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Acting Tennessee Williams

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Acting Tennessee Williams

Actors and (particularly) actresses generally do anything they can to play a role written by Tennessee Williams; there’s the sheer poetry in the words and the rhythms of his best work (“Daylight never exposed so total a ruin,” or “Physical beauty is passing, a transitory possession…”) but also the wonderment over where Williams’s people have been, where they are going, and why they are what they are. In his new book Tennessee Williams and Company: His Essential Screen Actors, which profiles most of the major performers who made more than one appearance in a movie based on a Williams source, John DiLeo analyzes not just the effects that different actors had on Williams’s roles, but also the actors’ whole careers and how they relate to their work with the great Southern playwright.

DiLeo begins with Marlon Brando and his performance as Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which he rightly cites as both Williams’s best play and the best film made of one of his plays. This is well-trod ground, but Streetcar is such a large aesthetic object that it can sustain the most imaginative critical thought, and DiLeo gives it that, not only in his analysis of Brando as Stanley, but also in his thoughts on Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois. Tackling Streetcar in both his Brando and Leigh chapters, DiLeo is very hard on Kim Hunter as Stella, pointing out that she never seems like she came from the genteel Belle Reve background that Blanche did, and he has a point. I’ve seen the Kazan film of Streetcar so many times that I might just be used to Hunter and have found things to like about her performance (call it “The George Peppard Effect” for anyone who has learned to like something about Peppard over many viewings of Breakfast at Tiffany’s {1961}), though I do think her slow, dominatrix-like walk down the stairs to Stanley, which was restored to the film in the early 1990s after being censored, is startlingly effective; the tough-to-please DiLeo thinks it looks like Hunter smelled something bad.

DiLeo is at his best here when he’s delving deep into character motivation and asking sensitive questions about individual scenes and moments in Williams plays. This can be touching, as when he wonders if Blanche and Stanley might not have been able to get along, based on their first scene, or it can be hilarious, as when he picks apart the bizarre conceit at the heart of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), in which we’re asked to believe that an attractive, moneyed gay man needed his mother (Katharine Hepburn) and then his unstable cousin to “procure” rough trade for him, a strange idea that led to the famous image of Elizabeth Taylor popping out of a white bathing suit (as DiLeo pursued his line of thought on this matter, I suddenly imagined the imperious, middle-aged Hepburn in that white bathing suit the previous summer, and laughed). While DiLeo praises Brando’s Stanley, he calls him out for his laziness in The Fugitive Kind (1960), then goes on to rightly extol the merits of that film’s female performances from Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward.

Williams wrote great roles for women, so many that DiLeo is even able to plausibly include Mildred Dunnock and Madeleine Sherwood in his book and make convincing cases for their detailed work in supporting parts. Conversely, male roles were generally not as rich, though DiLeo makes a fine brief for the merits of Richard Burton’s large-scale performance in The Night of the Iguana (1964). Since Williams is so intent on ever-flowing words marked by sharp mood swings, DiLeo is most impressed here by performers who can navigate all these words with authority and conviction, like Burton, Katharine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh (he’s brutal on Elizabeth Taylor’s “halting” delivery when she’s indicating being upset). DiLeo is over-the-moon about Leigh in Streetcar, even if her performance has become one of the most argued-over in modern times (just bring the subject up on a theater message board and see the wildly varying opinions fly).

The last time I watched Streetcar, I think I finally figured out why there’s such divergence of reaction over Leigh in this film. Her body language can seem very false, but that can also be seen as Blanche’s heightened way of moving. Her delivery of dialogue can seem artificial and tricksy, but this is also Blanche’s tricksiness, her reaching for magic. The performance is great both in spite of and because of these limitations, and there’s never any doubt about the commitment in her ravaged pretty face and devastated eyes, or the guttural intonations that yank her down from her airy vocal affectations. How you respond to Leigh in Streetcar will depend on your moment-by-moment judgment of all these elements, which are constantly in flux, which is why this is such a rewarding performance to analyze, and why you might respond differently to different moments at every viewing. Like Blanche herself, Leigh’s performance is inexhaustible, defeated but still not ready to go down without a fight.

DiLeo worries that people have begun to forget Geraldine Page, and that might be true; where’s her full-scale biography? He treads carefully through her careful work in Summer and Smoke (1961), revealing his distaste for the masochism of spinster dramas, then goes all-out in praising her Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), another performance that has become a bit controversial. Alexandra is a fading movie sex queen; when Page did it on stage, she wore heavy make-up and got away with the part from a distance, making it a personal triumph. I assumed that DiLeo would pounce on Page’s miscasting in the role much as he did Hunter in Streetcar, but he’s impressed with the way she shifted her work for the movie into an all-out comic key. I’ve seen this one many times, too; as a kid, I thought Page was lots of fun in the part, but gradually started to find her ridiculous and embarrassing as I kept seeing it on TV, particularly in the crude flashback scene where her Alexandra comes walking down the stairs of a movie set, trying to look sexy and failing. DiLeo lets this moment go because he’s so interested in the sheer gusto and nerve Page brings to the part, how she plays it outright for comedy but also for truth.

In maybe the best section of his book, DiLeo goes into detailed raptures about Page’s last big scene in Sweet Bird of Youth, a telephone aria where Alexandra finds out from Walter Winchell that her movie comeback worked out after all. He writes about it so vividly that I was able to not only see and hear it again, but also see and hear it through the medium of his penetrating ideas about it. DiLeo can be too hard here on some movies and performances he’s only mentioning in passing, assigning strongly negative words to lists of films until we can only share his disbelief in just how many bad movies Paul Newman made. But when he’s praising something he loves, like Page in Sweet Bird or Magnani in The Fugitive Kind or Leigh in Streetcar, he does what a great critic does: he gives you back what you’ve experienced in a deeper way and enlarges your experience of it.

Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and the L Magazine, among other publications.