Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tennessee Williams at the Mill of Rubes: THE FUGITIVE KIND

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 all--plays a Christlike (coded queer) guitar-slinging drifter who winds up in a romance with older Italian shop owner Anna Magnani. Together they face a hardened mob of drunken good-old-boy characters whose raging fires are fueled by Anna's bitter, sweaty invalid husband (Victor Jory, practically stealing the movie) spewing vitriol from his upper berth. It's the kind of vehicle the gay drunk genius Tennessee Williams cranked out by the dozen for his muse/avatar, Anna 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 weeping marble Madonna statue in the middle of a rowdy redneck saloon.

Running a general store in this Nowheresville town, scarred by memories of racist mob violence against her late father (for daring serve drinks to colored people at his wine bar), Magnani stays married to racist invalid Jory, who's all dying and sweaty, and strung out on morphine upstairs, for vague reasons (some long term plan of Elektra-style vengeance gone dormant?). Into all this strained soap and free-floating malice walks wandering troubadour Brando, his snakeskin jacket a symbol of his individuality and his handling of his mama guitar as awkward as a lavender honeymoon. He could have hot mess Joanne Woodward (top), who's never seemed sexier, or more alive, or wilder, more intoxicating, rampaging around town in a cute raincoat with wild platinum blonde hair (we're so used to seeing it pulled back with unflattering bangs, that her sudden sex appeal makes her seem like some whole other being), but Brando 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 his snakeskin may as well be a strait-jacket. Get it?

It's that kind of stiltedness that keeps Kind from being an A-shelf Williams, something perhaps partially explained by its having spent two decades buried deep in Williams' desk drawer (where it was called Battle of Angels), before he finally exhumed and reconfigured it into something called Orpheus Descending. What a title! What else is Orpheus gonna do? Orpheus Plateauing - now that would be an original title.

It's easy to forget, now that Freud has fallen into disreputability with many snotty academic circles, but the 50s-60s in (white middle class) America was a swingin' time thanks to Freud and the Kinsey Report. The success of Williams' plays, his bridge game buzzword popularity, was bound up in that, the idea of a truly adult sphere of entertainment (as in mature as well as decadent). A whole generation, home from the war, had picked up all sorts of "ideas" overseas and found they'd outgrown their parents' small town moral hypocrisy, moving wholesale into the post-war 'suburban dream.' It was this demographic that 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-cum-Orpheus out of that desk drawer. Who among us hasn't gone thumbing through old work for inspiration when we've fallen into weary writer's blockage? Still, he should have left the Battle alone, he'd already cherrypicked ideas out of it for other plays anyway.

Furthermore, director Sydney Lumet's shadowy noir style seems way too sober and judgmental for the Dirty South. Lumet could be great with small casts where judgment didn't enter in (as with his masterful Long Day's Journey into Night or Dog Day Afternoon). But it's too easy to cast stones in the backwards county where Fugitive unfolds, to make characters grotesque without any real cause. Elia Kazan, by contrast, had a rootsy respect for the uneducated man, a respect Lumet lacks; even Kazan's most murderous rednecks had dimensions beyond the usual stereotype villainy, but Lumet's lynch mob is just raw undiluted evil, set up for us to throw rocks at, with no awareness of the vicious self-perpetuating irony such throwing engenders.

Most glaring of all the problems though, to my mind, is Brando. He's gorgeous, but he's also the most unconvincing, uncomfortable looking drifter/troubadour since Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar (1954), with which Fugitive would make an apt, if excruciating, lavender double bill. Both concern guitar slinging trouble magnets who hook up with middle-aged super-butch saloon/store owners and wind up in the crosshairs of two-dimensional vicious townsfolk who burn said saloon/store to the ground. Oh my god, it's the same damned movie!

The thing that Johnny gets right though, 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. Musicians are always a little spacey because they're so attuned to the melodic spectrum; their personalities are incomplete without their instruments. Sterling's is just too big a persona to fit into generic guitar-playing drifter outlaw dungarees. Even his crazy generals and anti-semitic war vets have more complexly crosshatched pathos than required in a bearded cipher like Johnny. But Hayden knows one thing: to fade into the landscape as much as possible, to not try to act at all, to dampen his wattage. An even "bigger" actor than Hayden, Brando makes a bad casting choice worse by trying too hard to seem easygoing. Each monologue is practically hung on the wall of the Whitney like an American folk masterwork and I don't mean that as a compliment.

The dialogue wouldn't be bad for a normal writer, but we've already seen this collection of archetypes and deep south incidents before, in better Williams adaptations and better Williams dialogue: Woodward's bleached strumpet was already brilliantly essayed by Carroll Baker in Kazan's Baby Doll and Sue Lyon in Night of IguanaAnna Magnani had already done the horny middle-aged Italian widow in The Rose Tattoo; Ava Gardner stole (and likely improved on) the Magnani role in Iguana; the dying redneck patriarch shivering in the junky morphine prescription heat was done to a turn with breadth and sympathy by Burl Ives in Cat. Jory and his dumb redneck brother have suspicions about our guitar-wearing Brando's orientation, like he's a Skipper who didn't kill himself after he was outed after the big game, but then their jealousy makes no sense. The idea of the virile outside downstairs at the general store, taking over while the local boy fumes, is straight out of Baby Doll or Anthony Franciosa's jealousy over Newman's success in The Long Hot Summer (by Faulkner but similar). But you can't have it both ways, unless you're just ticking off the checklist of Tennessee tropes.

Another main problem in Fugitive, aside from its similarity to these Williams' classics, is that we can't quite believe an Adonis like Brando would be bothering to hang around these stifling swampy Louisiana backwaters in the first place. The beginning indicates he was busted hustling and is trying to go 'straight,' but an actor of Brando's caliber has no business being a mere noble hustler, his teeth are too perfect, his demeanor too polished. He's out of jail, why not split for NYC or SF and hustle there? A gorgeous boy like him could make a fortune or at least find a nice sugar daddy with a comfy duplex, rather than putting up with a vicious mob just so he can get with this frumpy broad Magnani.

Either way, the gay subtext is the only way any of it makes sense. The vicious hatred the town rubes have for anyone wild or different seems a beard for homophobia. Brando's 'crimes' here aren't otherwise great enough to stir the wrath of the town in quite such a vicious, heated way. What the hell is a 'mixed party' anyway, if not code for a pre-Stonewall clandestine club scene? The handful of saints strewn about for contrast, like Maureen Stapleton as a local painter, are talked to by Brando in hushed cobra monotones until they sway before him like hypnotized chickens; surely such a talker could hypnotize hateful rubes into liking him if he wanted to. It's clear Brando's outlaw prefers a firehose crucifixion to any kind of real warts-and-all acceptance.

What Brando's 'fugitive kind' doesn't grasp is that beautiful people only trudge through the Dirty South for a reason. Paul Newman understood that in Sweet Bird of Youth --his cocky rentboy is shanghaiing a drunken Hollywood patroness and her Cadillac so he can rescue his hometown sweetheart from her cliche'd Kingfish-y mayor father --and it works because-- though Newman is in some ways even prettier than Brando--Newman the actor knows the way to seem a realistic local boy is to taint his beauty with cocky, needy cluelessness. When an already-perfect demigod puffs out his chest and struts to impress, he suddenly seems faintly ridiculous, and that's why Newman's performance works where Brando's fails. In refusing to show off and betray the insecure little boy behind the bravado, Marlon never quite 'gives' us anything. He's so wise to his own bullshit he barely says an untrue word, which means he barely says anything, just orates a series of trite poetic monologues of the sort Williams realized early on were best kept in a file drawer.
Streetcar, for another example, 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 able to understand the Williams sawdust mill principle but not to successfully harness it? 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 either. 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 one-note villains or hicks or closets at all. In Streetcar everyone is sympathetic, even the brute Stanley is charismatic, a pagan god and rapist gorilla all in one maybe, but we never forget he is the put-upon party after all, sick to death of Blanche and her joneser high-hattin' and liquor-mooching. We get it. 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 but respectful) 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 he rally 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... when she's around, but for whole stretches of the film she's MIA and we're left with this half-baked, zombie-like romance between Magnani and Brando.

Oh well, even if the tepid romance is just not convincing and whole stretches are formulaic, 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 Williams' other, better adaptations. 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. 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 upon silver screens yet to be... even if for no good reason.


  1. This is a poem. Beautifully written and completely true.

  2. He's a little harder on it than I would have been writing the piece, but bottom line he is right. This film misses the mark on almost all fronts. A disappointing turn from the usually brilliant Williams.


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