Essays · Movies

A Guide to Tennessee Williams

One of America’s most famous playwrights stretched his talents from theater to film and changed the way society discussed sexuality forever.
Streetcar Named Desire
By  · Published on June 19th, 2018

One of America’s most famous playwrights stretched his talents from theater to film and changed the way society discussed sexuality forever.

Tennessee Williams is considered one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. His stories continue to run on stages and play on screens all over the world. The vastness of his oeuvre can be daunting, but this look at his most famous works and his legacy will help you get acquainted with his work or find out something you never knew about him.

Williams was born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, where he adored growing up. His father was a traveling salesman who spent most of his time outside of the house and often having affairs with other women. His mother was quite the opposite, doting over Tennessee and his siblings while preaching the sinful nature of sex. When the family moved to St. Louis, Williams began to write because he hated city life. From there he never stopped.

Early Work

Williams wrote many short stories, plays, and poems in college and after he graduated, but his first real success came from what he considered to be his “memory play,” The Glass Menagerie, in 1944-1945. It tells the story of a family of three, a controlling Southern belle named Amanda, her disabled daughter Laura, and her dreamer son Tom (Williams’s real first name). Amanda desperately tries to find a suitor for her daughter to no avail.

Williams used his mother as the model for Amanda and his sister Rose, who suffered from mental illness all her life, as the inspiration for Laura. Obviously, Williams was a model for the protagonist, Tom. His difficult family dynamic is at full display. The play originally opened in Chicago and then moved to New York where it was a hit on Broadway, beginning Williams’s career.

It wasn’t until 1950 that the play would be adapted for Hollywood. The Glass Menagerie film stars Jane Wyman as Laura, Kirk Douglas as Jim, and Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda. The adaptation skewed away from the attention given to Tom and Amanda on the stage, with more emphasis on Douglas’s character. A happier ending was added, as well, which defeats the purpose of Williams’s original dark play.

Another adaptation was produced in 1973 as a TV movie with Katharine Hepburn as Amanda. Many consider this version to be a more accurate translation, preferred even by Williams himself.

His next play and perhaps his most famous was Streetcar Named Desire, which cemented his fame in 1947. Directed by legendary film and theater director Elia Kazan and starring newcomer Marlon Brando, the play was a smash hit on Broadway. Brando played Stanley, the violent and sexually charged husband of Stella, played by Kim Hunter. They welcome in Stella’s sister, Blanche, an aging Southern belle who just lost her family estate.

Cramped in a sweltering New Orleans apartment, the three characters clash verbally and physically. Williams adored Brando’s performance and his new approach to acting. The playwright had not considered casting a young actor like Brando originally, but after he heard him read, he was sold.

At this point in Williams’s career, he was seeing his only longterm partner Frank Merlo. He may have been an openly gay man in his personal life, but Williams never could write an openly gay character. Tom in The Glass Menagerie was certainly written autobiographically, but Williams was most similar to his coveted character of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Kazan noted that Blanche has William’s “sexual hedonism, restlessness, and love of illusion, as well as his chronic alcoholism.” She’s both attracted and repulsed by Stanley’s overt sexual desire, which Williams struggled with in all of his plays, most likely because of his upbringing full of repression that couldn’t deny his desire for men.

Blanche also brings homosexuality onto the stage unlike ever before by mentioning that her husband had committed suicide because he was gay. Tennesse could safely put himself into a female character like Blanche without the ridicule associated with a gay character at that time, but he didn’t exclude his homosexuality from the play altogether. Even if it hadn’t been explicitly mentioned in the play, Williams’s sexuality influenced the way he wrote about sex in all of his work, but especially A Streetcar Named Desire.

The 1951 film adaptation of Streetcar is just as famous as the play itself and also stars Brando and Hunter in their original roles. As Blanche, Vivien Leigh was cast in her second most famous role, only behind Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. The movie was also directed by Elia Kazan, but he was forced to censor it quite a bit to pass through the Hollywood censorship, including removing a rape scene between Stanley and Blanche.

Williams collaborated with Oscar Saul on the adaptation, but much of his original play had to be cut out. The references to Blanche’s husband’s homosexuality were also deleted. Despite that, the movie won four Oscars, three for acting, as Leigh, Hunter, and Karl Malden all were honored for their performances, but Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Williams was also nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay but lost as well.

A Full-fledged Genius

Williams continued to have plays produced following the success of StreetcarThe Rose Tattoo and Orpheus Descending were also popular on Broadway, but their film adaptations are not as widely remembered. They were renowned in the 1950s, however. Anna Magnani won an Oscar for her leading role in 1955’s The Rose Tattoo and also starred in the 1960 adaptation of Orpheus, renamed for the screen as The Fugitive Kind. Brando returned in another Williams role for the latter film, which also stars Joanne Woodward.

The next huge hit for Williams came with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which ran on Broadway in 1955 directed by Kazan. Just as his plays did previously, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof addresses homosexuality with a story that follows Brick, an aging football star, and his inability to sleep with his wife Margaret. They’re unable to deal with their issues as Big Daddy, the patriarch of the huge Southern family, comes home, in denial that he is dying of cancer. Brick’s homosexual relationship with his best friend Skipper is the cause of his alcoholism and deteriorating relationship with his wife.

The play deals with homophobia in a way never done on stage before, despite Brick not being openly gay in the story. It’s the homosexuality that drives a major conflict in the play and shows that Williams was able to use homosexuality as a driving force in his play without being explicit about it. While many were disappointed that he never wrote an openly gay character, he was able to use his sexuality in his plays in a time when it was illegal to be gay and express it openly. All of his characters, including Brick, feel guilt with their homosexuality, but that was how Williams and other gay men were taught to feel all their lives.

As with Streetcar, the 1958 film adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was heavily censored compared to the stage version. The film’s own star, Paul Newman, expressed his disappointment in the deviation from Williams’s original play. The homosexual theme was lost and a different and ordinary ending was added. Williams also hated the film because of this. He was said to have screamed at people lined up to see the adaptation, “This movie will set the industry back 50 years! Go home!” Probably thanks to the stars of the movie, it is still one of his most famous.

In 1956, Williams collaborated with Kazan again for a screenplay loosely based off of a one-act play he wrote called 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. The film would be called Baby Doll. It follows Lee Meighen and his quest to prove Silva Vacarro is behind an act of arson. He tries to get details out of Silva’s underage wife Baby Doll and seduces her in the process.

Despite the title card stating “Tennessee Williams’s Baby Doll,” Kazan claimed to have written most of it. In truth, Williams had a disdain for Hollywood, understandably so considering all of the work cut out of the film adaptations of his plays. Hollywood was even less tolerant than theater when it came to sex and homosexuality, both major themes in Williams’s writing. Nonetheless, his involvement was emphasized in marketing.

The film created a significant amount of controversy upon release when the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned it for its sexual themes. The church boycotted the movie despite it passing the Motion Picture Code, which had rejected many of Williams’s sexual themes before this. Those involved in the production, including the movie’s star, Carroll Baker. weren’t aware of the controversy that the material would cause. All of the attention led to four Oscar nominations, one of them for Williams, but none were won.

Between 1948 and 1959, Williams had seven plays on Broadway, including those already mentions plus Camino Real, Garden District, and Sweet Bird of Youth.  Sweet Bird of Youth was also adapted for the screen, starring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. It covers sexuality, Southern culture, and misfortunes of Hollywood despite having to take out certain parts of the play to pass the censorship. Page plays Princess, an aging star just as fascinating and tragic as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It should be just as remembered as Williams’s other famous adaptations because it’s his dialogue at its best — terse, poetic, and feisty all at once.

Based on his one-act play of the same name, the 1959 film Suddenly, Last Summer offers a detailed look into the playwright’s life as he traveled to Europe in the 1950s. Like the protagonist Sebastian, played by Montgomery Clift, Williams had affairs with local young men. His repression and guilt are manifested in the movie with a striking ending where Sebastian is eaten alive by the young boys he made advances on before the movie begins.

Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn give powerful performances in the film, as does Clift, who was on a similar downward spiral as Williams towards the end of his career. Addicted to alcohol and pills after a car crash that drastically changed his face, Clift also struggled with his homosexuality, which he tried to repress but never could come to terms with. Williams received a screenplay credit, but he actually had nothing to do with the film.

By the end of the 1950s, Williams had won two Pulitzer Prizes and two New York Drama Critics’ Awards, and his career was at its height.

Downward Spiral

Unfortunately, the streak didn’t last long, and Williams lost his popularity quickly into the 1960s. His last real hit on Broadway was The Night of the Iguana, which premiered in 1961. It’s about a former minister, Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, who after being accused of statutory rape and committed for a “nervous breakdown” works as a tour guide in Mexico.

The play follows Shannon as he leads a new group of tourists, which includes Charlotte, the girl he raped. They wind up at a hotel run by the flamboyant Maxine, who was played by Bette Davis on Broadway, lodging alongside a chaste painter named Hannah and her poet grandfather. The film adaptation released in 1964 was directed by John Huston and stars Richard Burton as Shannon, Ava Gardner as Maxine, Debora Kerr as Hannah, and Lolita‘s Sue Lyon as Charlotte.

After the sudden death of his ex-boyfriend, Fran, in 1963, Williams’s drinking and drug problem became apparent even in his writing. His plays after The Night of the Iguana were terribly received by critics and eventually, all his plays only premiered off-Broadway. His catatonic fits of depression led to him being committed to several institutions in his later life.

Williams desperately tried to recoup his success by becoming a devoted Catholic and continuing to write. He penned his book “Memoirs” in 1975, in which he discusses his sexuality and family life growing up in deep detail — everything but his writing. He opens the book with a beautiful “rumination” that was originally dated to 1939, and it explains Williams and the way he viewed himself better than he ever could in his plays.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Alas for the poor dreamer, who has emerged unarmored from the womb of nature and who has been cast into the world without the indispensable insulation.”

Williams dealt with alcoholism and drug addiction throughout the end of his life, but his death came from choking on a plastic bottle cap in 1983. He requested in his will that his ashes be thrown out to sea like the poet he adored all his life, Hart Crane. His prolonged death and deterioration thanks to substance abuse was a tragedy to theater, literature, and film.

His work was remarkable not just because it challenged the way society viewed sex at the time, but because it was bred from repression and guilt he was conditioned to feel. One can wonder if his work could have ever been as nuanced and subtextual if he had ever been able to write an openly gay character or one that didn’t deal with guilt or punishment because of his sexuality.

Although many in the gay community criticize Williams for that now, it’s important to understand that his work was a stepping stone to the representation of homosexuality that followed. It’s unfair to ask a man who was engrained with shame and guilt towards his sexuality to shamelessly write about his queerness for the world to read.

Despite the criticism Williams received after he died, he influenced many renowned theatre artists that came after him, including gay playwright Tony Kushner. In an interview about how Williams influenced him, Kushner says: “Any courageous writer inspires other people to be courageous. The courage with which Tennessee pursued a completely forbidden subject and made it have a place on stage moves me enormously.”

Williams’s influence is felt throughout the gay community, even outside of entertainment. His social circle in New Orleans bred a huge community of gays that overtook Mardi Gras, which you can see in the documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams.

And Williams’s time with his partner Frank in Key West, Florida, led to the notoriety of the area as a hub for gays. Hundreds of homosexuals flocked to Key West thanks to Williams’s open sexuality during his time there and the area’s liberal reputation. His residency inspired gay magazines to publish pieces on the area, causing a frenzy that has endured long after his death. Even when homophobes violently tried to remove gay men from the area, their place in Key West wasn’t deterred.

Through his plays, films, and even his life, Williams remains an intricate part of American history, especially American LGBTQ+ history, and should be celebrated as such.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_