Monday, December 28, 2009

Tennessee Williams’s Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams was twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Of course he had great source material—his own plays, including the perennial classic A Street Car Named Desire. However, Williams had decidedly mixed record with Hollywood. While there were triumphs like Streetcar, there were also duds like the Robert Redford-Natalie Wood vehicle This Property is Condemned, which so disappointed dramatist, he reportedly tried to remove his name from the credits.

There is also the case of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, an original screenplay written with director Elia Kazan and actress Julie Harris in mind. Though published, Diamond was largely overlooked by Williams scholars until Director Jodie Markell set out to realize it on film. Now over fifty years after it was originally penned, Diamond (trailer here) finally makes it to the big screen this Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.

Fisher Willow prefers hot jazz to sweet bands. After seeing Paris, Memphis is just too staid and narrow-minded for her. Yet she still intends to do her social duty, in order to satisfy her wealthy Aunt Cornelia. The only eligible escort she can stomach though is Jimmy Dobyne, the dirt-poor grandson of a former governor whose drunken father works on the family estate.

While they initially act like it is all business, it is pretty clear Willow did not pick Dobyne in hopes of developing an innocent friendship. Despite the constant embarrassment of his father, Dobyne is a proud man, who chafes in the role of hired man. He also recognizes Willow’s attraction to him, setting in motion conflicts rooted in both social status and amour—in short: classic Williams territory.

Fisher Willow follows proudly in the tradition of great Tennessee Williams heroines. At times she can rightly be called headstrong, shortsighted, and eccentric. However, she is not a bad person. In fact, Williams grants her a capacity for tremendous empathy that we do not necessarily see from a Blanche du Bois. During a particularly ill-fated society party Willow attends with Dobyne in tow, she does indeed lose one of her Aunt’s teardrop earrings. In what constitute Diamond’s strongest scenes, she also encounters the chronically ill Miss Addie, who recognizes a kindred spirit in Willow and takes the story in a deeper, unexpected direction.

Sometimes Williams’s characters show a self-destructive tendency that can test audiences’ patience. Bryce Dallas Howard avoids such pitfalls, making a convincing reluctant Southern belle, while also nicely bringing out the humanity of Williams’s flawed heroine. Chris Evans does not fare as well, leaving only an impression of tiresome pride and petulance as Dobyne. However, Tony and Academy Award winning actress Ellen Burstyn makes much of the relatively small part of Miss Addie, conveying much that Williams certainly implied but left unsaid.

Presented in an evocative package, Diamond is certainly not Kazan’s Streetcar, but it is hardly Condemned either. Characters like Willow and Miss Addie are well worth meeting, even if those orbiting around them are a bit under-developed. Like many of Williams lesser revived plays, it is an intriguing work with some rich moments that provides further insight into the playwright’s canon. It opens Wednesday (12/30) at the Quad.