Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why Can't They Successfully Adapt Tennessee Williams on Film?

I've been on a great run of film in the past six weeks.  It's essentially been an uninterrupted string of enjoyment.  Usually, I see several less than enjoyable films but no so in July & August.

The least enjoyable film was Night of the Iguana which I saw at the Castro last week.

Night of the Iguana starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr & Sue Lyon; directed by John Huston; (1964)

Night of the Iguana was part of the Castro's John Huston series.  I missed all of the films in the series except Iguana.  I had seen almost all of the films in the series before.  The notable exception is Fat City which I have not seen and was not able to attend.

I am too lazy to search but if I have not written about it before, I am always disappointed in films adapted from Tennessee Williams' works.  I am specifically thinking of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, Suddenly, Last Summer and now Night of the Iguana.  I leave A Streetcar Named Desire off the list because of Brando's ferocious performance.  I will note that Brando first played Stanley Kowalski on Broadway.  In fact, three of the four principal actors from Broadway stage version went to star in the film (Vivien Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy).

Having seen several stage productions of Williams' plays, I can say that Hays Code neutered his films.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire dealt with the impacts of married men having homosexual relationsSuddenly, Last Summer was a little vague about the age of the "young men" but I interpreted the pivotal character to be a pederast and Night of the Iguana dealt with statutory rape.  All his plays (at least the ones I've seen) put sexuality or some deviation of it as the centerpiece.  I chose the word "deviation" purposely because the Williams' plays treat anything other than a heterosexual couple as deviant - deviating from the societal norm and considered unnatural by the mainstream.  These topics were difficult ones to address in the 1950s and 1960s Hollywood but I always wonder why theater audiences could handle it but concomitant movie audiences could not.

That's a long way to say that I prefer stage productions of Williams' work.  I am surprised that 50 to 60 years after their premieres, the subject matter of the plays is still shocking - rape, cannibalism, women's sexuality and men on the "down low" are still provocative.

In true Williams' fashion, I had a few stiff drinks before Night of the Iguana.  Far from a teetotaler, I'm usually stone-cold sober when I go to the movies.  In this case, I went for drinks after work and several Moscow Mules got the better of me.  I can usually have one with no problem and two will instill a mild sense  of euphoria ("a buzz") but as I reconfirmed last week, 3½ is too much to concentrate on a film; especially one as heavy with dialog as Iguana.

The plot is readily available so I will focus more on the performances.  Burton was adequate as the defrocked priest with a weakness for women and alcohol; that's not much a stretch for the Welsh actor if gossip columns are to be believed.  If Burton's Reverend Shannon is the locus, its the women in his orbit who propel the plot.  They run the gamut - the sexually precocious teenager (Lyon), the sexually avaricious hotel owner (Ava Gardner), the sexually chaste painter (Deborah Kerr) and for good measure, a bitchy lesbian (Grayson Hall in a nice performance).

Of the four, Gardner had the juiciest role.  Iguana was Gardner last hurrah as a fully sexualized leading actress.  Coming off 55 Days at Peking and Seven Days in May, Gardner was still making A picture but Huston must have seen what I saw when watching Gardner on screen.  Unlike Rita Hayworth in The Money Trap (which I saw at Noir City earlier this year), Gardner was still an attractive woman.  Hayworth looked used up and worn out in The Money Trap whereas Gardner's Maxine looks hardened by life (which was probably not much of a stretch for the former Mrs. Frank Sinatra).  Gardner drank and smoke to excess.  She was 40 years old during filming; 16 years after The Killers (1946) which is the earliest film I can remember her in.  I can't say how old Gardner looked in Iguana but it was hard to recognize her if one is familiar with The Killers.  Undoubtedly this resonated with audiences of the day and Houston used the difference to the advantage of the film.  Still, there is an unmistakable sexuality to Gardner's Maxine which only a Hollywood Golden Age movie star like Gardner could have pulled off.

Similarly, Kerr was a far sight different than Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity but not so different than Anna in The King and I.  What a shoot that must have been in Puerto Vallarta - both Kerr and Gardner having made films (and more) with Burt Lancaster and Gardner so instrumental in getting Sinatra (her then husband) his Academy Award winning role on From Here to Eternity.  Burton was accompanied by Elizabeth Taylor despite both being married to other people at the time.  Houston's ex-wife was Evelyn Keyes who was with Mike Todd until he dumped her for...Elizabeth Taylor.  The set was like a real-life La Ronde.

I thought the plot had several shortcomings but that may have been the effects of alcohol.  After hitting rock bottom, Shannon is literally restrained and ministered to by Kerr's Hannah with "poppy seed tea" and tales of her modest sex life.  It didn't seem too life altering to me but an evening of that combined with Hannah's grandfather's death makes a new man of Shannon.  He is so grateful that he decides to go into partnership with Maxine.  I couldn't help but think how miserable that relationship would be - an alcoholic defrocked priest with a roving eye (and possible statutory rape charge hanging over his head) and a past-her-prime harpy with a taste for young men.  Far from ideal but they wrapped a bow on it and called it a happy ending.

Although I started the post by saying Night of the Iguana was the least enjoyable film I've seen in several weeks, that is more in praise for the films I have yet to chronicle as opposed to an indictment of Iguana.  I'd be interested in seeing a stage production of Iguana as a point of comparison.  As far as Williams' film adaptations go, Iguana is better than most I've seen.  Also, I'll try to lay off the hard stuff before seeing a Williams film again.

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