldine Page. The play lends itself to one’s imagination as one sees it in a theatre, but the scriptwriters have coarsened these references by literalizing them. The director, who is English, has no sense of the atmosphere required for this material or how to diminish the staginess of his performers. Laurence Harvey is right only in his opening scene, for he has none of the juice and charm that would make this character bearable and understandable. And he should be understandable, for Tennessee Williams has done again what he did in Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; he has created a female protagonist whose tragedy is that she puts on airs. Why does she do this? Because, like all of us, at one time or another, she so wants to be someone else, someone whose heart is a little taller than the arrows shot at her. She wants to escape the stern facts of her circumstances. This makes her an isolate and a tolerated mockery. It makes her the sort of phony no man wants to be around. Geraldine Page is able to work this character just short of putting our teeth on edge. With desperate hands she clasps her body as though it would fly apart if she did not. She seethes with the sexuality she has to gainsay in order to sustain her act, but she longs for its release if only the young man would stop carousing. You can see the character in Page’s eyes, which are wide open and which are so true to the feeling, to the longing, to the passion in Alma’s being. It’s astounding that she can do all this opposite Laurence Harvey, with his tight, narrow temperament, and his bad Southern accent, a role made thankless by the actor’s lack of blood, a role perfectly suited to Jack Nicholson back in the day. Yet the great scenes unfold between them, carried by Williams’ superb writing and Page’s profound grasp of this woman’s needs. I never saw Page do it on the stage, but when I asked Mildred Dunnock what she thought of Page in the picture, she said she felt Gerry had lost her lyricism in the role. I should have asked her what she meant, and I repeat it here as a lighthouse for actresses to come. But I cannot do anything now except to say you must see this remarkable performance of this remarkable character in this remarkable play.

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Baby Doll

04 Dec

Baby Doll — directed by Elia Kazan — a comedy about a nubile teen age girl, her drooling husband, and the cotton gin of a rival. 114 minutes black and white 1956.
★★★★★
Of the six great Kazan films, all made around the same time: A Streetcar Named Desire, Panic In The Streets, Viva Zapata, On The Waterfront, East Of Eden, it is the last.

Baby Doll is one of the funniest American comedies ever made, and it certainly is the most unusual – because it resembles the low comedy of comedia del arte and certain films of Da Sica and Fellini.

Completely the opposite of the starched and laundered comedies of Doris Day, those tense technicolor sundaes of that era, Baby Doll is a comedy based in actual humor, and comes from the pen of the finest ear in the English language since Congreve.

When Caroll Baker, asserts to Eli Wallach that she is not a moron by saying: “I am a måagazine-reader!” we are in the land of comic plenty.

And when the great Mildred Dunnock as the half-cocked Aunt Rose Comfort, picking bedraggled weeds in the unkempt garden, calls them “Poems of Nature” we are in poetry heaven.

Mildred Dunnock was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, and she and the luscious Carroll Baker and the foxy Eli Wallach and the profusely sweating Karl Malden make the most of all that Kazan and the Deep South location and Tennessee Williams’ script and The Method can offer.

This is a movie to see over and over, over the years, and I have. An American classic!

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