Oscar: Williams, Tennessee–Oscar Movies Based on his Plays

The Oscar Award, bestowed annually by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences since 1927 for the best achievements in film, is not only the oldest and most visible prize in the film industry, but also a popular symbol of success and achievement in showbusiness and popular culture.

More than any other award, the Oscar has reflected the prevailing tastes of the film community but also the tastes of the large, lay public. This has to do with the nature of film as a commercial, mass medium but also with the unique history of the award itself, which started as a local recognition of achievement by peers but gradually transformed into the most influential award in film history. Hence, the Tennessee Williams movies which have been nominated for an Oscar can provide a useful measure of the standing of the writer and his movies within the film world. Furthermore, the international visibility of the award, through the annual telecasts of the ceremonies to hundreds of millions all over the world, contributed immensely to the popularity of Williams’s movies outside the borders of the United States.

Three of the Tennessee Williams inspired movies have been nominated in the most prestigious category: the Best Picture of the year, though none won.

A Streetcar Named Desire  (1951)

In 1951, A Streetcar Named Desire competed against the Second World War spy film Decision Before Dawn, George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel, M.G.M.’s historical spectacle Quo Vadis and Vincent Minnelli’s musical, An American in Paris, which won the Oscar for best picture. Streetcar was cited that year as best film by the N.Y. Film Critics Circle and A Place in the Sun was honored with the Golden Globe Award, given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. These two were considered top contenders for the Oscar, but the Academy membership demonstrated once more its inclination to vote for relatively “safe” and “uncontroversial” films by favoring the Gershwin film musical, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

However, An American in Paris did not sweep the 1951 awards; they were rather equally divided with A Place in the Sun, with each movie getting six awards. American in Paris won, in addition to best film, the best story, and some of the color technical awards. Place in the Sun honored George Stevens with his first directorial Oscar, as well as best screenplay, best editing, and the black and white technical achievements.

It is of interest to mention that Streetcar was one of the few pictures in the Academy history to have been nominated in 10 categories. It won, however, only four Oscars: the three (of the four) acting awards and the black and white art direction (Richard Day) and set decoration (George James Hopkins) awards. Vivien Leigh won her second Best Actress Oscar for her stunning portrayal of Blanche DuBois. Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, who recreated their stage roles in the film version, won the supporting acting awards. Marlon Brando was nominated for his Stanley Kowalski but lost to Humphrey Bogart’s reasonably good performance in The African Queen. Bogart, who had been nominated once before (for Casablanca), was the sentimental favorite, but it is also plausible that Brando was “punished” by the Academy for his apparent contempt for Hollywood, which he had displayed from the day he arrived in the film colony. Interestingly enough, the N.Y. Critics singled out Vivien Leigh’s performance, but gave the Best Actor award to Arthur Kennedy for his sensitive portrayal of a blind soldier in Blind Victory.

The Rose Tattoo (1955)

The 1955 Oscar contest reflected Hollywood’s heavy reliance on Broadway’s smash hit plays in that decade. Three of the five nominees for Best Picture were screen adaptations of successful Broadway plays. The Rose Tattoo was up against the war comedy, Mister Roberts, in which Henry Fonda recreated his most memorable stage role; and Joshua Logan’s adaptation of William Inge’s Pulitzerwinning play, Picnic, with an all star cast, headed by William Holden and Kim Novak.

The other contenders were: the romantic melodrama Love Is a Many Splendored Things, also starring Holden and Jennifer Jones, and Paddy Chayefsky’s television drama, Marty, which inexplicably won the Best Film as well as three other important Oscars: Best Director (Delbert Mann), Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine), and Best Screenplay. Each of the five nominees won some awards. The Rose Tattoo emerged out of the competition with three Oscars, including the Best Actress Award for Anna Magnani’s legendary performance, which was unanimously acclaimed by all critics, getting the N, Y. Film Critics, the National Board of Review, and the Golden Globe Awards. The other two awards were for best black and white cinematography (James Wong Howe) and best black and white art direction (Hal Pereira and Tambi Larsen) and set decoration (Sam Comer and Arthur Krams).

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  (1958)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the third and last Williams movie to have been nominated for Best Picture. It emerged, however, as the year’s big loser, failing to win in any of its six nominated categories, which included best director and best screenplay. The 1958 winner, the M.G.M. musical Gigi directed by Vincent Minnelli and starring Leslie Caron, set two records. First, it won the largest. First, it won the largest number of awards (nine) in the Academy history to date. Second and more significantly, Gigi was the only film to win Oscars in every category in which it was nominated: a “clean” victory of nine awards for nine nominations. The three other contenders for best film were: the screen version of the Broadway hit Auntie Mame, starring Rosalind Russell, which did not win any award; Terence Rattigan’s melodrama Separate Tables, which won two acting awards for its British players (David Niven and Wendy Hiller); and Stanley Kramer’s powerful interracial drama, The Defiant Ones, which was nominated for nine Oscars and won two: Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. In 1958, there seemed to be a consensus among the critics: The Defiant Ones was cited as best film by both the N.Y. Critics and the Golden Globe Awards.

Sweet Bird of Youth

Only two other Oscars were awarded to a Williams movie. Ed Begley won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his role of the corrupt politician in Sweet Bird of Youth. The other award went, for no apparent reason, to Dorothy Jeakins for her black and white costume design in The Night of the Iguana.

The problems of adapting Williams’s plays to the screen and the subsequent mixed results may have accounted for the fact that no filmmaker ever won the Best Director Oscar for a Williams movie, though two were nominated.

Streetcar Named Desire won Kazan his second directorial nomination and his second N.Y. Film Critics Award; the Oscar went, as noted, to George Stevens for A Place in the Sun. And the second nominee was Richard Brooks in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, probably because of the film’s immense popularity at the boxoffice; the winner, however, was Vincent Minnelli for Gigi.

Several technical achievements were nominated by the Academy; among them, two stand out. Composer Alex North was nominated twice for his brilliant scores for Streetcar and The Rose Tattoo. North’s scores, particularly in Streetcar, were extremely imaginative and evoked perfectly the movie’s mood. The Academy also singled out Gabrielel Figueroa’s black and white photography in Night of the Iguana, which captured magnificently the exotic scenic beauty of the Mexican coast.

If the screen adaptation and direction were the weakest features of Williams’s movies, the acting that they contained was undoubtedly their strongest. Indeed, the best Method acting of the time was to be found not in the Broadway theater but in film, particularly in the work of Kazan. If many of the Williams films are still enjoyable, despite awkward direction and at times outdated material, it is mostly due to their acting. Williams has probably written richer parts for actors and actresses than any other playwright. His work provided an excellent Opportunity for players to extend themselves and broaden their range. Many screen actors never worked with better material and never gave better performances than in roles Williams created.

The Acting Branch of the Academy acknowledged these acting achievements most respectfully. It is thus not surprising to find that nine of the fifteen Williams’s movies honored their players with Oscar nominations.  Indeed, no less than 17 performances in a Williams’s film were nominated, and five actually won.