A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
screenplay by Tennessee Williams, based on his play
directed by Elia Kazan
BABY DOLL (1956)
****/**** Image B Sound A Extras B+
starring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Mildred Dunnock
screenplay by Tennessee Williams
directed by Elia Kazan
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson
screenplay by Richard Brooks and James Poe, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
directed by Richard Brooks
THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (1961)
*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Vivien Leigh, Warren Beatty, Lotte Lenya, Jill St. John
screenplay by Gavin Lambert, based on the novel by Tennessee Williams
directed by José Quintero
SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962)
***/**** Image B- Sound A- Extras A
starring Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Ed Begley
screenplay by Richard Brooks, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
directed by Richard Brooks
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964)
****/**** Image B- Sound B- Extras A
starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon
screenplay by Anthony Veiller and John Huston, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
directed by John Huston
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS' SOUTH (1973)
**½*/**** Image C Sound D
directed by Harry Rasky
by Walter Chaw Marlon Brando is liquid sex in A Streetcar Named Desire, molten and mercurial. He's said that he modeled his Stanley Kowalski after a gorilla, and the manner in which Stanley eats, wrist bent at an almost fey angle, picking at fruit and leftovers in the sweltering heat of Elia Kazan's flophouse New Orleans, you can really see the primate in him. (Imagine a gorilla smelling a flower.) Brando's Stanley is cunning, too: he sees through the careful artifice of his sister-in-law Blanche (Vivien Leigh, Old Hollywood), and every second he's on screen, everything else wilts in the face of him. It's said that Tennessee Williams used to buy front-row seats to his plays and then laugh like a loon at his rural atrocities; he's something like the Shakespeare of sexual politics, the poet laureate of repression, and in his eyes, he's only ever written comedies. In Kazan's and Brando's too, I'd hazard, as A Streetcar Named Desire elicits volumes of delighted laughter. The way that Stanley's "acquaintances" are lined up in his mind to appraise the contents of Blanche's suitcase. The way he invokes "Napoleonic Law" with beady-eyed fervour. And the way, finally, that he's right about Blanche and all her hysterical machinations. The moment Stanley introduces himself to Blanche is of the shivers-causing variety (like the moment John Ford zooms up to John Wayne in Stagecoach), but my favourite parts of the film--aside from his torn-shirt "STELLA!"--are when Stanley screeches like a cat, and when he threatens violence on the jabbering Blanche by screaming, "Hey, why don't you cut the re-bop!"
It's not funny in a camp-appreciation way, though, unlike, arguably, wide swaths of the Williams adaptations produced in the 1950s--no, A Streetcar Named Desire is funny because it's so exceptional that the watching of it is overwhelming and laughter seems the only appropriate release valve. Witness career-best performances from some of the best actors in the history of the stage and screen, including Karl Malden as awkward paramour Mitch, ashamed of his perspiration, and Kim Hunter as Stanley's wife, Stella, approaching something like sexual zombefication just thinking of her man's propensity to smash things up. The most famous moment of the film was censored upon its initial release and restored for the version with which most of us are by now familiar: we get to see the look of blank lust on Stella's face as she answers her lover's call, slinky and ready for fucking.
But then there's Leigh as a representative of the studio system about to be supplanted, once and for all, by the kind of performance philosophy excited by Kazan, Brando, and Stanislavski by way of Stella Adler. She's out of place here; although she had played Blanche in her husband Laurence Olivier's London production, she was the only actor not ported over from Kazan's Broadway run. (Kazan was forbidden from casting his original Blanche, Jessica Tandy.) It's said that Kazan used her alienation to inform her performance, yet Leigh is more than a fish out of water here: she's a relic of a different sensibility altogether. The starkness of the ideological divide is painted in harsh tones. Humphrey Bogart's victory for The African Queen that year over Brando (and co-Method brat Montgomery Clift, nominated for A Place in the Sun) is Old Hollywood's last hurrah. (In retrospect, it's not understandable in any other way.) When Brando rapes Blanche, a mirror cracks--this vile imposition of his virility made metaphorical in a way that his earlier incident of spousal abuse is not (just like Archie's diddling of his virgin bride just off-screen in Baby Doll--it's a stage director's trick). I wonder if we can't extend the metaphor to encompass the rough treatment given the passing of an age that wouldn't completely die out until the dawn of the next decade and its films.
Hand this to Leigh, at least: her turn as a woman phasing in and out of dementia echoed her own absorption by a bi-polar disorder that would limit her to just three more films in the wake of Streetcar. It's the closest she'll come to embodying her role as Brando embodies Stanley (and Malden, Mitch; Hunter, Stella), and it's hard to say whether the picture would be as startling a showcase for the new Hollywood without Leigh as counterpoint and victim. Kazan's close staging and claustrophobic sets, primarily Kowalski's stifling apartment (heat is a main character here, figuratively and literally), are meant to be the artificial playground backdrop, I'd wager, but with Leigh's board-pounding self-consciousness (which is admittedly not a foreign element to Blanche's character) debunked intra- and extratextually by her co-stars, the coffin nail for her era is driven with finality.
For all the fine high-melodrama that it is, A Streetcar Named Desire remains an important flashpoint because it's a clear demarcation between the way that we used to tell each other things through film and the way we demand they be told ever since. It's not a line between stage and realism, of course, as few would describe it as anything less than "stagy," but rather a line distinguishing our sophistication in assimilating data and our gradual unwillingness to extend the shade of our disbelief to cover behaviour that doesn't feel like experience. A loss of innocence, one might say; A Streetcar Named Desire describes the same in its narrative arc. That melancholy we feel as it closes is a mourning for me that I'll never be able to see this film again for the first time--and that I'll never be able to appreciate any film that came before it without the stain of it in my perception.
It makes perfect sense to me that the 1950s, our most openly culturally-restrictive decade, was also the decade that saw so many Tennessee Williams plays ushered to the silver screen for the outrage and closet titillation of Ozzie and Harriet. Repression always leads to explosion, and a film like Elia Kazan's Baby Doll--based on Williams's first screenplay, itself drawn from two of his early one-act plays ("Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton" and "The Long Stay Cut Short")--is a prime example of ground zero in the morality war, five years on from Kazan's first shot across the primrose bow with his Williams adaptation A Streetcar Named Desire. The resistance pushed back harder with Baby Doll, some Catholic leaders going so far as to promise excommunication for wayward eyeballs, while a giant billboard in Manhattan became a turgid lightning rod not unlike the one erected in the Valley for Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny some forty years later. In fact, the opening shot of the titular Lolita, Baby Doll (a simply fantastic Carrol Baker), is from her husband Archie's (Karl Malden) point-of-view through a keyhole: she in a crib, sucking her thumb. Shocking then, shocking now; that the powers-that-be chose this image for the poster says a little about naïveté and a lot about balls.
Although he's married to her, Archie has promised Baby Doll's father not to pluck her flower until she turns twenty--and with that date rapidly approaching as Baby Doll begins, Archie's ardour comes to full flame. Malden's performance is a masterpiece of pathetic, frustrated, undirected impotence: He's a man prodded to distraction by his untended cock and his need to find surrogate victories to soothe his constant, consistent castrations. It's something to wonder about, Why this character in this time (which also finds Arthur Miller's Willy Loman and Camus's Meursault in the contemporary zeitgeist), the existential fop giving ground to the undertow. When Baby Doll strikes up a quick flirtation with a toothy dentist (an uncredited and nigh-unrecognizable Rip Torn), the look on Archie's face is timeless. Malden's performance here distinguishes him as one of the greats, separated especially from Brando's side in Streetcar and On the Waterfront--but nothing compares to the indignity of the picture's final reel with Archie, coon rifle in hand, treeing Eli Wallach's unctuous Silva Vacarro and Baby Doll, his very own bride-to-be.
Archie torches Silva's cotton gin, see, in a convoluted attempt to buy the appropriate furniture with which to bed poor, wily Baby Doll, leading to a sudden surge in business at Archie's own ginning facility that forces him to leave his virgin bride to the attentions of the enraged Sicilian over one hot, lazy, Tennessee Williams summer day. (Though location shooting outside of Benoit, MI was frigid, Wallach warming his hands on an off-screen heater led to one of the most lascivious mis-readings in the piece by critics of the film. "Hand-check," indeed.) Of course Silva can run the pump for a drink of cool water that Archie can't, and of course there's a pretty strong suggestion that the change Archie sees in his immortal beloved has a lot to do with a certain sweet-talking, revenge-minded business man. The picture is hilariously charged along primitivist throughlines that shoot through the race and gender issues in the text like electrified rails. There's a lot happening on the surface of the piece (the era's segregation is an ugly stain always on display in the Kazan style), but the subtext is so bulbous and protruded that Baby Doll is most accurately described as a bald, sublimely ridiculous, astonishingly observant sex comedy. Like the infuriating, teasing, sexual minx Baby Doll represents, that camera doesn't go around the corner to see what Archie's trying to do to her in the bathtub, yet the movie hasn't aged a day in fifty years.
Richard Brooks's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a mousetrap with teeth that grip and a musky atmosphere of frustrated sex and milky desperation that serves as poisoned bait. As Brick and Maggie, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor are so beautiful it's hard to look at them directly; early on, when Maggie begs Brick for sex in a bedroom full of mirrors, it's like watching Perseus battle the Gorgon in reflections so as to avoid being turned priapic (to stone, or, well, brick) by her attentions. It's a common complaint to note that the sexual content of Tennessee Williams's scathing (and second Pulitzer Prize-winning) play has been misdirected in the film into convenient father/son and alcoholism pigeonholes, but the truth is that in the casting alone, the sexual subtext is alive, seething and roiling. Heretical to suggest it, I think the film is better than the play because all of its homoeroticism, all of its randiness (pulled taut like Liz's breasts against her soft silk blouse), is forced into the basement and left there to fester like a metaphor for just how much time we spend in our day-to-day shoving those same animals into our own root cellars. When Maggie says that she "changed her mind" once presented with the prospect of a roll in the hay with the man who is obviously Brick's homosexual lover, the knowing audience rolls its eyes and suddenly becomes complicit anthropologists of Williams's byzantine dysfunctions. The play "tells"--the picture lets you tell. And in that telling, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does a little excavating of its own.
Set against impotent Brick and potent Maggie (the same dynamic that would launch the American Seventies in ten years time with Bonnie & Clyde) are fecund Gooper and Mae (Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood), presiding over a litter of irredeemable moppets and gathered around patriarch Big Daddy (Burl Ives), waiting for the inheritance that will follow what they believe is his impending death. They're the ideal projected from Williams's much-loathed traditional nuclear family--the microcosm of Brick's battle with his own demons of what's right vs. what he wants. (The film says it's sports heroism, but we know it's more likely teammate Skipper.) The performances are uniform in their excellence, with Williams's highwire antics traversed with, yes, catlike grace by all but especially Taylor. The stories are legion about the tragedy of Taylor's third husband Mike Todd's death in an airplane crash a little over a week into shooting, of how she left the set vowing not to return only to be lured back by the patient insistence of director Brooks. But what's under-said is the fact that Taylor's performance as a woman vacillating between grief and fury, heartache and cupidity, is painful for its candour. That, and that the story behind Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is as full of feints and seductions as the narrative and its performers.
The way the film looks--the way that it preserves the pomp and arrogance of a dead South--feeds Williams's bile towards the status quo. The various children's pageants presented throughout are set against the childishness of the Southern tradition and regarded doubly with derision and sentiment. It makes a mockery of the treacle presented as individualism in The Sound of Music and the tradition that continues to be upheld of attempting to lend pathos to a situation through adorably-drilled children. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, like the best of Williams, a frank and broad but nonetheless pithy social comedy. It's a withering indictment of how things get when they're constructed on foundations of artifice instead of ardour. This is Williams done right, and few were ever righter.
The tagline says that they called it love and it was for sale, to which the appropriate response is that one hopes they kept the receipt. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is one of those dazzling slow-motion trainwrecks from which it's impossible to avert the eye no matter how much decorum demands it. Trading Vivien Leigh for the ravaged Montgomery Clift (who stamped his legacy that same year with painfully transparent turns in The Misfits and Judgment at Nuremberg) as the titular, retiring spinster would have turned this sordid, nihilistic little tale of a world inexorably feeding itself to its own tortured libido like some Ouroborusian worm into something more resonant than the kitsch it is. A scene where gigolo Paolo (Warren Beatty) luxuriates beneath the intimate attentions of his barber (Paul Stassino) is the film's sexiest, with Paolo's contented sighs and pillow-talk musings on the glitzy Mrs. Stone akin to the afterglow of a hearty session of the love that dare not speak its name. That it's followed by our Mrs. Stone running through the streets of Rome pursued by her carnal guilt and a filthy hobo (Jeremy Spenser)--meant as the embodiment, one surmises, of dusty Death--speaks volumes to Tennessee Williams's trademark sexual anxiety. But what's missing from the picture is even a useful allegory, try as it might to be as declining as a Douglas Sirk. Instead, it offers itself up as the grotesque freakshow that would mark Leigh's last couple of films (she'd appear in the fabulous catastrophe Ship of Fools before fading from the proscenium), cast as the fatted calf in the wicker man set alight by New Hollywood's Method paganism. It's not that she's bad (truth is, she's excellent), but Leigh makes it unfashionable to worship false idols. No wonder she was depressed.
The prologue is hysterical: Mrs. Stone's ancient husband (John Phillips) agrees to pull her out of a failing Broadway production of "As You Like It" and jet her away to the Mediterranean part of the backlot but suffers a ridiculous coronary on the ride over. The foxes do indeed come sniffing around for sex in the form of procurer The Countess (Lotte Lenya) and her turned-out pretty boy Paolo as the Widow Stone whiles away her hours like Marvell's coy mistress, but what starts as business becomes love, then turns back into business while the obvious (that Paolo is as gay as a French holiday) gets glossed over like so many bad accents. Mrs. Stone's self-loathing and disconsolate burning in time's crucible is underscored in grammar-school style by director José Quintero and about a million soulful shots of Leigh gazing into a mirror (I like the time she turns on a harsh light and flees her reflection to a jangle of violins), saving the creepiest moment for the inevitable consummation of Paolo and Mrs. Stone's business arrangement as the tanned vampire leans in for a carnivorous wrist-suck and a fade-to-black.
It's not a great leap to unearth the hilarity in the piece--the film should've come with white hats and title-card invitations to hiss the villains. Between Quintero's peculiar decision to shoot it sans irony as a celebration of a fading wallflower blooming beneath the attentions of a homosexual lothario late in her life, the film is, honestly, so bad that it's kind of astonishing that a wormhole doesn't open up beneath it in an act of cosmic self-defense. Credit it at least for having the courage to be interminable, too, as the arrogance and assuredness necessary for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone to gain its own eternity as a freakshow of unusual endurance is allowed full flower by a doleful pace. The scene where Mrs. Stone emerges with a new haircut and a soundtrack-assisted fresh outlook--interrupted instantly by a reunion with old friends and a lie about being terribly ill (followed fast by another appearance from the Grim Reaper)--is flabbergasting in so many ways that it could be mistaken for exhilaration. When Leigh later whips around a corner, hand to bosom like Clara Bow, to dismiss a few guests screening a flickering reel (causing the Countess to intone "Wunderbar!"), pulses quicken for all the wrong reasons. I haven't felt as attuned to a film as I was to this one in ages: it's hypnotic in its failure--no minor collection of hacks could have made something a quarter as preposterous. The main trouble is that Quintero doesn't see Tennessee Williams as funny, and robbed of funny, all that's left of Williams is an unbecoming caricature of a self-pitying, moony queen howling at the injustices of the world.
Like his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Brooks's screen adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth ports over its principals from Elia Kazan stage productions and places them within a meticulous cinematic structure that amplifies the source's artificiality while simultaneously augmenting, in a great feat of engineering, the roots and effects of the desperate humanity that drives it. Chance (Paul Newman) is a failed actor, a big talker, and a big dreamer with small-time skills and bad habits who blows back into town one day with aging actress Alexandra (Geraldine Page) in wasted tow. Rolling her joints and keeping her lubricated with a constant supply of vodka and sweet talk, Chance is heavily into resuscitating her self-esteem after audiences giggled at her wrinkles--mainly so that he might pump her up for the tinselled glory he rightly believes is reserved for the young. He hopes, too, to borrow some of her fading light in order to dazzle the monstrous father Tom (Ed Begley) of his lost love Heavenly (Shirley Knight), not knowing that his first departure left her with child and that revenge has been brewing in the hearts of her father and brother, Tom Jr. (Rip Torn), ever since.
In Sweet Bird of Youth's original text, Heavenly endures a hysterectomy from the venereal disease that Chance passed on to her, and Chance's punishment at the hands of Tom Jr.'s gang is castration. For Tennessee Williams, it's not enough that the sweet bird of youth flies away too soon: it must take, in the most literal way possible, youth's procreative qualities with it. It's not subtle (none of Williams is what I'd call particularly subtle, after all), but there is something Greek about it, and when the film finds itself denatured of those elements, it's not pushing homosexuality to subtext (à la Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as much as it's robbing the piece of brutal symmetry. Sweet Bird of Youth is a tragedy in the classical sense: sex and hedonism and revenge served with cold justice in hand. Listen to the many ways that cleanliness and purity (or some variation thereof) are mentioned in opposition to the dirty, disgusting effects of aging and experience. Of everything that Williams is, he's a Romantic first. Without the hammer drop, the piece becomes as neutered as the play's Chance. It's ironic that the censorship that made the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof superior to the play robs Sweet Bird of Youth of its archetypal resonance.
What's left is another astonishing performance by Newman, who crafts here a Siamese companion in pathetic strut and heartbreak to his Fast Eddie Felson from the year previous. There is no clearer face for the conflict and despondency of the decade of the Sixties than Newman's magnificent bastards (next: Hud), recoiling from the status quo like a hand from the flame yet drawn to it, mothlike, all the same. His Chance is a portrait in stark detail of the masculine ego in all its awesome ability to self-delude with an image of itself as the hero of its own life. Brooks again delivers Williams in gaudy colours and with his trademark good sense to allow a legendary performance room to unfold. Page is amazing, Begley walks a line with grace, Torn is feral and revelatory, and Knight's unfairly-derided turn strikes the right chord (like an extrapolation of Sue Lyon in Night of the Iguana) of vulnerability and outrage. The battle in the piece has to do with men against time, and the inevitability of the victor in that competition is, sadly, undermined by its Hollywood-friendly ending--a betrayal of Williams's rage, the medium cool films of the Sixties, and worst of all our understanding of how things like this are supposed to end.
Reverend Shannon (Richard Burton) has had his bellyful of Christian self-righteousness and piety, and in a sermon that serves as the bravura opening sequence of John Huston's amazing Tennessee Williams adaptation The Night of the Iguana, he lets his constituents know it with brimstone and rancor. Sin is natural, maybe good--certainly unavoidable, says Shannon, and Huston shoots Shannon's audience in extreme, horror-movie close-up as they whisper and outrage and stream out en masse, with Shannon stalking them into the rain like the very bogey they've made his libido out to be. We catch up with the disgraced preacher-man trapped on a tour bus in Mexico, selling trinkets to old ladies and doing his best to fend off the attentions of a voracious young Lolita, Charlotte (Sue Lyon, who of course played the title character in Kubrick's Lolita two years earlier), so as not to squander his last chance at a decent, moral life. But this is Williams (and Huston, for that matter) in the Sixties, where/when listening to mother makes you psycho--"Mother" in this instance being Charlotte's guardian, the monstrous Mrs. Fellows (Grayson Hall of "Dark Shadows" fame), who serves as the first hour's catalyst and antagonist. (She leads a mob of church-lady ghouls Huston shoots in the same horror-movie leer.) When Shannon takes them all on a breakneck ride up the side of a Mexican mountain, the sense that we've crossed over from stage melodrama to gothic chiller is pervasive and not too far off the mark.
To call The Night of the Iguana apeshit would be accurate, but would also serve to devalue its brilliance or, at the very least, attribute its brilliance to some kind of savant dementia instead of the meticulous craft of Huston and Williams. They are mavericks in perfect league with one another, conspiring to conjure the essence of rebellion into performance and image. Add problem child Burton, finding a role at ease with his gonzo masculinity (Russell Crowe is the inheritor of Burton's mantle), this rogue Shannon a match for his complete unpredictability and the curious way he's as at home in priestly vestments as he is in a hammock (turned into straitjacket by this film's end). Shannon's desperation to keep his job with "Blake Tours" ("There's nothing beneath Blake Tours!") is unflatteringly echoed in the plight of an iguana tied to a porch, waiting to get slaughtered for meat. Burton makes the most of his wretch in sweat-soaked shirts and shoes worn-through, looking for salvation in the hotel of old pal Maxine (a wondrous Ava Gardner) but finding instead a floor of broken glass and a return of his repression.
Steeped in religious iconography twisted into delightful sacrilege, Williams's bawdy comedy of eros becomes an exercise in transference in Huston's hands. God is centralized in lust--the film is a John Donne poem in its profundity and glory, the kind of literary adaptation that, a little like Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, seems to actually understand how the play breathes and stalks instead of just symbolizing and representing. (You appreciate Elia Kazan's Williams adaptations; you're assaulted by Huston's.) When Shannon tells Maxine that "statutory rape" is when "a man gets seduced by a girl under twenty," there's something so perfect about the sentiment and the delivery that the laughter isn't related to statutory rape; rather, we take a certain unabashed joy in the essence of this man and the purity of his worldview. Cornered in a high bluff in Puerto Vallarta, Shannon is offered the opportunity to create his own society, becoming in the process the type of anti-hero always beloved by Huston and indulged, by circumstance and bitterness, by Williams. A wonder, then, that the picture ends with the recitation of the last poem of a decrepit old troubadour (Cyril Delevanti), accompanied to Shannon's Golgotha paradise by his Nantucket spinster granddaughter Hannah (Deborah Kerr), and his peaceful ascendance to the place of accomplishment and legacy to which poor Shannon aspires.
Hannah has the film's most graceful moment in relating her clumsy deflowering: "Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it's unkind, violent." It captures in one sentiment the best, albeit broad, moral analysis of Williams's life and work. The Night of the Iguana would play well on a double-bill with Huston's The Misfits. Like that film, it features the last great performance of a few screen legends, coaxed from them by the director's miraculous ability to cast actors needing not only to make some kind of statement about the state of their careers, but also temporary surcease from the weight of their distinction. Burton would receive an Oscar nomination that year for playing another bawdy man of the cloth in Becket, but it's here that he finds his proper epitaph alongside the best that Gardner's ever been and another example of why Kerr might have been the finest pure actress of her generation. There's a tightrope walked here that, should any of the principals (including Hall and young Lyon) fall, would plunge the whole shebang into self-parody and farce. As it is, it's a remarkable high-wire comedy afire with the combustible energy and ballsy brinkmanship of the medium cool generation.
More of an extended, rambling special feature than something that could--indeed should--stand alone, Harry Rasky's rapturous hagiography Tennessee Williams' South is home to invaluable footage of legendary playwright Williams expounding at length on himself but ultimately tries patience for its insistence on painting everything the man says with a golden, backlit halo. Of minor interest is the unearthing of details about Williams's upbringing by his "kind" grandparents and his description of himself as an angry person who has transformed anger into a purifying agent--yet the handful of recreations, including Jessica Tandy reprising her Blanche DuBois, prove to be stagey and disappointing. Rasky's orchestrated something of a coup in capturing these performances on film (also along for the ride: Burl Ives, William Hutt, Michael York, James Naughton, Francisco Castillo, and Maureen Stapleton), but his ham-hands at the camera make for distracting edits, flowery camera movements, a condescending score by Lou Applebaum, and an air of made-for-TV-ness that undermines the best intentions.
Still, there's something mournful about the juxtaposition of shots of Williams wandering around his Big Easy haunts with pictures of a dashing young Williams as his own voiceover describes the anguish of his childhood. Williams's treatment of minorities in his plays is explained in part by his declaration that he always saw himself as black, and there's something ineffably Blanche DuBois in the freedom he has with expressing his own vulnerability. There's insight to be had here into Williams's work--not just their settings, but their psychological fragility, too. The apocryphal tales of Williams believing all of his plays to be comedies seem in this light to be an elaborately-constructed defense mechanism against being so naked before so many. South, if it does anything well, inspires the pop psychologist to excavate Williams's work for proofs of interiority, even though Rasky's sensibilities run to the trite and the pat.
Most damaging is Rasky's occasional narration, which ultimately defines "Tennessee Williams' South" as a state of mind rather than a place. As observations go, it's the bookend to that "Webster's Dictionary defines X as..." oratory introduction and it hasn't gotten any fresher. For his part, Williams proves melancholy and garrulous (reading from "The Glass Menagerie" touchingly stirs memories of his dear sister)--if only he'd been paired with a focused interviewer and a coherent investigative throughline.
Warner reissues A Streetcar Named Desire on DVD in a Two-Disc Special Edition that offers the picture in a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer that corrects any problems of previous video incarnations (blooming, especially). The image is gorgeous, faithful, and super-sharp in contrast in a way that edifies Kazan's stage-bound constructions. When Blanche arrives at the train station to start the film, the starkness of Kazan's location work pops like a firecracker. Alex North's sassy, boozy score is reproduced with fulsome depth and detail in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono--just technically speaking, this one's a keeper. The first platter is also home to a piecemeal featuring-length yakker orchestrated by Laurent Bouzereau that compiles snippets from stand-alone interviews with film historian Rudy Behlmer and actor Malden. Critic and Kazan interviewer/biographer Jeff Young appears to be the only one of the principal participants (save Bouzereau, naturally) seated before the film as it unspools, though he does not, as the others do not, offer much in the way of scene-specific commentary. It's good, but it does invalidate to a large extent the need to watch the second disc's extras, as Malden's and Behlmer's contributions are taken from interviews shown in full therein. In any case, find stories of casting and the censorship issues that conspired to change the ending of the picture (Stanley must be punished!). Indeed, it's interesting to see side-by-side comparisons on the second disc in "Censorship and Desire" (16 mins.), a featurette that takes an in-depth look at the concerns our arbiters of morality had about both the Williams play and its cinematic counterpart. I would have loved more direct insight into Kazan's feelings on the elisions, but what's there is fine. It bears mentioning that the interviews with Malden and Behlmer are parceled out amongst most of the new featurettes on Disc Two.
A very fine biography of Kazan called Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey (75 mins.), written and directed by critic Richard Schickel, is the keystone of the presentation. It's a Castle Hill production (like A Streetcar Named Desire itself) narrated by Eli Wallach and containing a wealth of clips from Kazan's oeuvre, anchored by a nice interview with the man himself that predates the mild dementia that appeared to consume his later years. His description of Brando as a child consumed with rage is a fascinating one primarily because it's coupled with a look at an incredibly telling moment from James Dean in East of Eden. It's so much the hagiography, however, that it fails to go too deeply into the HUAC controversy that would haunt Kazan for the whole of his career and into his legacy. Ditto his disregard for the great leaps taken in the characterization of Zapata as an illiterate peasant. His instruction to Brando in the role to "think like a peasant" is interesting but perhaps not for all the right reasons.
"A Streetcar on Broadway" (22 mins.) is more of the Kazan, Malden, and Behlmer sessions complete with stills taken during Kazan's legendary production. What I wouldn't give for some grainy 8mm footage of it to be discovered in somebody's garage somewhere. "A Streetcar in Hollywood" (28 mins.) delves more deeply into the casting of the picture (the bulk of the revelations here repeated in the commentary verbatim, granted), while "North and the Music of the South" (9 mins.) pans out as a nice treatment of Alex North and the evolution of the picture's score. I was interested to learn that he did the stage production of Kazan's "Death of a Salesman", and record producer Robert Townsend's analysis of the music for Spartacus and Streetcar is brisk, informative, and a welcome piece of the puzzle.
"An Actor Named Brando" (9 mins.) is less useful because there's not really that much that needs to be said about Brando that Brando's performances don't say for themselves. The stills and outtakes available for perusal are a saving grace, however--the man's mesmerizing, and there's something about watching him in his unguarded moments that's flat fascinating. That's what makes the "Marlon Brando Screentest" (actually three tests that run about 5 mins.) so astonishing: to see him act out a scene from Rebel Without a Cause is to see something like a force of nature bottled on nitrate. A sequence of outtakes (15 mins.) triggers a similar response--cinema as voyeurism never seemed so true. It's something to say that this guy's mistakes are better than almost anyone in history's best effort. Seventeen minutes of "Audio Outtakes" are hard to appreciate in the same way, marking Brando as very much a creature of our visual imagination. An "Elia Kazan Movie Trailers" option back on Disc One, essaying every Kazan title in the Warner catalogue, rounds out the exemplary package.
Early print defects aside, Baby Doll's 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer to DVD is a welcome upgrade to previous home video issues, albeit not the sterling, sparkling presentation reserved for Warner's Tiffany line of Williams titles. (Too, Baby Doll being a post-'scope release, this is likely an open matte transfer that inaccurately represents the original aspect ratio.) The images just don't pop like they do in A Streetcar Named Desire's makeover, for instance, with dirt and lines, if not in abundance, then at least prevalent enough to merit a mention. A/B inconsistencies clear up in time for the final showdown between Silva and Baby Doll's virtue, which the disc renders with glorious quality. The mono track is reproduced herein in distinct Dolby 1.0.
A 12-minute "Making of" featurette recalls the Catholic League's vein-bulging, Bible-thumping protestations at the time of the film's release as well as invaluable interviews with the still-kickin' Wallach, Baker, and Malden. Long declamations that Wallach was fondling a heater and not Baker's undercarriage are sort of interesting in an ancillary way, but I remain unconvinced by the many affirmations that no one had any idea they were creating any sort of sensation. Sure they didn't. Rounding out the platter is a trailer for the film plus a short clip (3 mins.) highlighting the raising of abovementioned billboard, complete with a live model subbing for Baker's legs as billboard artists and a throng of the curious gather ("You'd think they'd never seen a BABY DOLL!" the narrator narrates)--all of which belies the bodice-clenching cries of misunderstanding. Don't sell yourself short, folks, it's a far better thing to know exactly what you're doing and doing it anyway than to Ron Howard-ize it into pabulum.
Shame that Donald Spoto's commentary on the Deluxe Edition DVD of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof suggests--not unlike his biographies of Williams and Hitchcock--simple-minded note-taking. Odd, too, to hear him pore over the themes in Williams's work, since he goes on for pages in his Hitchcock book about the fallacy of auteurism. Spoto gets snarky before he gives light Freudian analysis around crutches, cigarettes, and pistols, and he generally plays the role of muckraker in a room full of legends. The newly-struck 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is bright and beautiful, however, with light edge-enhancement in a few early scenes fading admirably long about the evening picnic. Liz's violet peepers are as mesmerizing as Newman's blues. A DD 1.0 audio follows suit, the non-specific score by Andre Previn (ported over from a 1949 film) playing poignant in a picture about borrowed emotions and manufactured sentimentality. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Cat and Mouse" (10 mins.) speaks in broad terms about how the film was a landmark for both actors before delving briefly into Taylor's widowhood, and Spoto again takes centre stage with the dish. "As she matured, she also matured as an actress," he says--and the world swoons at such breathless erudition. It's a disappointingly slight piece for such a weighty picture. A nicely-restored trailer (2 mins.) rounds out the presentation.
In a featurette, "Mrs. Stone: Looking for Love in All the Dark Corners" (12 mins.), on board the film's DVD release, dishy biographer Donald Spoto offers that The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is about fear, something that's reflected a little in the sombre treatment yet transformed by the film's excesses into the stuff of farce. He offers that the character of Mrs. Stone is a mirror to Williams while much is made, too, of Leigh's personal life (including her break-up with Olivier) nourishing the insecurities of the character as well. Beatty is painted as an artist at a crossroads, too, in an attempt to trump up the mythology of the picture as a Misfits-like (or Night of the Iguana-like, more to the point) autobiographical sketch for all involved when, if we're being honest with ourselves, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is more along the lines of a carnival-mirror grotesquerie. That's Williams's sense of humour in a nutshell: a straight treatment plays into his hands, but it doesn't honour his work. The piece is short and glossy--not inappropriate for the film it covers, but not enough to resurrect it in my eye. A trailer (3 mins.) for the picture--lovingly restored, as is the film itself (save some unchecked pinholes)--rounds out the presentation, which has as its central attraction the revitalization of Harry Waxman's stabbingly-bright cinematography in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The DD 1.0 mono audio does what it does with fidelity.
Warner appears to have neglected the basic search for a flawless source print in transferring Sweet Bird of Youth to DVD. Speckles and colour variants mar the 2.40:1, 16x9-enhanced image, enough so that its palette looks slightly sallow, with skin tones off and some interiors too-bright. The visual presentation reminds of nothing more than a film released about forty years ago: it's not filmic, it's old. The DD 1.0 audio is, on the other hand, fine. "Sweet Bird of Youth: Chasing Time" (12 mins.) is an excellent look at how the film was censored in the translation from stage to screen, gathering the usual rabble of talking heads offering backstory of most aspects of the production, including an in-depth look at the things robbed from this text. I wish that cache of moldy 8mm footage of Kazan's stage productions of Williams would hurry up and be discovered already--until such time, though, getting to see Page and Newman in this film, no matter what form it finally took, is like a whisper from the past. The best parts of the piece are Rip Torn remembering his late wife Page; he breaks up a little in recalling how they met. It segues nicely into a screen test (3 mins.) of Page and Torn acting out an unexpurgated scene from the play that describes Heavenly's "procedure" as akin to gutting a chicken as well as suggesting Chance's eventual, literal castration. Torn is good as Chance, but his style highlights every single way that Newman is Newman and Torn, as great as Torn is, is Torn. A nicely-restored trailer (3 mins.) rounds out the platter.
The Night of the Iguana debuts on DVD in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer shot through with minor lines and other faults that manage not to leave much of a negative impression. I noticed that the print wasn't perfect, but even in the noticing I was disregarding it before the technical excellence of the presentation as a whole. It's a beautiful restoration: filmic at the same time that it's sharp, exhibiting Huston and DP Gabriel Figuera's stark B&W chiaroscuro with radiance and logic. The image is matched by a remastered DD 1.0 mono track that reproduces the soundtrack with a roomy comprehensibility.
A new featurette called "The Night of the Iguana: Huston's Gamble" (10 mins.) is a disappointingly empty endeavour that glosses over the incendiary circumstances surrounding the shoot (it mentions Burton's affair with Elizabeth Taylor and her presence on set yet neglects to point out that Gardner once had an affair with Kerr's ex-husband), ending with the story of how Huston gave gold-plated Derringers to each member of the cast, loaded with bullets inscribed with their co-stars' names. It's just sensationalism without detail, however, serving only as a prod to folks already familiar with the story while giving no meat to folks with no clue. Just as worthless is a contemporaneous piece called "On the Trail of the Iguana" (14 mins.), produced at the time of the film's release by MGM's PR department and meant to drum up publicity, tabloid-style, for what was the studio's prestige picture of the season. It's a little bit interesting for its B-roll footage of Huston wandering around, looking meaningfully out over the ocean, but that's about it. A "Teaser Trailer" (1 min.) beginning with a shot of Burton and Lyon emerging in swimwear from the sea and shot through with lurid music and graphics ("Since man has known woman, there has never been such a night!") rounds out the disc along with a "Theatrical Trailer" (3 mins.) that makes it look just as much the psycho-sexual horror flick. No accident that each of these (cock)teasers centres around Gardner's sexy surf-side, Y Tu Mamá También-style romp with two Mexican lads. Safe to say that both completely capture the film and utterly fail to do the same.
Exclusive to Warner's exceptional Tennessee Williams box set, Tennessee Williams' South looks horrendous through no fault of the DVD transfer: It's a 16mm documentary produced for television in 1973; no amount of scrubbing is going to turn this sow's ear into a silk purse. Likewise, the Dolby 1.0 mono track inevitably sounds tinny. An extra in itself, the disc sports nothing in the way of supplementary material. Originally published: May 30, 2006.