Tennessee Williams at the Movies
Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire
According to New Yorker drama critic John Lahr, Tennessee Williams’ playwriting ran contrary to Hollywood’s version of America as a land “where right and wrong were clear, progress was certain, and goodness prevailed.” Lahr’s extensive biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton), focuses on Williams’ work in the theater, and the ways in which his plays were emotional if not usually factual autobiographies.
Some pages are devoted to the plays filmed by Hollywood, starting with The Glass Menagerie (1950). The emotional-sexual tangles of Williams’ characters, and what Lahr calls his romantic pessimism, were rough sailing against Hollywood’s strict Production Code. The censors smelled incest in Glass Menagerie’s story of a troubled family, a charge that incensed Williams.
With A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Williams had an ally in director Elia Kazan, who had helmed the play in New York. Rejecting the Production Code Authority’s condemnation of the screenplay as “sordid and morbid,” Kazan argued that the story was “completely moral…It ran two years and family after family came to see it.” The censors especially objected to the rape scene, which had made the play a sensation on Broadway. Kazan and Williams balked at cutting it.
But a creative way around the problem was found. Kazan’s brilliant staging and editing mollified writer and censor; his crosscutting and close-ups “conveyed the idea of rape without actually showing it.” The film might also have improved the play by empowering the abused wife at the story’s conclusion.
Although Lahr doesn’t explore the cinematic legacy in depth, the characters Williams created that continue to haunt the popular imagination became familiar more from their film adaptations than their stage productions.