The great Tennessee Williams’ birthday is Wednesday, March 26th, and given the major impact his works have had on cinema, the Black Maria is dedicating this week to examining his film adaptations both big and small.
By Millie De Chirico
When I talk about living in the South to my non-Southern friends I’m sure I sound like a lunatic. I’m always simultaneously cursing and praising the place I’ve lived for the past 30-or-so odd-years. I think most Southerners are used to doing this. After all, for every charmless Wal Mart-anchored strip mall there’s a gorgeous, slightly cinematic landscape available within minutes of it. For every terrible redneck that appears on a reality television show, there is a musician, writer, or artist who has made an unparalleled cultural contribution to society. In my lengthy Southern experience (in which I have spent living in Charleston, SC, Atlanta, and central Florida, respectively), there have been periods of true beauty and content alongside a strong, crushing desire to escape as quickly as possible. Again, I think most Southerners have experienced this. I kind of think of it as how one feels spending extended periods of time with family. And much like family, you will complain of the dysfunction, yet are quick to defend it from outsiders. A lot of times you end up sounding like the Stella Kowalski character in A Streetcar Named Desire: at a moment turned off by her sloppy, drunken, “ape man”, but also tied to and fascinated by him at the same time.
I discovered the writing of Tennessee Williams when I was about 18 years old, after seeing the film adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (following an obsession I had with young Paul Newman…that I continue to have). It was at a time in my life that I’d decided to stay in the South for college as a film major at GSU, and I was voraciously watching as many movies as I could get my hands on. I’d never really thought too much about living in the South before but suddenly these movies were making it seem so intoxicating. In these film versions, the South was seen as a sexy, sweltering mess of strained relationships, secrets, and revelations. There were long theatrical monologues by characters with crazed Southern accents, traipsing around palatial Southern homes or seedy, back alley apartments and hotels. Beautiful people were always sweating in doorways, in torn slips or dirty undershirts. It was amusingly over-the-top and wonderfully melodramatic. After seeing the films, I went back and read the plays (and later his memoirs, which, if you haven’t read them — go do that right now) and was hypnotized by them all.
As a writer, Tennessee Williams truly understood the idea of coming from somewhere simultaneously loved and hated. Having been raised in the South himself, Tenn had the keen ability to speak to the duality of Southern living: the pristine yet primal, decadence and simplicity, always something lurking behind the smile. His plays embraced the Southern literary tradition of small towns and the unusual people who lived in them, the powerful men who ran them, the gossip and the secrets they were willing to keep. Tenn himself justified leaving and coming back: all throughout his adult life he was a world traveler but would spend long periods of time in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida — places where he could swim (one of his favorite activities) and write his plays. And in his signature suit, bow tie, and cigarette holder, Tenn always embraced the dandyish dress of the South wherever he went.
My all-time favorite of his film adaptations has to be Sweet Bird of Youth, one of the lesser-discussed ones I would argue, and starring the aforementioned young Paul Newman and the amazing Geraldine Page. The plot is pure Southern Gothic brilliance: a hustler/drifter/pool boy named Chance Wayne (Newman) desperately tries to win back the love of his life after being run out of town by her politician father years earlier. Chance meets former Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago (Page, who in the film goes incognito with the amazing name “Princess Kosmonopolis”) and they become travel partners. It becomes apparent during her booze-fueled storytelling that she is trying to win something back of her own: her career, her youth, her relevance. The pair end up back at Chance’s home town of St. Cloud, Florida so that Chance may make one final attempt at winning his former love, all the while running blackmail schemes on each other and using the other for their own ends (sexual and otherwise). Newman and Page were in the original theater production together and their playful chemistry is so much fun to watch. How Paul Newman was able to be such an irresistible scoundrel in this film while being the decent, honest man he was in real life is a talent I’ll never possess. Sweet Bird touches on classic Tennessee Williams themes: faded beauty, powerful politicians, secrets and lies, and sexual dysfunctions (perceived or otherwise). The film also gives us yet another opportunity to see shirtless Newman in all his youthful glory (thank you TW for always putting THE most attractive men ever in your work) as well as the seasoned glamour of Page. Tenn always had my most favorite actresses ever in his plays and he tended to reuse them in his work– women such as Page, Anna Magnani, Elizabeth Taylor, and Kim Hunter. They possessed an earthy quality required to play the complex female roles in his plays, and they are all magnificent talents. As Alexandra, Page is especially stunning as she drunkenly moves around the hotel room in her flowing robed outfits, flipping her hair back and forth as she sips from her highball glass. She’s experienced and vulnerable at the same time, charming as she is bossy, a “nice monster” as she’s labeled by Chance. Sweet Bird of Youth is about the desire to be the people we used to be, and the roads some of us will take to get there.
In addition to his film adaptations (which are surprisingly all entertaining to me despite definitely having my favorites), I really can’t recommend reading Memoirs enough. They are equal parts truthful, hilarious, and bitchy, and his personal stories and general joie de vivre are inspiring (I loved finding out he’s a fellow Aries; his birthday falls three days after mine). I would also recommend the epistolary novel Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham, a collection of letters written between Williams and author Donald Windham. Again, so funny and entertaining. If you’re a big fan like I am, you will love them.
As we celebrate his 103rd birthday this week, I plan to sit down with Sweet Bird of Youth and a big Southern summer cocktail in honor of Tenn. Thank you for helping me find the glamour, humor, and compassion in living in this “nice monster” we call the South.