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Tennessee Goes to Hollywood
Tennessee Williams’ plays — sad stories of deluded women, cynical men, closeted homosexuals, and jaded alcoholics, all gradually losing hope against the backdrop of the mannered American South — have gotten the Hollywood treatment countless times, often adapted by the playwright himself. The best known (and the best) of these movies, 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, hit theaters 65 years ago this weekend. In honor of the anniversary of Elia Kazan’s iconic film, check out 16 classic big-screen Williams adaptations — featuring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and a host of other legendary actors — ahead.
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The Glass Menagerie (1950)
Williams’ four-person memory play The Glass Menagerie has been adapted for the screen twice; unfortunately, neither film meets the high standard set by Streetcar. Williams himself wrote the screenplay, along with Peter Berneis, for Irving Rapper’s 1950 version, which starred Arthur Kennedy as Tom, the Williams surrogate character and narrator; Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda, Tom’s mother, an aging Southern belle; Jane Wyman as Laura, Tom’s shy sister whose beloved collection of animal figurines gives the play its title; and Kirk Douglas as Jim, the “gentlemen caller” whom Amanda hopes will develop an interest in Laura. Paul Newman directed a 1987 adaptation of the play, which starred John Malkovich and Joanne Woodward as Tom and his mother.
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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Williams adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning Streetcar Named Desire for Elia Kazan to direct for the screen, and Vivien Leigh delivered a heartbreaking performance as Blanche Dubois, an aging Southern belle who moves to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley after losing her family home. As the coarse, violent Stanley, Marlon Brando explodes onscreen (STELLAAAAAA!) in vivid contrast to Leigh’s fragile Blanche, who clings helplessly to the aristocratic lifestyle she’s lost. The film was nominated for 12 Oscars and received nods in all four acting categories, of which it won three (for Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden — Brando lost Best Actor).
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The Rose Tattoo (1955)
Anna Magnani won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Daniel Mann’s 1955 film version of The Rose Tattoo, which was adapted for the screen by Williams himself, along with Hal Kanter. Magnani plays Serafina, an Italian-American widow who is consumed by grief until she meets a new man (Burt Lancaster) and discovers that her late husband, whom she idolized, was unfaithful. Williams had reportedly written the play for Magnani, but when it was first produced on Broadway in 1951, the Italian actress felt she had not yet mastered English well enough to play Serafina onstage every night. Four years later, she had improved her English enough to deliver take after Oscar-worthy take.
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Baby Doll (1956)
Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, adapted by Williams himself from his 1946 one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, was condemned by the Legion of Decency and banned in several countries upon its release in 1956. Carroll Baker plays “Baby Doll,” a child bride whose alcoholic middle-aged husband Archie (Karl Malden) is anxious to consummate their marriage. Eli Wallach made his big-screen debut as Archie’s conniving business competitor, who torments his rival by flirting outrageously with Baby Doll and eventually manipulates her into compromising Archie’s business.
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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
While Williams was reportedly disappointed with Richard Brooks’ 1958 adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which eliminated the play’s significant homosexual references, the film’s stars Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, both at their most breathtaking, were each nominated for an Oscar for their performances in the Southern drama. Newman stars as Brick Pollitt, an alcoholic former football hero, and Taylor plays Maggie “the Cat,” his sexually neglected wife. When the beautiful young couple attends Brick’s dying father’s birthday celebration at the palatial family estate in Mississippi, conflict arises from Brick’s drinking, Maggie’s childlessness, and the question of what will happen to “Big Daddy” Pollitt’s enormous fortune upon his death.
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Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Just a year after her Oscar-nominated turn in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elizabeth Taylor appeared in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer, adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal. Taylor plays an emotionally disturbed young woman who recently witnessed the death of her cousin Sebastian. Sebastian’s mother (Katherine Hepburn) wants Taylor’s character to have a lobotomy, but the surgeon who would perform the procedure (Montgomery Clift) uncovers the truth about what happened to Sebastian as he evaluates the young woman. Both Hepburn and Taylor were nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress.
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The Fugitive Kind (1959)
Williams teamed with screenwriter Meade Roberts to adapt his play Orpheus Descending, a reimagining of the myth of Orpheus, for director Sidney Lumet. The result was The Fugitive Kind, which brought Streetcar’s Marlon Brando and The Rose Tattoo’s Anna Magnani back as a new pair of damaged Williams characters: Brando is Val Xavier, a mysterious young man who comes to a small Southern town and gets a job in a shop working for Lady (Magnani), whose cruel husband is dying. Val falls for Lady and resists the advances of a local flirt (Joanne Woodward), but Lady’s husband, even on his deathbed, resents their connection.
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Summer and Smoke (1961)
Meade Roberts (who co-wrote the screenplay for The Fugitive Kind with Williams) and James Poe (who co-wrote the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof screenplay) teamed up to adapt yet another Williams play for the screen in 1961 with Summer and Smoke, directed by Peter Glenville. Geraldine Page was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Alma Winemiller, a repressed spinster who has loved the much wilder boy next door (Laurence Harvey), now a doctor, since they were children. Needless to say, it doesn’t work out.
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The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
José Quintero’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was not based on a play, in fact, but on Williams’ first novel. A decade after her iconic performance in Streetcar, Vivien Leigh stars as an aging stage actress who loses her husband while on holiday in Rome. She becomes infatuated with a young Italian gigolo (Warren Beatty, just months after his debut in Splendor in the Grass) and takes him as her lover in a highly public affair that can only end in disgrace. Supporting actress Lotte Lenya received the film’s only Oscar nomination.
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Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)
Just four years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Paul Newman and director Richard Brooks reteamed for another Tennessee Williams adaptation with Sweet Bird of Youth. Newman stars as Chance Wayne, a young man who returns to his hometown in Florida after failing to make it as an actor. Now the companion of an anxious, aging movie star (Geraldine Page), Chance hopes to win back the girl he loved in his youth (Shirley Knight), whose powerful father (Ed Begley) is determined to keep them apart.
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Period of Adjustment (1962)
And now for something completely different! Believe it or not, Williams’ Period of Adjustment — and George Roy Hill’s 1962 adaptation of it — is a comedy, though one rooted in deeply human subject matter. On Christmas Eve, newlyweds George (Jim Hutton) and Isabel (Jane Fonda, in one of her first major roles) visit George’s friend and fellow Korean War vet Ralph (Anthony Franciosa) and his wife Dorothea (Lois Nettleton). Each struggling couple finds perspective by observing the other’s rocky relationship, and all four emerge from the holiday ready to make a new start.
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The Night of the Iguana (1964)
John Huston’s adaptation of Williams’ The Night of the Iguana made headlines before it even hit theaters in 1964, as Elizabeth Taylor famously visited her still-married lover Richard Burton on the set in Puerto Vallarta. Burton stars as a defrocked clergyman living in Mexico, where he works as a tour guide. He leads a tour group, including a teenage girl (Sue Lyon) who has developed an interest in the fallen priest, to a secluded hotel run by a friend of his (Ava Gardner), where he meets another woman (Deborah Kerr) who changes his perspective on life.
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This Property Is Condemned (1966)
Robert Redford and Natalie Wood play another pair of Williams’ doomed lovers in Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of the playwright’s one-act This Property Is Condemned. Wood plays Alva, the town flirt in a small Mississippi town where Owen (Redford) shows up one day with some unfortunate business. The two beautiful young people fall in love, naturally, but Alva’s mother’s disapproval and the town’s hatred for Owen threaten to tear them apart. Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Coe, and Edith Sommer all share screenwriting credit, though there were many more who struggled to develop the brief drama into a full screenplay; Williams was reportedly very disappointed in the finished product.
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Elizabeth Taylor took on her third role in a Williams film with Joseph Losey’s Boom!, which the playwright himself adapted from his play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Taylor plays Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth, a very wealthy woman with a terminal illness; opposite her was Richard Burton as a poet who appears in her life, apparently out of nowhere, and who has been nicknamed the “Angel of Death” because of his habit of befriending rich, dying women. Alas, despite Taylor’s star power — not to mention her pairing with then-husband Burton — Boom! failed to recapture the magic of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and was panned by critics.
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The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (1970)
Following his success with The Fugitive Kind, Sidney Lumet brought Williams to the screen again with the playwright's The Seven Descents of Myrtle, adapted by Gore Vidal. Lynn Redgrave plays Myrtle, a dancer who marries Jeb (James Coburn) on television in order to win some prize money, which Jeb wants to use to restore his family home and take the estate back from his biracial half-brother (Robert Hooks). The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots was one of the last in a string of major Williams adaptations made between 1950 and 1970; it was not, however, one of the best.
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BONUS! Blue Jasmine (2013)
Woody Allen has not confirmed that his 2013 drama Blue Jasmine was inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire, but the similarities are unmistakable. Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine, the ex-wife of a Bernie Madoff-esque Wall Street sleaze, who loses the outrageously lavish lifestyle to which she has become accustomed and is forced to leave New York for San Francisco, where she stays with her working-class sister and her boyfriend. Blanchett won an Oscar for her extraordinary performance in the contemporary and relevant Streetcar update — just like Vivien Leigh, whose Blanche took home the gold 62 years earlier.