Oscar: Williams, Tennessee Movies–Women Feature Better than Men

Prominent Actresses in Tennessee Williams Plays/Movies

By and large, actresses in Tennessee Williams have featured more prominently in the Oscar competition than actors mainly because in most of Williams’s plays the central figure is a woman, but also because he wrote better parts for women.

Hence only four of the 17 acting nominations were for male performances: Marlon Brando and Karl Malden in Streetcar, Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Ed Begley in Sweet Bird of Youth. Whereas until the early 1960s, almost every actress in a Williams film was nominated in either the lead or supporting category.

This impressive group included:

Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire;

Anna Magnani and Marisa Pavan in The Rose Tattoo;

Carroll Baker and Mildred Dunnock in Baby Doll;

Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof;

Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer;

Geraldine Page and Una Merkel in Summer and Smoke;

Lotte Lenya in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone;

Geraldine Page and Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth;

Grayson Hall in The Night of the Iguana.

At least three distinguished performances in a Williams-inspired picture were overlooked by the Academy.

Two actresses excelled in The Night of the Iguana. Ava Gardner’s interpretation of Maxine, the hotel owner, was undoubtedly one of the best performance of her career, blending in perfect proportions the character’s earthy sensuality with immense vulnerability.  For many, she rendered a more compelling acting than Bette Davis did in the same role on stage.

Deborah Kerr also gave a distinguished performance in the role of the spinsterish, frustrated but strong, itinerant artist.

But perhaps one of the most impressive, and most underestimated performance in Williams’s films was Eli Wallach’s Silva Vacarro, the Sicilian who runs the rival cotton gin in Baby Doll; he demonstrated sheer brilliance. His seduction scene with Carroll Baker was electrifying, conveying both the charm and the nasty vindictiveness of his character.

Bad Acting

Examining the acting in the Williams movies, one cannot ignore the fact that male actors fared less prominently than actresses and that several major stars were miscast and subsequently gave some of the worst performances in their careers.

In most cases, these major stars were cast for commercial considerations, and not because of their suitability for the roles.

For example, Kirk Douglas was totally miscast as the gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie, appearing too attractive and charming and lacking the pathos of the character.

Another miscast actor was Burt Lancaster, whose intelligence and sensibility as an actor were major obstacles in playing Alvaro Mongiacavallo, the silly, dumb truck driver in The Rose Tattoo. He went out of his way to be clownish and attempted, unsuccessfully, an Italian accent; his performance was really embarrassing.

Montgomery Clift gave one of his weakest performances as the sympathetic surgeon in Suddenly Last Summer, though in his defense it must be said that this part was boringly written, functioning more as the plot foil and catalyst than a fully developed character.

Richard Burton delivered an uneven performance as Dr. Shannon, the disbarred clergyman in The Night of the Iguana.  His interpretation was too physical and exterior , failing to convey the inner mental torment of his character.