Monday, March 17, 2008


Tennessee schmaltz

By Edward Copeland
With the exception of Elia Kazan's film of A Streetcar Named Desire, has there been any truly good film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play? I can't say definitively that that is the case but after suffering through 1961 film of Summer and Smoke, I certainly hope there hasn't been a worse one.

Despite some fairly good performances (including Oscar nominees Geraldine Page and Una Merkel), Summer and Smoke is practically a convention for bad Southern accents. Page, a reliably good actress, is fairly mannered and bad except for late in the film, when her repressed spinster character undergoes a change that makes her interesting.

Merkel is solid throughout as Page's bonkers mother, though her character just seems to vanish late in the film with no sense of what happened to her. Perhaps Peter Glenville's film did address this, but the movie is so bad and dull that I could only watch it in fits and starts, so I might have missed something when I zoned out.

The tale seems to be stitched together from many of Williams' usual interests: crazy moms, stern fathers (in this case both a doctor and a minister) and a callow cad. Laurence Harvey gets the cad role, playing the son of a town's noble doctor (John McIntire). Harvey's John Buchanan Jr. followed in his father's professional footsteps, but he's a reprobate with a strong taste for lust and liquor, especially for the fiery daughter of a local "house of sin" (played by Rita Moreno, the same year she won the Oscar for West Side Story, but she really doesn't get much to do here.)

Page is the minister's daughter who lives next door and can't face her own desires for the young doctor and his lifestyle. I've never seen Summer and Smoke on stage, but I assume it's been de-fanged as most film adaptations of Williams' plays were.

Still, when you see the films of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Sweet Bird of Youth or even Suddenly, Last Summer or Night of the Iguana, you can still read between the absent lines to some extent.

Watching Summer and Smoke, I have a hard time imagining how the play could be much better except possibly on the acting side. It's just a Southern fried mess.

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I'm a huge Williams fan, although I haven't gotten around to seeing Summer and Smoke... sounds like a good thing by your review.

Streetcar is great, but I prefer 2 Williams adaptations to it. One, you mention, The Night of the Iguana and the oft forgotten Baby Doll which is actually based on an original screenplay. The latter figures among my all time favourite films. It's steamy, sexy, funny and oh so Southern. The entire cast is great, especially Eli Wallach. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it/
I actually think Page is fairly awful in this. In addition to how stagy and fussy her acting is - she was always mannered, but never this fluttery - she's pretty badly miscast; too old for the character she's playing, and not sexy enough to be convincing as the kind of woman who'd pique the interest the town stud. I suppose Merkel is alright, but I think it's a pretty silly role; neither nomination really makes a whole lot of sense to me.

To answer your question - no, there really isn't any other Williams adaptation which even comes close to matching the standard of Streetcar, although most of the others at least have some things to recommend them. Cat has Liz Taylor looking fantastic in a full-length slip (she has moments that are sizzlingly predatory) and manages to be fairly entertaining, in spite of the way the text was butchered to get past the censors. The Fugitive Kind is fascinating, in a bizarre sort of way, with good performances by Brando and Magnani, and a startlingly feral one by Joanne Woodward (try to imagine Eve Black's more dangerous sister). Rose Tattoo holds up because of Magnani, and Iguana, while not good, has Kerr and Gardner doing their respective madonna/whore specialties, and some nice John Huston touches. Suddenly is a bit of a travesty, but at least has some camp value courtesy of the total absurdity of its concept and Hepburn's dragon lady act. So while there are no other Streetcars, Summer and Smoke might be the only one I'd dismiss as full-on crap.
I agree with you for the most part Josh about Page except for the final third, where I thought she calmed down. I don't think either her or Merkel deserved nominations.

House of Mirth: I did like Baby Doll pretty much, but as you pointed out since it wasn't a stage work first, I didn't mention it.
Funny that you should blog about Tennessee Williams, since I just happened to watch a couple of his adapted plays, Sweet Bird of Youth and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

While I'd be willing to add the former to the list of mediocre (perhaps slighty better) Williams adaptations, I did think Cat held up very well. Then again, I'm a big Paul Newman fan so perhaps I'm biased.

Keep up the good work, Mr. Copeland, I enjoy your blog very much!
An awful adaptation, I totally agree!! And Geraldine Page really needs to be reined in as an actress - when she is, she's amazing, but here it's just neurosis with a capital N.

I actually do love this play (although I recognize its flaws) - and the last scene in the play-version between the two of them, when she comes to him at his doctor's office - is heartwrenching.

Baby Doll was also loosely based on a one-act Williams wrote called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton - same characters, same plot - except with a MUCH darker edge to it than the wacky comedic air of the film. Vaccarro, in the play, has obviously been given her - as a plaything, as compensation - and she is way more of a halfwit in the play than she is in the movie. So the "seduction" scene on the swing is way more of a precursor to brutal rape in the play - than it comes off in the movie, when it's kind of hot.
I'd forgotten about Baby Doll - that is a good one. There's no reason you should have known this, Ed, but the film actually was adapted from the stage play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. A fun bit of trivia: Meryl Streep received, to date, her only Tony nomination for a mid-70s revival of that play. Can you see the young Streep as a thumbsucking child bride?
I hope no one stops speaking to me, but I always find Williams a bit overrated, possibly because he's been imitated so often and so badly. All that humid Southern atmosphere and repressed sexuality have been palling on me for a while now.

That said, I think Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is much better than its reputation, and Vivien Leigh is excellent in it.
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