The steamy seductiveness of Tennessee Williams movies
What movies are better suited for those sweltering dog days of August than Tennessee Williams films? Set in humid locations—the American South, Mexico, Italy—everyone’s naturally breaking out into a sweat, with the sexual tensions percolating beneath the surface adding to the rising temperature. Even when Hollywood censored the films, as regularly happened when Williams’ plays made the transition to the silver screen in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no escaping the steamy climate generated by characters ruled by the force of their untamed appetites.
Studios initially considered A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) far too problematic to make into a film. The adaptation toned down major areas of contention, as in Blanche DuBois’ (Vivien Leigh) discreet explanation of her sexual excesses, as simply “meetings with strangers … all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with.” There could be no reference to her former husband being gay; he was instead described as having “a nervousness, a tenderness,” and consumed by a desire to write poetry (an explanation that bemused Leigh, who’d also played Blanche on stage in England: “I’m disgusted with him because he’s a poet?”).
Direction Elia Kazan filmed Blanche’s rape metaphorically, as the brutish Stanley (Marlon Brando, in a tight t-shirt always on the verge of being torn open) advances on her. Blanche smashes a mirror with a bottle, the broken wreckage both indicating the violence of the act, and the shattering of Blanche’s fragile mental state. And the film provided a more upbeat ending; unlike in the play, Stella decides to leave her husband after he assaults her sister.
But it turned out to be the Catholic Legion of Decency who would have the final cut. Fear of getting a “C” (“Condemned”) rating from the watchdog group, the studio rushed to make a number of cuts and revisions, to Kazan’s dismay. Some edits seem relatively minor. When Blanche tells the pretty young newspaper boy, “I want to kiss you, just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth,” they only excised the words “on the mouth”. Even the love between a husband and wife couldn’t be too carnal. After Stanley has shrieked for his “Stella!” his wife (Kim Stanley) saunters down the stairs with a look so lustful, Kazan had to re-edit the sequence and set to a new score so it wouldn’t be too salacious. They later restored film’s original edit.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Suppression—sexual and otherwise—is well suited to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), a story that revolves around secrets and lies. Sexual frustration is apparent in the very first scene between Maggie “the Cat” (Elizabeth Taylor) and Brick (Paul Newman), their childless marriage pitted against the fecund union of Brick’s brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and his wife Mae (a shrill Madeleine Sherwood). Maggie prowls around Brick in the room they share while visiting Brick’s father for his birthday (the fearsome “Big Daddy,” played with blustering perfection by Burl Ives), unable to conceal her agitation, stroking his chest, stripping to her slip, desperate to provoke a response from him.
Brick’s relationship with his dead friend Skipper has come between husband and wife. “Skipper is dead. I’m alive!” Maggie pleads at one point. “Maggie the Cat is alive!” The play made explicit the possible nature of that relationship, with Brick outraged that his relatives think he and Skipper were “queers” and “fairies.” But the movie, with such bluntness impossible, forces the characters to talk around the touchy subject. “You were quite a team, you and Skipper,” Big Daddy’s doctor blithely observes. Brick accuses Maggie of dragging the friendship “through the gutter! Making it shameful and filthy!” without ever naming what “it” is. In the most melodramatic touch, when Big Daddy states, “You started drinkin’ with your friend Skipper’s death!” an ominous roar of thunder follows his proclamation.
“Why won’t you face the truth just once?” Maggie demands of her husband at another point. “About Skipper, about me, about yourself?” But ironically, in a film about the perils of “mendacity,” this was one truth that it couldn’t face. “You won’t live with mendacity?” Big Daddy exclaims to Brick. “You’re an expert at it!” And the screenplay was equally adept at avoiding the issue. But there was no avoiding the seething passions roiling the household, even though the film leaves some truths hanging, unresolved.
Suddenly, Last Summer
The TL/DR version of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) is: it’s a freak show. Williams’ friend Gore Vidal fleshed out his short one-act play for the screen, turned into high gothic horror and plunging into outright decadence with abandon.
The story is a mystery being unraveled, shot in black and white for an even starker effect. What led to the mysterious death of the poet Sebastian Venable? Why did it leave his cousin Cathy (Elizabeth Taylor) so traumatized that she can’t recall what happened? And why does Sebastian’s wealthy mother Violet (a deliciously villainous Katharine Hepburn) want to rush Cathy into having a lobotomy so that she’ll never remember?
With Cathy having no memory, and Violet being deliberately evasive, you have to pick up on the clues scattered along the way about Sebastian’s character. His study has a large painting of a naked man, and Cathy’s brother sniggers at the idea that Sebastian might have had a romantic interest in his sister. And remember, he’s a poet. Sebastian and his mother, we learn, traveled the world together (“We were a famous couple,” his mother proudly notes of her quasi-incestuous relationship with her son), Violet’s caustic wit drawing men to her—for Sebastian’s benefit.
Cathy remembers enough to know why Sebastian brought her along on his last trip, instead of his mother. “We were decoys,” she tells the attentive Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift). “For Sebastian. He used us as bait. And when she was no longer able to lure the better fish into the net, he let her go.” “Bait? For what? What were the better fish?” asks a befuddled Cukrowicz. Cathy spells it out for him, at least as much as you could do in 1959: “We would procure for him!” As the film’s trailer helpfully notes, “Cathy Knew She Was Being Used For Something Evil!”
The evasiveness was deliberate. “My script was perfectly explicit,” Vidal told Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet. “And then the Catholic Church struck.” But the Legion of Decency decided that it would allow indirect references to homosexuality: “Since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.”
And it certainly provides those horrors. Cathy’s recitation as she finally recalls Sebastian’s grisly death is simply astonishing, her face initially center screen, then moving to the lower right corner as the flashbacks increasingly dominate the action. It’s the only time we see Sebastian, a figure in white with a never-shown face. With growing alarm, Cathy recounts how the Spanish street urchins Sebastian had toyed with suddenly decided to become the aggressors. They chase Sebastian through the streets, corner him, and literally rip him to shreds in front of her, his flesh then stuffed into the “gobbling mouths” of his attackers. Cathy’s anguish erupts in an unearthly scream. Seeking to bury the truth has only made the cathartic moment of revelation that much more explosive.
Sweet Bird of Youth
By the 1960s, film censorship codes were easing up. Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) is open about failed actor Chance Wayne’s (Paul Newman) fallback career as a hustler. “To older women, I gave back a feeling of excitement and youth,” he muses to his latest pickup, actress Alexandra del Lago (Geraldine Page), who fears her own career is in decline. “To sad and lost women, a merciful display of affection and temporary hope. Eccentrics? Understanding tolerance.” Chance hopes that his liaison with Alexandra will be his ticket to the big time, but the savvy actress knows he’ll always be small potatoes. “In a few years, you will be through with your good looks,” she tells him bluntly. “And I will be through with you.”
The film is a heady mix of sex, the allure of fame, and, unexpectedly, politics. In a subplot that resonates even stronger today, Chance has returned to his Florida home town in hopes of taking up with his erstwhile sweetheart, Heavenly (Shirley Knight), only to find her under the thumb of her powerful father, political big wig “Boss” Finley (Ed Begley, who won an Oscar for his brash performance). While watching a filmed report on Finley’s underhanded tactics, one of his entourage gasps, “How can a Christian TV network tolerate those filthy black lies? Why they oughta be horsewhipped and shot.”
When authorities finger Finley’s son Tom (Rip Torn) with vandalizing a political opponent’s house, Finley’s only bothered that they didn’t take care to wear white hoods; “That way the Ku Klux Klan would’ve got the blame for it.” And after Tom’s aggressive behavior results in a rally ending in a brawl, Finley is quick to deflect, in dialogue that’s ripped from the headlines: “What riot? I’m only aware that decent loyal Americans were defending freedom of speech—which I have yet to receive the benefit of!”
Though Chance’s need to make good is rooted in his love for Heavenly, it’s his repartee with Alexandra that gives Sweet Bird of Youth its spark. “I may have done better, but God knows I have done worse,” Alexandra languidly observes, as she emerges from an alcoholic daze in the morning and dons her glasses to scrutinize her latest boy toy. Chance plays up to her interest, doffing his shirt and displaying a nice set of abs.
The play doesn’t allow Chance his salvation. Alexandra dumps him when she learns her new film is a hit. Heavenly’s brother, angered that her affair with Chance led to her contracting venereal disease and becoming sterile, takes his revenge and has Chance castrated, thus ending his career as a gigolo. In the movie, Heavenly’s ailment becomes an unplanned pregnancy and an abortion. But the disfigurement could not happen. Sebastian Venable eaten by street urchins, yes; a hetero hustler getting castrated, no.
The film does hint at the crueler fate. Boss Finley takes pleasure in telling Chance about the dog he had neutered, and Alexandra urges Chance to leave town before “they cut the life out of you.” In a nicely staged moment of horror, Tom has Chance held spread-eagled on a car like a sacrifice, before bashing him in the face. For all the film’s sexual freedom, it still had to punish transgressions. But, also unlike the play, Chance and Heavenly do leave town together, giving the ending a small measure of hope.
The Night of the Iguana
The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (a perennially disheveled Richard Burton) fares better in The Night of the Iguana (1964). Shannon’s church has kicked him out over his penchant for young women, and he’s now reduced to leading tours of Mexico for a third-rate company. His current charges include Charlotte, a hot-to-trot teenager (Sue Lyon, fresh from Lolita), and her eagle-eyed chaperone, Judith Fellowes (a subliminally Sapphic Grayson Hall).
Seeking refuge from this combustible mix, he retreats to a hotel outside Puerto Vallarta—not then a big tourist destination—run by the recently-widowed Maxine (played with lusty good spirits by Ava Gardner). Maxine soothes her grief by cavorting in the sea with her youthful employees, two beach boys, clad in nothing but tight white trousers and forever shaking their maracas.
There’s no need for a heavy-handed thunderclap on this outing; Maxine openly taunts about Judith about her sexual proclivities, though Judith nonetheless remains oblivious about her underlying motivations. Shannon tells Maxine to knock it off: “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever found out the truth about herself, it would destroy her.” More circumspectly, unlike in the play, Shannon doesn’t consummate his relationship with young Charlotte.
A truly moral person, one who’s not afraid to look truth in the eye, arrives in the person of quick-sketch artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her doddering grandfather (Cyril Delevanti). Hannah’s asexual state baffles Shannon; when she tells him “There are worse things than chastity, Mr. Shannon,” he’s quick to reply, “Yes, lunacy and death.” But he’s drawn to her imperturbable, non-judgmental nature; she has the inner peace he’s never been able to attain. When they lash the suicidal Shannon into a hammock, Hannah soothes him with poppyseed tea. Over the course of the evening, he learns that he can bear his demons, if not overcome them entirely.
The morning brings reconciliation, and this time, the film doesn’t need to tack on a happy ending. Hannah’s grandfather dies, leaving her free to pursue her own life. Shannon agrees to stay on, running the hotel with Maxine. Everyone emerges with their psyches and body parts intact. In Williams’ work, telltale emotions invariably burst to the surface. Those who set them free and face the truth, as Maggie the Cat urges her husband to do, ultimately find relief. But it’s the struggle to get there, those long nights of the soul, that still captures our interest.