Saturday, April 21, 2012
Tennessee Williams at the Mill of Rubes
If a bunch of method-trained NYC actors crashed their bus in the middle of nowhere Louisiana and tried to pass as locals so as to not get lynched, the result might look a lot like The Fugitive Kind (1959). Marlon Brando--radiant, and way too good for it al--plays a Christlike (coded queer) guitar-slinging drifter who winds up in a romance with older Italian shop owner Ann Magnani. Together they face a hard mob of drunken good-old-boys managed by Anna's bitter, sweaty, invalid husband (Victor Jory, practically stealing the movie). In other words it's the kind of vehicle the gay drunk genius Tennessee Williams cranked out by the dozen for his muse/avatar, Magnani, plopping her down in the midst of his usual rentboy deep south fantasias, there to emote and assume postures and be as out of place as a marble Madonna statue in the middle of a leering redneck saloon.
In this outing she's running a general store in this Nowheresville town, scarred by memories of racist mob violence against her father (he dared serve drinks to colored people at his wine bar, so they burnt it down), and yet stays married to racist invalid Jory, dying and sweat-soaked twisted up on morphine upstairs, plotting his vengeance. Into all this strained soapiness walks Brando, his snakeskin jacket a symbol of his individuality and his handling of his guitar as awkward as a lavender honeymoon. He could have hot mess Joanne Woodward (top), who's never seemed sexier, but he prefers glum middle-aged Magnani, thus hinting that his character is not entirely straight. He wants a mother, not a lover. And while he claims to be free, he's so closeted/closed-off that snakeskin may as well be a strait-jacket.
The film's stiltedness is perhaps partially explained by it's being based on a play called Battle of Angels which had been buried in Williams' desk for twenty years before he finally exhumed and reconfigured it into something called Orpheus Descending. The 1950s being the age of pop culture Freud, birth control, and the Kinsey report, Williams' plays were huge hits both with critics and decadent-insight-seeking audiences. Large and intelligent and starved for controversy, they ate Williams up, sparagmos-style. That said, even he'd clearly run out of things to say by the time he dug his old Battle of Angels out of hiding. Who among us hasn't gone thumbing through old work for inspiration? But he should have left the Battle alone. After all, he had already taken the best bits out of it and used them in other plays.
The thing that Johnny gets that Fugitive doesn't is that stock outlaw guitar heroes need to be played by less awesome actors than Brando or Hayden to not seem forced: Sterling is just too big a person to fit into generic guitar playing drifter outlaw dungarees. And Brando is even bigger than Hayden, so why is he trying so hard? Each monologue is practically hung on the wall of the Whitney like an Americana masterwork and I don't mean that as a compliment. The dialogue wouldn't be bad for a normal writer, but this is Williams. We expect to be boggled and we've seen this collection of archetypes and deep south incidents before, in better Williams adaptations: Woodward's nympho bleached blonde was already essayed by Carroll Baker in Baby Doll and Sue Lyon in Night of Iguana. Anna Magnani had already done the horny middle-aged Italian widow in The Rose Tattoo; Ava Gardner stole (and likely improved) the Magnani role in Iguana; the dying redneck husband shivering in the junky morphine prescription heat was done by Burl Ives in Cat; and as usual there's some unspoken homosexual implications, i.e. Jory and his dumb redneck brother have suspicions about our guitar-wearing Brando like he's a Skipper who didn't kill himself after his queerness got de-closeted at his last port of call); the idea of the hunky male downstairs at the general store while the local boy fumes is straight out of Baby Doll's cotton gin envy, or Anthony Franciosa's jealousy over Newman's success in The Long Hot Summer, out the previous year (by Faulkner but similar).
Streetcar was subtler by actually being more histrionic --that's the paradox Fugitive director Sydney Lumet doesn't seem to understand, and maybe wouldn't until Klute eight years later: No one should ever be all the way 'beautiful' and making a Williams play work involves letting an actor become so much themselves that the seams of their persona break and the hideous lonely hunger of their soul comes busting out like taxidermy sawdust. A master of getting sawdust out of his actor's taxidermy persona masks? John Huston, as in his Williams adaptation, Night of the Iguana.
A director unable to understand the Williams sawdust principle? Joseph Loesy in Boom! (1968, above). Here Taylor and Burton merely dump sawdust tonnage upon the stage as if it's a suitable shortcut to brilliance. But of course that doesn't work. The pain has to be real, the sawdust fresh, the stitches in the mask newly ripped, to grab us.
And while sometimes you need a villain-- Karl Malden in Baby Doll, who, like the racists of Fugitive, digs on torching Italian-owned business; or Jack Carson's doltish 'no-neck monster' brood in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or the closeted lesbian stereotypes like Ms. Fellowes in Iguana--when Williams is at his best there's no villains or hicks or closets at all. In Streetcar everyone is sympathetic, even the brute Stanley is charismatic, pagan god and rapist gorilla all in one, and the un-PC-ness flows free. When Williams is done right his monologues are ranted or recited the way we natter on to people we know aren't really listening to us in real life. When Williams is done wrong, as he is in Fugitive Kind, monologues go on while the onscreen listener stands at rapt (i.e. vaguely bored) attention, like at a poetry reading.
All that said, it's still fascinating as a film, just for its Williams laundry list affect. Brando is gorgeous and at least when he does sing and play it's actually his voice and guitar doing it (hearing Brando cautiously sticking to a few lightly brushed chords and singing in a half-whispered croon works only because you wonder if his character really doesn't know how to play and it's just no one's told him because he's so gorgeous). And Woodward lights up the screen as the wild drunk nymphomaniac but she's not around for whole stretches of the film, and we're left with this half-baked, zombie-like romance between Magnani and Brando.
This tepid romance is just not convincing and whole stretches are formulaic, but if you're a Williams, Brando, or Lumet fan (and you should be all three), you need to see this movie, if for no other reason than to unlock the joys and motivations of the other, better films. Somehow seeing a genius faltering backwards into amateurishness makes his great work all the more noble. There's a great fountain of truth and enthusiastic idealism one can drink from when indulging amateurishness: the amateur's inability to dilute his poetry's potency in the minutiae of realism is like watching a clumsy magician give his tricks away, i.e. it's fun on a whole other level than intended. The poetry is still fresh and raw, so you can feel the rush the author felt while writing it, his swooning in drunken euphoria over a late night typewriter. Such a euphoria can help us all find the courage to become alcoholic titans, to write into existence the scalpels that will tear open future actor's masks so they might sprinkle the sawdust of the soul large upon stage floor silver screens yet to be.