A Streetcar Named Desire: Too hot to handle

Sex. Guilt. Fear. Torment. Loneliness. Whatever the taboo, many directors have tried - and most have failed - to adapt to film the essence of Tennessee Williams' plays. Geoffrey Macnab tell us why
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Somehow, Tennessee Williams and the movies have never made a comfortable fit. He is "the laureate of the outcast". His plays deal head-on with guilt, sexual repression and existential torment. They address loneliness and the fear of ageing. In his own poetic way, he wrote about such downbeat subjects as rape, nymphomania and venereal disease. Moreover, his work is intensely claustrophobic. Whether it is the cramped and sweaty New Orleans apartment in A Streetcar Named Desire, or Big Daddy's mansion in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or the secluded, tropical hotel in The Night of the Iguana or the small, southern town in Sweet Bird of Youth, his characters are invariably tightly confined in self-contained locations. There is no breathing space.

What Broadway accepted, cinema audiences of the 1950s and 1960s often regarded as too extreme. "I don't really like screenwriting because of the censorship problem," Williams admitted. "Your subject matter is cut to the bone ... you eventually have to falsify your attitude to life."

On screen, the intensity was invariably lost. Worse, in the name of decency, Williams' work was all too frequently bowdlerised. There are many instances in which Hollywood simply cut out elements in his plays that seemed too risqué. Most notoriously, Richard Brooks' 1958 adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof somehow contrived to overlook the central fact of its hero's homosexuality. Brooks' later film of Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) was almost equally evasive, sparing the audience the horror of its hero's castration. Instead, Paul Newman's handsome gigolo, Chance, has his face ripped open by Boss Finley's son and his thugs. ("Just gonna take away lover boy's meal ticket," says Rip Torn, as he begins to disfigure Newman.)

Even when Williams' work reached the screen more or less intact, it was treated as seditious and amoral. "I felt as if someone had been wiping my forehead with a dirty dishcloth ... the film is a sleazy, sinful mess," complained the Daily Express after seeing Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), which Williams had scripted himself. Williams had toned down the screenplay, about a sexually frustrated middle-aged man and his teenage wife, to placate the censors. Nonetheless, the Legion of Decency condemned the film while US Catholics were warned to avoid it on pain of sin.

Given the furore they so often provoked, it's striking how many Tennessee Williams movies have been made over the years - and in how many different styles. Irving Rapper (best known for melodramas like Now, Voyager and Deception) started the flood with an all-star version of A Glass Menagerie in 1950 that transformed Williams' play into a cornball romance. In subsequent years, such film-makers as Elia Kazan, Richard Brooks, Joseph L Mankiewicz, Sidney Lumet, Joseph Losey and Nicolas Roeg have all brought Williams plays to screen with varying degrees of success.

Paradoxically, arguably the finest screen adaptation of a Williams play is one of the most stagebound. Kazan's 1951 screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire made little attempt to open up the material for the big screen. Kazan had just made Panic in the Streets, a thriller shot vérité-style in New Orleans. At first, he thought that he could approach Streetcar in the same restless, freewheeling way. He hired a screenwriter and set to work padding out the play, concocting scenes that showed the back story: for instance, how Blanche DuBois was thrown out of her home town and how she landed in Stanley Kowalski's apartment.

"I thought we had done a hell of a job," Kazan, who had directed the original stage production in 1947, told historian Jeff Young. "I went for a vacation, came back a week later, read the script again and realised that we had totally messed up."

The play, Kazan eventually realised, was a cast-iron classic. Trying to customise it for the screen was pointless. The more he opened it up, the more he weakened it. He eventually accepted that it made far more sense to preserve the stage production (and Marlon Brando's performance) as if in aspic.

The policy worked brilliantly. More expansive Williams adaptations often feel contrived, but Streetcar benefited from its theatricality. For most of the film, we're stuck inside a cramped New Orleans apartment. "You men with your big, clumsy fingers," Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) chastises Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) early on, when he roughly buttons up her dress. It's one of the many awkward, sexually charged moments between the two characters.

Kazan's screen version of Streetcar may seem like filmed theatre, but on one level, it is also intensely cinematic. The camera's magnifying gaze makes us aware of Blanche's fragility and terror. It also turns Brando, fidgeting and mumbling in his damp T-shirt, into a much more predatory presence than he would appear if you were watching him from the safety of the stalls. He is in our faces, just as he is in hers.

Williams' writing is full of sacred monsters: all those fading southern belles, who are both alluring and grotesque, those narcissistic playboys, gigolos and brutal patriarchs. Perhaps surprisingly, Hollywood actors rushed to play parts that often seemed to hold up distorted mirrors to their own star personalities.

Vivien Leigh, weeks after her divorce from Laurence Olivier, took on the title role in the 1961 film, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. Leigh was at her most vulnerable: aware that her looks were fading; already suffering from the tuberculosis that was going to kill her a few years later.

"Yes, a great lady. Famous in international society, a glamorous woman of the world, Karen Stone also happened to be rich, beautiful and alone. That's a dangerous combination in Rome... in the spring!" ran the publicity for a film which had obvious and uncomfortable parallels with Leigh's life at the time. She plays a lonely actress whose husband has just died and who tries to recapture her youth through an ill-starred affair with a young gigolo (Warren Beatty). There is a melancholy and poignance here, which not even her celebrated, Oscar-winning performance in Streetcar matches. She is not just playing a lonely actress terrified she has lost her bloom: that was her plight too.

Similarly, when Richard Burton gives his rollicking performance as Shannon, the alcoholic, defrocked priest-turned-tourist guide in John Huston's The Night of the Iguana (1964), he can't help but skirt close to self-parody. Shannon is boorish and charming by turns: a hardened boozer and womaniser, with a little-boy-lost quality about him. Off set, Burton (with Elizabeth Taylor in tow), drank as excessively as the character he played in front of camera. "He drank so much at night, the next morning the alcohol literally oozed out of his pores," his co-star, Sue Lyon, later said. "He gave off a terrible odour - playing a scene with him could be most unpleasant."

Ironically, Burton later waxed indignant about Williams' drinking. "I didn't even like the chap," the Welsh actor wrote in his diary after Williams' death in 1983, when he was being summoned to the playwright's memorial service. "As a matter of fact, I hardly ever saw him sober tho' we were together for months. A self-pitying pain in the neck."

Whatever their personal feelings about Williams, Burton and Taylor (who had played "Maggie the Cat" in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) had appeared together in Boom!, Joseph Losey's 1968 adaptation of Williams' play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. Like so many other screen versions of Williams' work, this was roundly panned by the critics. Losey, upset, wrote to Williams to apologise for the "scurrilous, ignorant and personalised" reviews. By then, though, Williams was in decline himself. His plays after The Night of the Iguana grew ever more abstract but ever less successful, and Hollywood showed little interest in bringing them to the screen.

The southern playwright's relations with the Hollywood studios had checkered right from the outset of his writing career, when he was under contract to MGM in the early 1940s and slaving away at never-to-be-produced film projects for Lana Turner. By the late 1960s, the relationship had frayed close to breaking point.

Has there ever been a truly satisfying screen adaptation of a Williams play? Outside Streetcar, maybe not. Nonetheless, Williams has provided a showcase for some searing screen performances. There is the magnificent brutality of Brando in Streetcar, perfectly complemented by Leigh's ultra-fragile Blanche. ("She looks and acts like a destroyed Dresden shepherdess," critic Pauline Kael wrote of her. "She gives one of those rare performances that can truly be said to evoke pity and terror.") Then, there is Geraldine Page's memroable turn as the film star in decline in Sweet Bird of Youth, Paul Newman's great roles as the neglectful husband in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and unhappy gigolo in Sweet Bird, and Burton as the drunken priest.

Williams blithely broached taboos. His plays touch on drug addiction, alcoholism, jealousy and violence. In particular, he was ready to explore sexual behaviour far more frankly than almost any other American writer who preceded him. He once remarked that he was "more interested in creating a character that contains something crippled" than in portraying a conventional hero. "I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person," he said. The censors may have muffled many of the screen versions of his plays, but they could do nothing to stop the best actors from showing these characters at their most exposed and vulnerable.

The Tennessee Williams Film Collection, including 'A Streetcar Named Desire', 'Sweet Bird of Youth', 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof', 'The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone' and 'The Night of the Iguana', has just been released on DVD by Warner Home Video