Friday, March 26, 2021

Vital Viewing (Naked Light Bulbs, Rude Remarks, and Vulgar Actions Edition)


Playwright Tennessee Williams was born on this day in 1911 (he died in 1983.) Williams was about 63 when he sat down for an interview with talk show host Dick Cavett in a leafy courtyard of an antebellum era New Orleans hotel. As his plays were an unusual blend of tragedy, comedy, poetry, social commentary, sex, violence, and local color, you might expect the man himself to be somewhat unusual, and Williams certainly doesn't disappoint, but he's unusual in the most charming, wonderfully Southern twangy way possible. Though any careful, or even sloppy, reading of his work would indicate a rather dark nature, he seems to be in good humor here. Watch and listen:

It took me a bit of googling to find out who the hell this pirate was that Cavett was talking about. As Williams suggested, Jean Lafitte was an obvious choice, as he was the most famous pirate in New Orleans, having helped Andrew Jackson defend the city against the British during the War of 1812 in exchange for a pardon (what none of the local combatants on either side knew is that a peace treaty had been signed in Belgium a few weeks earlier. Life before the telegraph.) But he wasn't involved with any plot to bring Napoleon to America. 

Turns out it was a friend of Laffite's named Dominique You. A wealthy New Orleanian and former mayor by the name of Nicholas Girod sponsored a plan to have You rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from his second exile on St. Helena (Elba was the first), bring him to America, and set him up in a guest room in Girod's home, where the Little Corporal would presumably live rent-free. This was a popular scheme in New Orleans, which at the time had a heavily ethnic French presence, and, who knows, had Napoleon not died before You had even set sail, it might have gotten Girod another term as mayor. The house is still in existence, and is now a restaurant called The Napoleon House. So Cavett knew what he was talking about, even if it was a bit of a digression from anything having to do with Tennessee Williams. But look at me, I'm digressing myself! So lets get back to the playwright.

He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III, but thought Tom was a rather "dull name" for a writer, and so started calling himself "Tennessee" when he was about 27 years old and his playwriting career began in earnest. According to John Lahr's acclaimed 2014 biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which right now is sitting to the left of the computer I'm writing this on, he lived in the actual state of Tennessee for just two separate years of his life, the first time when he was still a toddler, and the second time when he had been sent there to recover from a nervous breakdown after--I mean no disrespect but for personal reasons I can't help but smile--working in a shoe warehouse. However, Williams' father, though not particularly distinguished himself (an alcoholic who gambled away his middle-management earnings, he once got part of his ear bit off in a poker fight), came from a distinguished line of Tennesseans including that state's first senator, and so by giving himself that nickname, young Tom Williams figured he could claim a piece of that linage for himself. As for where he did live in his life, until he was eight he lived mostly in Mississippi in the house of his maternal grandfather, an Episcopal minister from Illinois, just enough time for him to acquire that Southern accent. After his father, who had been a traveling shoe salesman, was transferred to the shoe company's home office in St. Louis, Williams, his prim and proper mother Edwina, mentally troubled sister Rose (the model for Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie), and younger brother Dakin (often depicted in Williams biographies as the most normal one of the bunch, later in life he was seen as a bit of a character himself) were packed off to the hustle and the bustle and the Northern accents of a major Midwestern industrial city. The difference between the two environments would pop up again and again in his plays (as did just about every other facet of Williams life with the notable exception of his homosexuality, and even that was there, though thinly camouflaged.) Jumping ahead to the last thirty years of his life, Williams mostly divided his time between Manhattan, the home of Broadway where his plays were produced, and Key West, the bohemian island and city just off of Florida's southernmost tip. And there were extended trips abroad where he palled around with the likes of Gore Vidal and Truman Capote (at first the three of them together, and then, once Vidal and Capote had a falling-out, separately.) In-between and interspersed and intertwined with all of that were residencies in the aforementioned New Orleans, the setting of a number of his plays, including one of his most famous. If you were listening to that Cavett interview carefully, you would have heard a line read from one of those plays. If you weren't listening carefully (and shame on you for not doing so), I'll repeat it here:  

"They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!"

Obviously that line is packed with allegorical meaning, but that's not the only thing. It's also packed with...


...literal meaning.

(There's a River Styx Road that runs through Cleveland's southern exurbs. I wonder if I could turn that into a play.)

A Streetcar Named Desire wasn't Tennessee William's first Broadway hit. That would have been the St. Louis "memory play" The Glass Menagerie, which came out in 1945, two years earlier. But the success of Streetcar did prove Williams was no one-hit-wonder (in fact, he eventually became a seven-hit wonder, nine-hit wonder if you throw in off-Broadway, ten-hit wonder if you add an original screenplay, eleven-hit wonder if you count a best-selling memoir, a sixteen-hit-wonder if you throw in the movie adaptations, and I think that's it--Oh, wait, there were several highly-rated TV adaptations, and some of his Broadway flops did quite well when performed by regional companies, but I can't count them as hits because my pocket calculator just upped and died on me.) 

In 1951, A Streetcar Named Desire was turned into a movie, starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and--I'm going to let you guess the last one..................That's right, Karl Malden as Mitch, not looking all that much different than he did when he played opposite Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco some twenty years later. Brando, Hunter, and Malden all were in the original 1947 Broadway production (I've gone online and looked at pictures from that production, and Malden STILL looks like he did in The Streets of San Francisco!) 

Here's the trailer: 

If the above doesn't convince you that this movie might not be a bad way to kill 125 minutes, here's a couple of more reasons:

Stanley Kowalski, widely considered to be the villain of the piece (though some literary scholars would consider that an oversimplification.) Was Marlon Brando's hiring an oversimplification? As Williams described it after hearing him read for the part, Brando was "God-sent". Except God hadn't read the play's own instructions, which states Stanley is about 30 years old, the same age as Mitch. Brando was 23, 12 years younger than Malden, and a whopping 15 years younger than Jessica Tandy, who originated the role of Blanche, Stanley's sister-in-law. Even Kim Hunter, who played Blanche's sister and Stanley's wife Stella, was two years older. Director Elia Kazan (who also helmed the film version) privately thought Williams was turned on by Brando. Williams did admit that "he was just about the best-looking young man I've ever seen", but the wily wordsmith also offered this explanation and/or rationalization:  "It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanizes the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality and callousness of youth rather than a vicious old man ... A new value came out of Brando's reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard." Whether he said this before or after the cold shower, I can't say, but Brando got the part, got up on stage, and turned on theatergoers. Then he got the film role, went before the camera, and once the prints went out to the nation's movie palaces, turned on moviegoers. In fact, he became a movie star and kept on turning on moviegoers right through the 1950s, and into the 1960s, until his steady diet of Mallomars, cinnamon buns, and jars of peanut butter finally caught up to him (fortunately for him, he had genuine acting talent to fall back on, thus allowing him to make potentially no-longer-turned-on audiences an offer they could not refuse.) Here's Brando in, if not necessarily the best, then at least the most famous scene in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire:    

Lust means never having to say you're sorry.

Charlton Heston and (in make-up) Kim Hunter. No matter her appearance, Hunter seems to have no problem attracting shirtless males.

As I said earlier, Jessica Tandy (right) originated the role of Blanche DuBois on stage, and the theater critics of the day thought she did a superb job, something we have to partially take their word for as the performance was never captured on film (however, we do have the audio .) Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, at the time all relatively unknown outside New York City, got to repeat their roles in front of a Hollywood camera. Elia Kazan, who got to repeat his role behind a Hollywood camera, also wanted Tandy for the film version, but the studio execs didn't. Although Tandy finally became a household name in her senior years (thanks to such 1980s movies as Cocoon and, especially, Driving Miss Daisy), she wasn't one in 1951. What the execs wanted was an actress with a national following, i.e., a movie star. Vivien Leigh (above) had some prior experience playing a Southern belle, and had also portrayed Blanche on the London stage (husband Larry was the director), so she got the gig. Nothing against Jessica Tandy--I have fond memories of her and Morgan Freeman's humorous exchanges as they motored about the Jim Crow South--but I don't see how Blanche DuBois can get much better than this:   

Tomorrow is another day. At least it is for that paperboy.

Like the character she played, Leigh eventually succumbed to mental illness. In fact, she even blamed that character, claiming Blanche had "tipped me over into madness." 

I still haven't convinced you to watch this movie? You find the whole Southern Gothic thing too off-putting? All that black-and-white drama with now-dead actors is something you just can't relate to? And what's with all the jazz music? Aren't they supposed to listen to the Grand Ole Opry in the South?

Perhaps this charming young woman can help make it more accessible for you:

I love how, after she tells of Stella returning to Stanley, she can't help but blurt out a hushed "stupid". And dig that shocked Mickey Mouse on her jacket. That says it all.

Tennessee Williams father was a southerner who spent spent so much time in the North that it's said he eventually lost his southern accent. Tennessee Williams mother was a northerner who spent so much time in the South that it's said she eventually gained a southern accent. Somehow in transit they hooked up with each other, opposites attracted while going in opposite directions. Cornelius Coffin "C.C." Williams and the former Edwina Dakin never divorced, but it's telling that I'm forced to use separate pictures because I couldn't find one online with both of them in it. Obviously, there were conflicts there. So be it. As any lit professor worth his tenure will tell you, conflict fuels the best fiction, and it fueled Tennessee's plays. There's the conflict between rural calm and urban restlessness, the conflict between cultural enrichment and industrial efficiency, the conflict between the religious and the secular, the conflict between tradition and originality, the conflict between uniformity and individuality, the conflict between homogeneity and multiculturalism, the conflict between nonconformity and economic survival, the conflict between self-actualization and a social life, the conflict between free will and chromosomes,  the conflict between the head and the heart, the conflict between the head and the loins, the conflict between the heart and the loins, the conflict between boy-meets-girl and (as Williams' generation viewed it)  the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and, as every bit as pronounced in his work as anything sexual, the conflict between upward mobility and downward mobility. Finally, there's the conflict between the Mason and the Dixon, a line Williams spent his entire life straddling. The Dixon part is what gets everybody's attention, but Williams also had things to say about the Mason. Y'all just have to get past the regional dialects and regional colloquialisms to know what they are. Ultimately, his writing was universal, as all art strives to be. And all artists, be they painters, writers, or actors. Take Vivien Leigh. When she wasn't playing Southern belles, she talked with an English accent!  


"Mom, Elvis. Elvis, Mom."

Actually, by the time rock 'n' roll arrived on the scene, Tennessee Williams was about 45 years old, not exactly its target audience, and so probably didn't listen to too much of it. However, he does seem to have been a fan of at least one of its musical antecedents:

 In that interview with Dick Cavett, Williams mentions that during one of his stays, perhaps his first stay, in New Orleans, he'd head to the bar after a full day of writing and listen on the jukebox to the proto-doo wop group The Ink Spots. Here's their biggest hit (which Williams and Cavett try but fail to sing), "If I Didn't Care".  Give it a listen. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to write your own Streetcar Named Desire.

Now get back to your typewriters, er, keyboards.

Hey, I hope you enjoyed this trip into the heart of Tennessee (the man, not the state.) I guess that's a bit of hyperbole as I got nowhere near his heart, and, to mix a metaphor, barely scratched the surface of his career (though that's not much of a mixture given the trenchant nature of his work.) As long as this post was, I never got around to Big Daddy, or Carroll Baker in her short nightie in a crib, or Anna Magnani and her tattooed friends, or those hungry little kids that drove Liz Taylor to a shrink. Maybe next time. For now, so long, and remember... kind to strangers. They depend on it.









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