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Kirk Douglas and Jane Wyman in ‘Glass Menagerie’ from 1950,

Mr. Movie: Tennessee Williams

Not all stage plays adapt well to the silver screen. Consider the recent out-of-control August: Osage County (2013). 


Tennessee Williams was arguably our greatest playwright. And — what a bonus! — almost all of his wonderful plays adapt really well into movies. It helped that he wrote the screenplay for most of them.


My all-time favorite is the delicate Glass Menagerie. There are many good adaptations, but I like the 1950 the best. Jane Wyman just glows as the shy, beautiful Amanda Wingfield, and Kirk Douglas is superb as the Gentleman Caller. Gertrude Lawrence as the hopeful mother and Arthur Kennedy as the brother are fine as well. I like the slightly upbeat ending better than the darker version in the play.


Marlon Brando became a superstar by yelling “Stella” over and over, and his character just drips macho sex appeal in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Vivian Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter all won Oscars. Brando was nominated, but strangely enough lost to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen. I think Marlon was robbed.


And speaking of sex appeal, you won’t do much better than Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) with Elizabeth Taylor as the sultry Maggie The Cat, and Paul Newman as washed-up athlete Brick. Burl Ives is on hand as the legendary Big Daddy, and Jack Carson is Brick’s brother Gooper. Maggie calls his obnoxious children “little no-neck monsters.” She is right.


Marlon Brando brings method acting to a rolling boil as a rebellious drifter in The Fugitive Kind (1958). This film is somewhat loosely based on Williams’ Orpheus Descending. When asked what he is rebelling against, Brando famously answers “Whatta you got?” Voluptuous Anna Magnani is somehow plugged into this Southern drama, and it works.


Summer And Smoke (1961) has Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey as troubled lovers with different lifestyles, but is fairly low key for a Williams play.


Sweet Bird Of Youth (1962) features Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight and Ed Begley in a romantic drama based on two Williams plays that morphed into one. It had long runs in New York and London; the movie is not the most successful of Williams adaptations.


Suddenly Last Summer (1959) is not for the faint of heart. Elizabeth Taylor is a young Southern woman traumatized by viewing the death of her cousin while they are in Spain. In an extremely questionable attempt to help her, she is given a drug to help her remember the details of his death. Those details involve not only homosexuality, but also cannibalism. She seems to recover (go figure!). This one is definitely not for all tastes.


All of the films in this column are available on DVD.  All are for grown-ups.