American smolder

Tennessee Williams Film Collection

Perhaps no playwright has meant as much to this country’s movies as Tennessee Williams, who productively embodied the highest stature of the drama queen and helped authorize the groping transition, from stage to screen, of American sexiness. Williams’ lush, louche atmospheres and jaunty, nervy dialogue seemed just right for that mid-century moment when the movies got hold of him—even if filmed versions of his work did tame and censor the dramatist’s intentions.

Still, as Warner Brothers’ new Tennessee Williams Film Collection reminds us, those movies’ unfading allure owes a lot to Williams’ allowance for the supremacy of performance. Films of his plays bestowed on us some of the most charismatic of the method men: Warren Beatty, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. Here were cinema’s early prototypes of what might be called the American great rakes—Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth—not to mention the primal prowler Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

That film, from 1951, is, of course, the gem of this collection and the fruitful convergence of Williams with director Elia Kazan, a founder of the Actors Studio, and Brando, its most distinguished alumnus. Tellingly, Streetcar’s broadest thematic conflict, between a preening, deluded aristocracy and a grubby, pretense-averse urban working class, echoes tensions between the performance styles of Vivien Leigh as the wilting Southern belle Blanche DuBois and Brando’s magnetic, animalistic Stanley Kowalski. Williams’ resolution, a brutal forced consummation, also said something about the future of film dramaturgy.

The collection also includes, with many useful extras, Baby Doll, The Night of the Iguana and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—an uneven but cumulatively thrilling bunch. Today it’s hard to revel in Williams without some suspicion that his characters, for all their heat and glory, are pitiably melodramatic. In other words, they are Americans.