Tennessee Williams' Leading Ladies

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)(Film still)

As a new production of The Glass Menagerie graces the West End, we look at some of the formidable actresses who took on roles in film adaptations of Tennessee Williams' ever brilliant plays

American playwright Tennessee Williams may have worked primarily in the middling decades of the 20th century, but it’s doubtful that his plays will ever cease to enthrall. Some of his best-known works – A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example – have become mainstays in our culture and education system, a testament to the playwright’s mastery of theme, language and character. The influence of Williams’ plays is not limited to theatre, either: British fashion designer Edward Meadham named his Dover Street Market-based collection Blue Roses after the nickname given to Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, his favourite play. What’s more, a new production of The Glass Menagerie is currently running in the West End to rave reviews (much to the delight of Meadham and many others, we imagine). In light of this, we’ve looked to our favourite film adaptations of Williams’ plays and their fascinating female leads; legendary actresses and complex characters who command attention both on and off screen.

The Glass Menagerie (1951)

The Glass Menagerie was Williams’ first major success in playwriting – the piece that launched his career – so it’s no surprise that, when the first film adaptation came around in 1950, some of the day’s brightest stars were clamouring to be involved: Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead were among the actresses wanting to play the central character of Amanda Wingfield, with Gertrude Lawrence securing the role. Amanda Wingfield is a formidable woman: through the lens of her son’s memory and narration she can come across as somewhat superficial – the frequent allusions to the many ‘gentlemen callers’ of her youth by no means go unnoticed – but her desperation to see her daughter afforded the same privilege she enjoyed, though crucially is struggling to provide for her own children, is also very apparent. While the film was met with mixed reviews (it’s claimed that Williams was not pleased), this version of The Glass Menagerie is significant in that it marks the beginning of a trend that continues to this day: silver screen adaptations of Williams’ brilliant work.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Perhaps Williams’ best-known play, A Streetcar Named Desire has become iconic over the years as a mainstay in literature and film. So successful and critically acclaimed was the 1951 film adaptation that the cast have become almost synonymous with the characters they portrayed: Stanley Kowalski will always take the intensely virile form of Marlon Brando, and one can’t think of Blanche DuBois without also remembering Vivien Leigh’s fractured and compelling performance, for which she won an Academy Award. Williams himself commented that Leigh had given the role “everything that I intended, and much I had never dreamed of”. Blanche’s mental and physical deterioration is at the centre of the film as she stays with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley, where she is a Southern belle mysteriously fallen from grace and the outsider from the start – a decline made all the more harrowing at the uttering of her oft-quoted closing line: “Whoever you are… I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Elizabeth Taylor’s turn as Maggie “the Cat” Pollitt opposite Paul Newman as husband Brick in the 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is wildly intriguing in its mystery and manipulation, just as Williams created the character. Set in the Mississippi family home of wealthy plantation owner Big Daddy Pollitt and wife Big Mama (naturally), the play looks at the Pollitt family as tensions unfold and revelations come to light. Brick broods fantastically throughout the play, as he continues his general practice of ignoring Maggie, instead attending to his latent alcoholism and bad temper, while Maggie’s main concern is securing the family inheritance from Big Daddy. Her ultimate manipulation comes in the form of announcing her ‘pregnancy’ to the family – a statement one and all know to be false, yet becomes convincing on Maggie’s insistence that she will “make the lie true”. Taylor took on the role at an unthinkable period of her life – her husband Mike Todd had been killed in a plane crash weeks before. Yet, Taylor later described how “in a way I became Maggie”, with the portrayal ultimately being “a career high point”.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

One of the female protagonists of Sweet Bird of Youth is veteran movie star Alexandra Del Lago, an actress running away from her perceived failure to re-launch her career, escorted by failed-actor-turned-gigolo Chance Wayne who hopes to profit from her name. For the big screen the roles were played by Geraldine Page and Paul Newman (both of whom had also played to much acclaim on Broadway), with Page gaining an Academy Award nomination. Alexandra is depressed and self-destructive, a stark contrast to Chance’s other love interest Heavenly Finley, who is the very image of purity. While appearing to rely on the attention of Chance for much of the film, it transpires that Alexandra’s return to acting is a wild success – confirmation that she does not, in fact, require Chance’s attention, nor will she let him tarnish her revived stardom.

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

In a departure from Williams’ typical settings of America’s Southern states, The Night of the Iguana takes place mainly in Mexico, at a hotel run by Maxine Faulk, played with exuberant sass by Ava Gardner in the 1964 film. Maxine’s old friend Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) arrives at the hotel, a disgraced reverend now styling himself as a tour guide with an apparent drinking problem and questionable morals (traits that seem to recur in Williams’ characters). Maxine is unfailingly ballsy and commanding; a woman unafraid to do what she wants, especially when she comes up against her exact opposite in the form of Hannah Jelkes, a sweetly enchanting painter who grabs Shannon’s attention. Gardner’s performance as Maxine is pitch perfect and unforgettable, complemented by her sultry face and effortlessly dishevelled-yet-chic style.

The Glass Menagerie runs until April 29, 2017 at Duke of York’s Theatre, London.