Tennessee Williams: Contribution to American Cinema

The heyday of the Tennessee Williams films was in the 1950s, with such extraordinary features as A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll, Suddenly Last Summer and, to a lesser extent, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, all of which have withstood the test of time, the ultimate criterion of art. The sheer number of films based on his work (fifteen), over a period of two decades, is not only impressive but also provides a substantial body of screen work which reveals the writer’s genius and vision. As was noted, despite great variability in the films’ faithfulness to their source material and despite varying degrees of artistic quality, most of Williams’s movies provide at least some moments of brilliance in their lyrical dialogue and extraordinary acting.

The fifteen movies also serve as useful historical evidence of Hollywood’s commercial pressures on filmmakers concerning both subject matter and style. The softening of controversial issues and the imposition of “happy endings” or upbeat atmosphere damaged the honesty and integrity of these movies but did not destroy them completely. Williams’s perceptive insights about the American psyche, his notions of masculine and feminine behavior and, most important of all, his criticism of American culture with its emphasis on appearances and materialism, are still powerfully recorded in these pictures.

Indeed, his universal concern with the human condition, particularly the “general mendacity of our society” and the “valor and endurance,” which he considered “the most magnificent things in human nature,” still shine through most of his films. This consistently humanitarian vision is the very reason for treating the fifteen movies made from his work as the Tennessee Williams movies or the Williams film oeuvre, despite the fact that he was neither their sole author nor their auteur.

Considering the compromises made in adapting his work to the big screen, the prevalent censorship, within and outside the film industry, and the rather conservative nature of American culture in the 1950s, the immense popularity of his movies with the large public is all the more remarkable. Through the mass and international medium of film, Williams’s vision reached outstanding dimensions that have been unmatched by other writers. The popularity of his motion pictures all over the world was also important for personal reasons: it coincided with the gradual decline of his reputation in the American theater, from the late 1950s on.

The Williams films have become part and parcel of the American film heritage through their continuous revival in art houses and on television. Moreover, several of the weaker screen versions of his work have been made into successful television plays. In 1973, Anthony Harvey directed a television version of The Glass Menagerie, with an impressive cast, headed by Katharine Hepburn. In l987, Paul Newman directed his wife, Joanne Woodward, in a new, rather modernist, version.

The 1976 television adaptation of Eccentricities of a Nightingale, starring Blythe Danner, was a substantial improvement of the 1961 film version of Summer and Smoke. The small screen has proven to be a suitable medium for Williams’s work for both literary and cinematic considerations.

Finally, the Williams gallery of characters, particularly heroines (on stage and in film) have become integral to the American classic repertoire. How many actresses would miss the opportunity to play Blanche DuBois or Maggie when they are young, Hannah Jelkes or Alexandra Del Lago when they are middleaged, and Amanda Wingfield when they is older. The recent television remakes and the continuous revival of his plays have been based on the desire of major actresses to confront what may be called “the Tennessee Williams challenge.”

In some respect, portraying a Williams heroine has become a ritualistic ceremony for many actresses, feeling that their talent has not been certified and that their stature as actresses has not been confirmed until they play one of his heroines. This is yet another way of demonstrating the long-enduring impact of Tennessee Williams on the American stage and screen.