Tennessee Williams’ Status in Hollywood

Tennessee Williams’ Status in Hollywood

The contribution of Tennessee Williams to the American cinema has surpassed that of any other American playwright, both before and after him. No other writer has matched the film output based on Williams’s literary oeuvre.

At least fifteen motion pictures were made from his plays, stories, novel, and original screenplays. Williams’s contribution to the American screen spanned precisely two decades, from 1950, with the release of The Glass Menagerie, to 1970, which marked the release of the last feature based on his work, Last of the Mobile Hot-Shots.

The prestige that Tennessee Williams enjoyed in Hollywood was greater than that of any playwright of his generation, including Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, William Inge, and Arthur Miller. Lillian Hellman (born in 1905) and Clifford Odets (born in 1906) were slightly older than Williams (born in 1911), William Inge (born in 1913) and Arthur Miller (born in 1915) slightly younger.

Williams’ status derived in large measure from his reputation in the New York theater. Indeed, few playwrights have won such an impressive array of awards: two Pulitzer Prizes for drama (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1948; and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1955), two Antoinette (Tony) Perry Awards for best play (Streetcar Named Desire, 1947; and The Night of the Iguana, 1962), and four New York Drama Critics Circle Awards.

The film industry, a community not particularly known for its respect for writers, showed special interest in his work from the very first success he had on Broadway with The Glass Menagerie. Furthermore, Hollywood continued to show interest in adapting his work to the screen even after his reputation in the New York theater had declined.

Thus, the screen rights for The Seven Descents of Myrtle, which was panned by most critics in 1968 and enjoyed a limited run of 29 performances, were purchased for a substantial amount of money to almost everyone’s surprise. In this respect, Williams was in an advantageous position over other playwrights: he never had to struggle to sell his plays to Hollywood; Hollywood was after him.

Significantly, Williams’s name was used to promote and advertise his movies more prominently than the name of their directors or actors, even when they featured major Hollywood figures. The Fugitive Kind, for example, was not advertised as a Marlon Brando or Sidney Lumet (the director) film, but as a Tennessee Williams movie.

Williams, like other playwrights, did not adapt most of his plays to the screen. He was credited for the screenplays of seven of his fifteen films, though in only two occasions he was the sole screenwriter: in Baby Doll and Boom! Williams received credit as co-screenwriter for The Glass Menagerie (with Peter Berneis), Streetcar (with Oscar Saul), The Rose Tattoo (with Hal Kanter), Suddenly Last Summer (with Gore Vidal), and The Fugitive Kind (with Meade Roberts).

In most of these films, particularly in the case of Streetcar and Baby Doll, the quality of the writing was on a higher level than the screenplays on which he did not collaborate, such as the two plays that writer-director Richard Brooks adapted to the screen: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (with James Poe) and Sweet Bird of Youth.