This week marks the birthday of the great Tennessee Williams’ birthday is Wednesday, and given the major impact his works have had on cinema, the Retro Set is dedicating this week to examining his film adaptations both big and small.
By Brandie Ashe
In the wake of the phenomenal Broadway success of 1944’s The Glass Menagerie and 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire, playwright Tennessee Williams took off for Europe. Traveling the continent with his partner, Frank Merlo, Williams worked to complete his next play, a drama that would eventually become known as The Rose Tattoo.
In November 1949, Williams rented a home in Key West, Florida, with the intent to finish writing The Rose Tattoo during his winter residency there. Williams became so enamored with Key West that he eventually purchased his temporary vacation home, and even though he later would become intrinsically associated with New Orleans, Williams always retained ownership of the house in the Keys. Indeed, the Key West house provided a great deal of inspiration for Williams as he completed the play—the house next door to his own served as the model for the home of his main characters, and in a moment of pure kismet, that house would later serve as the filming location for the movie adaptation of The Rose Tattoo in 1955. (As the movie was made literally right next door, it was only fitting that Williams would appear as an extra in the film, as would Merlo.)
The Rose Tattoo focuses on a Sicilian-American family living on the Gulf Coast. In his introduction to the play, Williams gives the location as being “somewhere” between New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama. It’s safe to assume that the characters in The Rose Tattoo were likely inspired by Williams’ relationship with Merlo, who was himself the scion of a proud Sicilian family. But Williams had a self-professed affinity for Italy and the Italian people as a whole; in a letter to a longtime friend, Maria St. Just (reprinted in her 1991 book, Five O’Clock Angel), Williams once wrote, “Have I ever told you that I like Italians? Well, now let me tell you I do! They are the last of the beautiful young comedians of the world.” Indeed, The Rose Tattoo seeks to capture that defining beauty and humor, with a deft mix of comedy and drama that makes the play one of Williams’ most appealing and most underrated accomplishments.
The Rose Tattoo tells the story of Serafina, an intensely passionate woman whose world revolves around her husband, Rosario (the original bearer of the titular tattoo). When Rosario is killed in an accident while making a midnight smuggling run, the shock causes the newly pregnant Serafina to miscarry, and she soon retreats into herself, shunning the world and bitterly avoiding any attempt to bring her “back to life.” When she hears rumors about Rosario’s infidelity, her bitterness grows, casting a pall on her daughter Rosa’s new relationship with a young sailor, Jack. But the arrival of a young delivery driver, Alvaro, who reminds her of her husband in his prime, promises to lift her spirits, if she can only let go of the decaying “roses” of the past.
After more than two years of writing, The Rose Tattoo premiered to great acclaim on Broadway in February of 1951. Seven months later, in September, the film adaptation of Williams’ most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, debuted in theaters. That film, directed by Elia Kazan (who had also helmed the Broadway production), became a smash success and a critical darling, with three of the movie’s actors (Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden) winning Academy Awards for their performances.
Over the years, Williams had grown quite close to Kazan (whom he lovingly nicknamed “Gadg”), and when it came time for The Rose Tattoo to be adapted onscreen, the playwright had high hopes that Kazan would once again take the director’s chair. But it was not to be. Although Kazan had initially expressed interest in Tattoo, he later backed out, leaving Williams, by his own estimation, “disappointed.” Instead the film was directed by Daniel Mann, who had also directed the stage version of the play. With the able assistance of cinematographer James Wong Howe (who would win the first of his two Academy Awards for this film), Mann produced a beautiful film that cunningly sidesteps some of the innate staginess of the play.
That being said, they can’t quite disguise the fact that this film supposedly takes place along the Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama coastline, yet the architecture and the landscape both scream “south Florida.”
As Tattoo was adapted for the screen, there was another major struggle in store for Williams. He had written the play with Italian actress Anna Magnani in mind, but she refused the Broadway lead, explaining that she was not confident enough in her grasp of English to perform the part, and Maureen Stapleton was instead cast as Serafina (winning a Tony for her efforts). When it came time to cast the film, however, Williams headed for Rome, making a personal appeal for Magnani to play the leading role in the movie version. Magnani eventually agreed, and a true friendship sprung up between the actress and the playwright, one that lasted until Magnani’s death in 1973.
After Magnani’s death, Williams shared some thoughts about the actress with Maria St. Just. As shared in Five O’Clock Angel, the playwright explained why he fought so diligently to get Magnani to accept the role:
“I succeeded in seeing her in Rome only after assuring her director and closest friend, Roberto Rossellini, that I was not going to interview her, that I was not even an American journalist but was merely someone who had been terribly profoundly moved by her art. This was not an evasion of the truth nor in any sense an exaggeration of it. It is not often that I have been terribly profoundly moved by acting on the screen. By Chaplin and by Garbo in this country: only by them. In France by the new young actor Gerard Philipe: only by him. In Italian films I have been stirred deeply by a number of films, not all of which were the work of Rossellini and Magnani, but of their performers it is certainly only Magnani who sinks the claws in the heart.”
Watching the film, it is evident that Williams’ trust and belief in Magnani’s talent is more than repaid through her sterling performance. It’s no wonder Magnani nabbed the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance here; it is wholly her film. It’s impossible to look away from her while she’s onscreen, and the film loses much of its spark in the few scenes when she is not present. Williams was absolutely right: Magnani sinks her claws into you from the moment she first appears, and it is her heart that informs the heart of the film. Without her, Serafina is just another Italian stereotype, another in a long line of screeching, shrilly interfering matriarchs. But through every seemingly small movement, every intonation of her magnificent, throaty voice, Magnani allows us to see the heartbreak behind the façade, and the depth of true mourning and unrefined love that drives her character.
Though Magnani has ample scenes of overwrought frustration and fury throughout the film—scenes to which she brings an earthy honesty amid screaming and flailing motions—one of her most effective moments in the film is the quieter scene in which she questions Jack about his intentions with her daughter. Here, Williams’ clever dialogue and Magnani’s perfect timing work together seamlessly as Serafina challenges Jack’s motives, looking for any hint of nefariousness. Arms crossed, a world-weary yet calculating look on her face, an unkempt Serafina lays out the situation for her daughter’s beau: “My daughter is innocent, pure. She is, or she was. I would like to know which.” As Jack protests his own “innocence,” the camera stays focused on Magnani’s face, telegraphing her shifting emotions as she responds with an incredulous “no.” Her disbelief and shock at the realization of Jack’s virginity—so incongruous for a “manly” sailor—make for one of the funniest moments in a film that, admittedly, sinks beneath the weight of its own gravitas at times.
Magnani’s natural performance, brimming with sensuality even in her darkest moments, stands in sharp contrast to Burt Lancaster’s more mannered portrayal of Alvaro. The endearing lightheartedness that marks that character in the play is somewhat stifled in Lancaster’s performance; he doesn’t quite let go to the extent that the role calls for, and his relative reticence in comparison to Magnani’s unrestrained characterization can be jarring at times. Alvaro, as Serafina describes him, boasts the body of her dead husband with the “head of a clown.” But Lancaster is too studied for that; his Alvaro is always thinking, never truly as free-spirited as expected. And even when the actor does let loose with one of Alvaro’s frequent belly laughs, it feels disingenuous, his bonhomie utterly forced.
Magnani is much more evenly matched by Marisa Pavan, who plays Serafina’s equally fiery daughter, Rosa, who by turns loves and loathes the woman her mother has become. Pavan has an emotional intensity that works well in Rosa’s many confrontations with her difficult mother, and their onscreen rapport makes for a convincing relationship. Ultimately, Pavan was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the film. It’s worth noting that reportedly, Pavan’s twin sister, Pier Angeli, was originally intended to play the part before Pavan was cast; though Pavan had been performing for several years, it was her role in Tattoo that brought her first real success as an actress.
After years of being out of print, Warner Archive recently released The Rose Tattoo on DVD through its MOD (manufactured-on-demand) series. The new release boasts an excellent print, though as with many Archive releases, there are no extras. However, the release does feature English subtitles, which come in handy during those moments when Magnani’s heavy Italian accent tends to obscure her dialogue.
While The Rose Tattoo does not quite reach the sublime cinematic heights of other Tennessee Williams adaptations such as A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it nonetheless remains an enjoyable and immensely watchable film, due largely in part to Magnani’s brilliant portrayal of a broken woman’s romantic Renaissance.
And let me just add: the play’s pretty damn great, too.