Head On Back to Tennessee (Williams)

Lately, people have been talking about their binges of watching Breaking Bad. I’ve never seen a minute of it. Instead, here’s my binge-lite story.

I recently saw Blue Jasmine and liked Woody Allen’s reworking of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Having seen the play at least twice, I could pick up on the references. Last night I went back to the cultural output of Williams himself with The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, with Ava Gardner and teen hottie Sue Lyon melting the DVD with fine support from Richard Burton.

This marked yet another checkmark on my list of Tennessee Williams’ plays and movies I’ve seen. Over the last six months, I’ve done my own slow-mo binge watching of his films and found them all riveting. I didn’t set out to do this; the works just crept up on me like a sinuous southern vine wrapping itself around my Netflix list and, with a drawl and flirtatious glance, beckoning me to abandon myself.

The addiction must have begun in my early years, as so many addictions do, when I saw a high school or college production of The Glass Menagerie. I’ll pay it the highest compliment I can for a literary work: I remembered part of it almost verbatim, the lines that say,

“The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.”

The current Williams kick began about six months ago when I pulled Suddenly, Last Summer off the shelf of my local library, mostly because I was going through an Elizabeth Taylor movie binge. While I didn’t know what to expect, I was familiar with the iconic beach photo of La Liz, with her wind-tossed hair and tight one-piece swimsuit.

What a treat awaited me! The film’s over-the-top Southern atmosphere (always appealing to me) with high-voltage performances by Taylor and Katherine Hepburn, haunted by the mysterious death of Hepburn’s son on a European vacation, drew me in. Mental illness, asylums, lust-crazed patients, the final confrontation that explains everything and plenty of shrieking and emoting by Taylor made the movie appealing.

I checked out other movies as some buzzer went off in my head in response to external stimuli. When Scarlett Johansson played Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, I decided to see the original film with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. This was one of those plays and movies I had always heard about but never seen. The title and general outline are so much a part of American culture that I had a sense of deja vue—like I had seen it, but I really hadn’t. And as I did see it, I felt I wasn’t seeing what I expected. Taylor delivered all the voluptuousness I expected, but the undercurrent of childlessness deeply moved me, as her yearnings collided with her husband’s drinking and unspoken feelings about a friend’s suicide.

Night of the Iguana took the basic elements of regret, alcohol, confusion, male dissolution and repressed female yearnings in a Mexican setting, with Richard Burton the fallen minister leading a tour group from a Texas Baptist college on a tour of Mexico. He’s got a troubling penchant for young women, and Carroll Baker steps smartly into the role to show that you don’t have to be unclothed to be steamy.

She soon leaves the stage as Ava Gardner’s Maxine, a hotel proprietor, takes the stage. I had never seen Ava Gardner in a movie before, and let’s say she made a big impression with her tousled hair, forward style and glimpses of longing and vulnerability. She plays off another female character, Deborah Kerr, as a hotel guest. I had to chuckle at the scene where Gardner romps in the Mexican surf with two shirtless Mexican houseboys at her hotel – the scene reminded me of Kerr’s aquatic embrace with Burt Lancaster in the Hawaiian surf 11 years earlier in From Here to Eternity.

Iguana rolls to an explosive end (typical for Williams material) with Burton trussed up in a hammock as he roars through his alcohol addiction. The romantic hopes and tangles sort themselves out and the movie concludes with a tentatively hopeful note.

I’m already looking forward to the next entries in my Williamsfest s drawn from this best-of list – Baby Doll, Summer and Smoke, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. I may not score many points in the pop-culture department, but I know what I like when I see it. Call it the writing, the late 50s-early 60s acting style, the Southern settings – whatever it is, I’m ready to curl up with some more Williams. And based on what I’ve seen, I’m going to spin off into more of Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner.

Leave a Reply