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Suddenly Last Summer (#110 of 2)

Acting Tennessee Williams

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Acting Tennessee Williams
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.

5 for the Day: Summer

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5 for the Day: Summer
5 for the Day: Summer

Summer’s here, and the time is right for a summary of all things cinematically summery. The living is easy, and our 5 for the day talks movies with central events occurring during the hottest, most nostalgic season of the year. So go out and find a beautiful someone, dance all night (come on, come on) and when you’re done, chime in with your own choices.

1. Meatballs (1979). Summer camp is a rite of passage for some of us, even if mine was just a day camp where I won a prize singing a song about reefer. Ivan Reitman’s Genie-winning (that’s the Canadian Oscar) comedy presented unspoiled pangs of nostalgia mere months before Mrs. Voorhees hacked her way through Camp Crystal Lake. Before his quotable comic brilliance got Lost in Translation, Bill Murray could be counted on to bring a caustic wit and a merry prankster’s glee whenever he appeared onscreen. Though Caddyshack and Ghostbusters linger in more memories, Murray’s debut as Tripper Harrison carries more weight with me because his shtick had the luxury of being fresh. Who knew back then that practically every line Murray spouts from the camp loudspeaker (shades of Altman’s M*A*S*H) would be quotable?

Murray’s performance seemed bused in from another movie, but it keeps Meatballs from becoming too saccharine. His friendship with camper Chris Makepeace is sweet without being gooey, and I can’t help think of this movie whenever someone says “It just doesn’t matter.” In addition to giving Val Kilmer a model to craft his brilliant turn in Real Genius, Meatballs also gave Dr. Pepper jingle singer (and American Werewolf in London star) David Naughton a hideous hit disco song called “Makin’ It.” (Naughton’s “I’m a Pepper” jingle, coincidentally, was the musical basis for my aforementioned award-winning Mary Jane song. “I smoke marijuana dontcha know,” sang 12-year old me, who had no idea what he was singing about. “Wouldn’t you like to be a pothead too?” Snoop Dogg owes me his career.)