Tennessee Williams: the Critics and the Public: Critical Vs. Commercial Response

The vast majority of Tennessee Williams’s movies were at least reasonably popular with the American public. They grossed collectively in domestic rentals close to $50 million, a figure that excludes their performance in foreign movie markets.

It is plausible to assume that they appealed to mature, adult audiences, who were also his loyal theatergoers. Because his movies were essentially character studies, with not much traditional action or plot in them, they made extraordinary demands on moviegoers to concentrate their complete attention on the dialogue. In terms of commercial appeal, the Williams oeuvre can be divided into three equal groups: the smash boxoffice hits, the moderate successes, and the total failures.

Williams Box-Office Hits

Five Williams pictures that did extremely well at the box-office: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, and Night of the Iguana. This category reveals some interesting patterns. First, three of the most commercially successful films were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Streetcar, and The Rose Tattoo. Second, with the exception of Suddenly Last Summer, the popular films were based on Williams’s long-running plays; Streetcar ran on Broadway for 855 performances, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for 694 performances. The plays that appealed to large theatrical audiences proved to be popular with moviegoers too.

Third, the films of the widest appeal were based on his award-winning plays: Streetcar and Cat won the Pulitzer, and Rose Tattoo and Night of the Iguana, the Tony Award. And fourth, the most commercial films were not necessarily the best artistic adaptations, as Rose Tattoo, a movie with many shortcomings, demonstrated.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the most commercially successful Williams movie, grossing in domestic rentals 9.75 million dollars. This film achieved the extraordinary record of being the second top grosser of 1958, preceded only by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific (which grossed 17.5 million). Moreover, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was one of the ten biggest moneymakers in the history of its studio, M.G.M. The movie received unanimously good reviews, and Bosley Crowther, the then dean of the N.Y. critics, ranked it fifth in his Ten Best movies of the year. In many ways, it is the most melodramatic and thus most accessible of the Williams movies, much simplified in its transfer from stage to screen.

A lush, Technicolor production, it opened at the Radio City Music Hall, and featured an all’star cast headed by Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Burl Ives. The success of this picture is all the more remarkable when placed in context with the other popular movies of 1958. In addition to South Pacific, the top moneymakers were: Auntie Mame, starring Rosalind Russell; the military comedy No Time for Sergeants, based on Ira Levin’s play and starring Andy Griffith; the Oscarwinning musical Gigi; and the historical adventure The Vikings, featuring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis.

Much more interesting was the tremendous box-office success of Suddenly Last Summer, the second most popular Williams movie, grossing in domestic rentals 6.4 million dollars. It opened to mixed reviews, with some critics complaining about the “tedious talking” and “the terminal showdown that is irritatingly obscure.” However, other critics admired “the beauty of language and the power of acting.” While Gore Vidal’s screen adaptation and Mankiewicz’s direction much improved on the oneact play, the movie was too slowly paced with the climactic confession about Sebastian’s homosexuality and violent death appearing too late in the narrative and revealing too little. Yet the movie had a poetic style, particularly in the lengthy monologues of Katharine Hepburn, who delivered a bravura performance as Mrs. Violet Venable, the demented and domineering Southern matron, obsessed with her homosexual son. Her entrance, descending in a private elevator into her exotic garden, and her first line, “Are you interested in the Byzantine” (addressed to Montgomery Clift) are unforgettable. Apart from her and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Taylor’s acting, the shocking issues of homosexuality and cannibalism and the controversy that the film aroused at the time, also accounted for its immense popular appeal. Suddenly Last Summer was one of the ten top grossers in 1959, preceded by such mass spectacles as: BenHur, the historical epic; Blake Edwards’s war comedy, Operation Petticoat, starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis; two Walt Disney features, Sleeping Beauty and The Shaggy Dog; and Billy Wilder’s camp comedy, Some Like It Hot, featuring Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, as two musicians in drag.

Streetcar Named Desire was the third most popular Williams movie, though it took some time for the movie to catch on; wordofmouth proved to be much more effective in getting moviegoers to the theater than the critics’ rave reviews. Indeed, there was quite a critical consensus over the film’s quality; Crowther placed it sixth on his Ten Best List. Put in historical perspective, it is amazing and a credit to the American moviepublic that a film like Streetcar became the fourth top moneymaker of 1951. The boxoffice hits of that season were the historical spectacle Quo Vadis starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr; the fully animated Disney cartoon, Alice in Wonderland, with a musical score by Oliver Wallace; and the classic musical Showboat, featuring Howard Keel and Ava Gardner.

The Rose Tattoo was far from a good movie; its critical was reaction lukewarm. Yet Anna Magnani’s outstanding performance helped to turn it into a smash hit at the boxoffice, grossing in rentals 4.2 million dollars and ending as one of the 20 most commercial films of 1955. Once again, it is the other blockbusters that make its achievement all the more striking. In 1955, The Rose Tattoo was in the company of two Disney movies, Lady and the Tramp and Cinerama Holiday; two musicals, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, starring Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra; and the service comedy, Mister Roberts, headed by Henry Fonda and featuring Jack Lemmon in his first Oscarwinning performance.

If Tennessee Williams experienced his theatrical peak in the late 1940s, the heyday of his movies was in the 1950s. True, the only Williams movie, which turned a commercial success in the 1960s, was John Huston’s Night of the Iguana, grossing in rentals 4.4 million dollars. It opened to lukewarm or at best mixed notices, with Crowther complaining about the film’s “difficulty in communicating what is so barren and poignant about the people,” and lacking the power of showing “what is so helpless and hopeless” about them. And Pauline Kael noted that Huston brought some “coarse melodramatic vitality” to the play, but “whatever poetry it had seems to have leaked out (28).” While the movie was reasonably successful with audiences, unlike the Williams hits of the 1950s, the gap between its appeal and that of 1964’s blockbusters was really huge, considering the immense popularity of Mary Poppins, which made an instant movie star of Julie Andrews; the Oscar winning musical My Fair Lady, featuring Rex Harrison in his bestknown part; and the James Bond adventure Goldfinger.

Williams’ Moderate Successes

The group of Williams’ moderately successful pictures includes five features: The Glass Menagerie, Baby Doll, The Fugitive Kind, Sweet Bird of Youth and Period of Adjustment. Of these, the most interesting and the most controversial was Kazan’s Baby Doll.

Baby Doll is a fascinating case in film history. Both the film and its advertising strategies were condemned by the Catholic Church (29). Cardinal Spellman voiced his condemnation from the platform of Saint Patrick’s Church, describing it as “a definite corruptive moral influence” on American society and warning his Catholic constituency to stay away from the film. Although defended by some Protestant leaders for its “essential morality,” Catholic leaders were quick to point out that Baby Doll offended the moral standards not just of the church, but also of the entire community. There were also picket lines, threats to boycott movie theaters, which showed it, and even some bomb scares materialized. Indeed, the conflict over this film between the Legion of Decency and the Motion Picture Association of America is considered to be one of the most vicious battles in film history, but significantly it was one of the last attempts of the Legion to exercise censorship on motion pictures.

But Baby Doll, more than any other Williams’s movie, demonstrated not only the conservative attitude and the power of the Legion within the movie industry, but also among film critics who one would assume to be more liberal and less biased than church officials. To think today that the Time critic described Baby Doll as “just possibly the dirtiest Americanmade motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited,” and one that “might well have embarrassed Boccaccio (30),” is both artistically and intellectually shocking. And this critic was not alone in the dark. Entitling his review “Streetcar on Tobacco Road,” Crowther wrote in the N.Y. Times that Williams was “on the level of pure ‘white trash,”‘ and went on to describe the heroine as an “unmistakable victim of arrested development (31).” Crowther’s criticism was so literalminded that it focused mostly on the content of the story and the characters, instead of the artistic values of the film, which were indeed very high. Defining Baby Doll’s protagonists as “morons,” he also wrote that they were “virtually without character, content, or consequence (32).” Zinsser, reviewing the film in the Herald Tribune, also felt that the tale was “too slender,” with “few thin sketches,” and a “hackneyed and theatrical climax,” but at least conceded that it was an “unusually good film,” featuring “magnificent acting (33).”‘

There has been contradictory evidence over the issue of whether the controversy damaged or contributed to the financial performance of Baby Doll at the boxoffice. According to Variety, the film received only 4000 play dates, which was about one fourth of its booking potential (34). Released in December 1956, the picture became one of the 40 topranking films in 1957, grossing in domestic rentals 2.3 million dollars.

The appeal of two other moderately successful features was largely due to their acting. The Fugitive Kind was one of the few films to improve on their source material, in this case “Orpheus Descending,” which ran for a short time on Broadway in 1957 and two years later Off Broadway. Sidney Lumet directed this study of moral corruption in an interesting way, pacing it extremely slowly and using revealing closeups of its legendary cast, which included Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, all recent Oscar winners. Anna Magnani, as the lonely wife of a sadistic invalid husband; Brando, as the vagrant guitar singer; and Woodward, as a desperate wild woman; were all-excellent in conveying the movie’s morbid vision of despair and loneliness. The Fugitive Kind opened to excellent reviews and subsequently grossed 1.7 million dollars in rentals. By comparison, Richard Brooks’s version of Sweet Bird of Youth could not have differed more from Lumet’s approach. It was staged as a naturalistic melodrama, with a new happy ending that did not exist in the original play. But like The Fugitive Kind, it was distinguished by acting of the highest order down to the smallest part. Geraldine Page, as the aging and fading movie star; and Paul Newman, as the corrupt stud, repeated their successful stage roles. This movie, unlike Streetcar and Baby Doll, was not interesting as a whole, but several of its scenes had extraordinarily emotional power. The critical reaction was mixed, but the movie was quite successful, grossing in rentals 2.7 million dollars.

Period of Adjustment’s appeal (grossing $2 million) was a surprise, considering it was a trifle based on a slight play, which was disliked by both critics and audiences on Broadway. It was Williams’s only conscious effort to write a straight comedy, which dealt with the adjustment (or maladjustment) of two couples: one newly wed (Jane Fonda and the late Jim Hutton), the other (Lois Nettleton and Tony Franciosa) on the verge of separation after six years of marriage. The fact that Williams wrote about the trials of more or less straight characters caught the critics by surprise, as the Time’s review showed:” Shock merchant Tennessee Williams shocked everyone by writing a play about normal people.” Geroge Roy Hill’s perfunctory direction, however, failed to bring out the sense of irony that was in the play, though the acting was generally good, particularly of Jane Fonda, in her fourth film appearance. The critics singled out her “gift of timing,” and the fact that “her comic touch is as sure as her serious one.”

Williams’ Commercial Flops

Of the five pictures that proved to be disastrous at the boxoffice, two were released in 1961: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Summer and Smoke. Ironically, Williams considered The Roman Spring to be the best film version of his work, probably because it was more faithful to his novella than the other pictures. However, the story of an aging American actress buying sexual favors from Italian gigolos was neither evocative nor shocking enough to pull audiences in the 1960s. But the film did have some redeeming qualities, especially the acting of Lotte Lenya, as a vicious female pimp; Warren Beatty, in one of his earlier films, as the sly and attractive gigolo; and some moments of Vivien Leigh’s portrayal, though, as sev~ral critics noted, her character was not very credible. Both The Roman Spring and Summer and Smoke were harshly criticized by most reviewers and subsequently disappeared from the theaters almost as soon as they arrived.

The last three Williams movies, This Property Is Condemned, Boom! and Last of the Mobile HotShots, marked a rather sad ending to the playwright’s Hollywood saga, which unfortunately coincided with a sharp decline in his theatrical reputation. To begin with, all three features were based on thin source material that was pretentious as well as boring. This Property, for instance, was a gross elaboration of his oneact play, with numerous writers working on the script (38). Williams himself was so horrified when he read the shooting screenplay that he asked to remove his name from the film, but his wish was not respected. Boom! was based on another oneact play, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” which ran on Broadway for only 69 performances. And, as was noted earlier, Last of the Mobile HotShots was also based on a play, which had failed. All three features were heavily characterized by religious symbolism, reflecting Williams’s recurrent, almost obsessive, theme of death. The stories and characters seemed unoriginal recreations and variations of themes which had been better explored in his earlier work.

Veteran film critics now appeared to be harsher and less tolerant toward his movies. Crowther, for instance, titled his review of This Property “Natalie Wood as Camille in Dixieland,” describing it as “a soggy, sentimental story of a po’ white’trash gal.” And a new generation of critics, who started to write in the 1960s, applied different yardsticks in their reviews. Boom! was unanimously panned by the critics, though some, like Andrew Sarris, singled out Joseph Losey’s miseen’scene and his style of “glamorous fantasy.” As for the material itself, there seemed to be agreement. Vincent Canby described it in the N.Y. Times as “a fuzzy unconsummated work,” and Sarris criticized its “metaphysical posturing and pretenses,” with “a tendency for nothing much to happen for the longest stretches.”

The very last Williams movie, Last of the Mobile HotShots, was possibly the worst Williams feature. Even its X rating by the Motion Picture Association and the rising reputation of director Lumet did not arouse the audience’s curiosity to see it. Canby thought of the film as “a slapstick tragicomedy,” which “looks and sounds and plays like cruel parody of Tennessee Williams.” Other critics panned the acting, particularly of Lynn Redgrave, who was totally miscast; her portrayal was described as “a comic caricature,” based on “onekey near hysteria.”