Tennessee Williams Cinema: Thematic and Stylistic Motifs

Tennessee Williams Cinema: Thematic and Stylistic Motifs

Williams was not the auteur of his films; he neither wrote nor had control over their production. However, despite varying degrees of success in maintaining the integrity of his plays and in the overall artistic quality of the films, Williams succeeded more than other playwrights in providing a consistent thematic vision on the screen. Taken together as a unit, the fifteen movies convey a unified sense of Williams’s intellectual and moral universe, one marked by strong thematic continuities.

The Williams movies are morality tales about characters seeking redemption. His latter movies are deeply and explicitly religious. Yet the morality of his characters could not be defined in terms of social class, the way that Arthur Miller’s heroes could in terms of middleclass culture and bourgeois ideology. Nor could his protagonists be described in terms of other attributes, such as work or occupation. Rather, their essences are best captured in terms of their distinctive spirituality and idiosyncratic personalities. Thematically, his movies deal with moral and physical decay and with the need for moral and physical regeneration. Indeed, the Williams movies are concerned with the most universal and existential issues: the human condition of loneliness, sexual repression, depravity, decadence, and despair.

Body and Soul

In Summer and Smoke, the clash between body and soul, or between earthy and spiritual love, is so clearly drawn that it becomes a conflict of two abstract principles. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams condemns hypocrisy and lies on a personal as well as a social level through the drama of greed and deception in a Southern family. And in Night of the Iguana, he uses a captured iguana as a symbol of human beings, who are tormented consciously and unconsciously, by fate or by design. The thematic thread in most of Williams’s movies is perhaps best expressed by Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), the indomitable spinster, in Night of the Iguana: “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it is unkind or violent.”

Williams’s vision of the South, the locale for most of his work, differs from that of other Southern writers, such as William Faulkner and Lillian Hellman. His movies are not preoccupied with racial issues of prejudice and discrimination. And, with few exceptions, there are almost no major black characters in his work. One of these exceptions is Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots, which deals with relationship between two half-brothers, one black the other white. Furthermore, the Williams screen characters are not political; they were somehow impervious to their socio-political surroundings. His protagonists do not fight for socially relevant or political causes, the way that Odets’s characters do in Awake and Sing, for instance. They also lack the explicit and immediate political consciousness that characterized most protagonists of Arthur Miller or Lillian Hellmann’s plays.

Compare, for example, the films made from three plays written in the 1940s: Hellmann’s Watch on the Rhine, dealing with the European freedom fighter (Paul Lukas) who confronts Nazi agents in Washington D.C.; Miller’s All My Sons, about a corrupt and greedy American businessman (Edward G. Robinson), who knowingly manufactures defective airplane parts during the war, and The Glass Menagerie, a highly personal drama, centering on Williams’s relationships as a young man with his strong domineering mother and with his shy and crippled sister. The Glass Menagerie is, of course, influenced by its locale (the Depression), but its themes of intricate family relationships are universal, going beyond their specific historical context. This, however, cannot be said about Watch on the Rhine or All My Sons, which are so deeply rooted in their specific political settings that, in retrospect, both works seem to be outdated, agit-prop, plays. But it is precisely the universality of the Williams themes in his movies, which accounts for the durability of their appeal, despite artistic faults.

The Williams screen characters are isolated from the outside world, running away from the “external” and immediate reality and, by extension, from themselves. Indeed, the interesting Williams movies succeed in conveying this claustrophobic attitude, physically as well as mentally. One of the major challenges (and problems) in adapting his plays to the screen was their confining and gloomy locales, locales that could not be made glamorous by Hollywood’s standards. Consider, for instance, the locales of the following movies: a shabby apartment in St. Louis (The Glass Menagerie), in New Orleans (Streetcar Named Desire), or in the Gulf Coast (The Rose Tattoo). And a dilapidated mansion is the locale of Baby Doll, a boardinghouse by the railroad in a tawdry Mississippi in This Property Is Condemned, and another decaying old plantation house in Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots.

Two of his movies are set almost entirely in a hotel: a sleazy one in the Mexican coast (Night of the Iguana) and a somewhat nicer hotel in a seamy gulf coast town (Sweet Bird of Youth).

Perhaps more importantly, the Williams screen characters are richer, more interesting, and more complex than other major screen characters in the 1950s. How does one begin to compare Blanche DuBois (of Streetcar) or Serafina delle Rose (of The Rose Tattoo) with Lola, the heroine of William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba (1952) or Georgie Elgin, the protagonist of Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl (1954).

This comparison is valid because all four were popular screen heroines of the 1950s, based on Broadway smash hits. And all four actresses who played these roles have won the Academy (Oscar) Award for Best Actress of the year. But acting quality aside, the complexity of the Williams heroines stands out. Take Lola (Shirley Booth), the frumpy housewife married to an alcoholic (Burt Lancaster), whose dreams of medical career have ended when she forced him to marry her.

In Come Back Little Sheba, the tale of a commonplace middle-class, middle-aged, childless couple, the heroine is an immature and mawkish housewife, mourning the loss of her beauty and youth and suffering her husband’s abuse for being a slattern. By contrast, none of the Williams stories is commonplace and none of his protagonists is meant to represent the average, middleclass person.

In The Country Girl, Odets’ melodrama, Georgie Elgin is another embittered wife of a down-and-out alcoholic actor (Bing Crosby), who struggles to have a comeback. She is portrayed as a heroic and devoted wife, fighting as hard as she can to restore her husband’s selfconfidence. In retrospect, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that both Lola and Georgie are heroines of sentimental soap operas. Moreover, both heroines conform to the rigid stereotypes of the sufferingvictimized wife, one of the long-enduring images of women in the American cinema. The Williams screen heroines are more individualistic, defying easy classification or comparison to prevalent types.

Taboo Issues

The Williams movies were innovative at their time because they dealt with “taboo” issues, such as homosexuality, incest, cannibalism, and insanity, even though they were all “softened” or toned down in the transfer from stage to screen. What is interesting about these “taboo” issues is that they are explored in a serious way and are genuinely integral to the characters; Williams did not use them in order to sensationalize his stories or to shock his audiences. The critic Pauline Kael has astutely remarked that “dramatists before Tennessee Williams did not make explicit a particular substratum of American erotic fantasy. Indeed, his screen heroes display, implicitly or explicitly, levels of sexuality, sensuality, and eroticism that had never been explored on the American screen before.

Molly Haskell, the feminist critic, has pointed out that the Williams screen heroines were much sexier than writers-directors’ Billy Wilder’s Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Joseph Mankiewicz’s Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in All About Eve (1950). In Haskell’s view, Williams’s heroines departed from the screen conventions of the time in that they were male-oriented and motivated by lust, not love, for younger men.

Williams’s characters helped to legitimize a new kind of behavior for both men and women, allowing each gender to display a wider range of emotions and feelings. His view of masculine and feminine behavior went beyond the traditional stereotypes and normative prescriptions, which prevailed, in the rather conservative and conformist decade of the 1950s. His notion of gender roles was at best ambiguous, with no clear line of demarcation between masculine and feminine behavior. Thus, his heroines are on one level extremely sensitive, fragile, and weak; and on another strong-willed, stubborn, determined, and a bit masculine.

Similar observations can be made about his male heroes, including the brutish and rude Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire. Brando, who played the role on stage and in film, may have been the first Hollywood star to weep on the screen without fearing of losing his masculine image, a far cry from the rigid conventions of the screen macho, as displayed by Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne. In this role, Brando prepared the ground for future vulnerable screen characterizations, played by a new generation of sensitive male stars, including James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Williams therefore helped to demolish the narrowlydefined norms of how men and women should behave onscreenand off.

The Williams movies are essentially character studies of women. With the exception of Night of the Iguana and a few others, the central figure of his movies is a woman. Employing female characters as his mouthpieces was both conscious and unconscious. Women expressed his most precious set of values because they were, as Haskell has observed, products of his fantasies of true love and particularly his homosexual fears of aging. Williams liked to stress that in every creation of his there was a little bit of himself. For instance, in Night of the Iguana, Williams’s voice is heard both from Dr. Shannon (Richard Burton) and Hannah Jelkes.

Williams was charged by some critics of writing variations of basically the same heroine and there is some justification to it. One can see the genesis of Blanche DuBois in Alma Winemiller (played by Geraldine Page in Summer and Smoke), and the deterioration of both Blanche and Alma in the character of Mrs. Stone (Vivien Leigh), the aging and fading American actress who finds salvation in sex in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Some critics believe that he had a strong, extremely poetic vision, but that this vision waslimited. In his eulogy of Williams, the critic John Simon described his genius “as parochial even though his art was universal.”