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11 Greatest Tennessee Williams Performances on Film

by Daniel Walber
March 23, 2011 4:20 AM
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Tennessee Williams, whose 100th birthday is this coming Saturday, is responsible for some of the greatest works of American culture. There's a bit of a Centennial Blogathon going on over at The Film Experience, and we thought we'd join in the fun with a Top 11. His characters are some of the most dynamic ever to appear on the stage, and you can’t really overstate his influence on the theater. It’s no surprise, then, that his plays, adapted to film more frequently and artfully than any other major American playwright, have produced some of the most brilliant performances in cinematic history.

These performances aren't fantastic simply because roles derived from the stage are more showy for actors, though that is generally true. Williams’ examinations of character, if done correctly, are terribly cinematic, and his dialogue is not only challenging but elevating for an actor that rises to the challenge. His association with the founding of the Actors’ Studio also doesn’t hurt, and many of the first generation of method actors cut their chops in film with his plays. The result is a number of intensely memorable performances that continue to haunt and inspire.

11. Ava Gardner as Maxine Faulk in “The Night of the Iguana”

Everyone in this movie does a great job, no doubt about that. Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon and Grayson Hall all bring their A-game, and their eccentric and often tempestuous characters certainly need it. Yet there’s a balance to Gardner that surpasses them all; she manages to anchor the frenetic behavior of the rest of the cast while at the same time staying true to the inner turmoil of her character, still in mourning for her recently deceased husband. It’s a part that could easily fall into cliché, but she keeps it fresh and real, turning out the most nuanced performance in the film.


And here's a better one, with Burton all tied up.


10. Anna Magnani as Lady Torrance in “The Fugitive Kind”

It’s not easy to hold your own against Marlon Brando. Yet the great Anna Magnani could steal the screen from the legendary actor with a single look. Even in the below clip, in which Magnani’s character is at her lowest and is forced to baldly show her desperation, she only needs a solitary moment to remind us of the strength of her character and the complexity of her relationship with the young drifter. It’s a film much richer than “The Rose Tattoo,” which won her an Oscar, and for my money the more powerful performance.

Lady Needs Val
The Fugitive Kind at MOVIECLIPS.com


9. Burl Ives as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

The brazen and over-the-top Southern family that explodes before our eyes in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” could very easily be a histrionic mess, an unwatchable brood of relatives chewing up the scenery. But with a patriarch like Burl Ives, everything falls into place. His bombastic presence is pitch perfect in this film, the necessary keystone to an otherwise wild exploration of jealousy and bitterness. To pretend his Big Daddy doesn’t deserve to be on this list would just be mendacity.


8. Karl Malden as Archie Lee Meighan in “Baby Doll”

Karl Malden’s soft-spoken performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for which he won an Oscar, is certainly his best remembered Tennessee Williams role. Yet it’s in “Baby Doll” that he gets to really shine. Malden brilliantly executes Archie’s combination of gruff manner and personal insecurity, and brings to life the unhinged behavior of a man fighting off financial ruin and tortured by a tumultuous and unconsummated marriage with a much younger woman. He’s despicable but complex, and even at some moments sympathetic; Malden knocks it out of the park.


7. Geraldine Page as Alexandra del Lago in “Sweet Bird of Youth”

Far cry from her previous Tennessee Williams role, the repressed preacher’s daughter of “Summer and Smoke,” Alexandra del Lago’s rough edges and wild glamour are a surprising turn from the often reserved Geraldine Page. Yet she embodies the character of this fading and disillusioned film star to great success, bringing to life her sharp bitterness, lust for life (and youth), and delightfully amoral worldview. It’s certainly one of the best “actor playing an actor” performances on film.


6 & 5. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor as Brick and Maggie the Cat in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

It’s really impossible to separate these two, so violently hinged together are these characters. It seems Elizabeth Taylor is the master of portraying dysfunctional marriages, and while the acerbic relationship of Brick and Maggie is not quite as potent as her later triumph in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Taylor’s work here alongside Newman is absolutely electric. They’re gorgeous, vulnerable, manipulative, cruel, tough, repressed and unstable, and often at precisely the same moment. Few couples on film manage to have such chemistry, and even fewer have such beautiful eyes (rumor has it that’s the reason the studio decided to shoot it in color).


4. Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable in “Suddenly, Last Summer”

Few actresses in the history of cinema have had the screen presence as Katharine Hepburn, and in no film is this strength more evident than this genius adaptation of a one-act play by Joseph Mankiewicz. Her entrance alone is breathtaking, as she descends from the second floor of her aging mansion in an elevator that must have inspired the creators of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” And horror is most certainly her role here, playing the wicked and entirely acrimonious Aunt V who wants nothing more than to purge her late son’s dark secrets by forcing a lobotomy onto her emotionally distressed niece Catherine.


3. Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine Holly in “Suddenly, Last Summer”

Yes, Taylor’s performance in this film makes her worthy of a double mention in this list. I, for one, will never be able to shake the image from my head of Catherine Holly lost in the mental hospital, horrified beyond the pale as she stands looking down on the men’s cafeteria from a catwalk. The sexual tension of the film, never far off from a violent and dark association, and the intensely sinister tone creeping along the edges is more than enough to simply eat up the performance of a less talented actress. Elizabeth Taylor is not that less talented actress.

Unfortunately clips of this film seem to have been purged from the web, but here’s the original trailer:


2. Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Mind-blowing. Yes, we all have fun yelling “STELLAAAAA!” whenever it’s appropriate, but that’s only because of the overwhelming impact this single performance has had on the art of film and stage acting in America. “We are all Brando’s children,” Jack Nicholson has quipped about his craft, and that started right here with the sensual, brutal and magnificent Stanley Kowalski. Brando is thrilling, arousing, intimidating, and simply devastating on just about every possible level. He’s horrible but also irresistible, a force of nature and a paragon of a certain kind of masculinity, to an excessive and violent fault. It is a performance for the ages.


1. Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

And then we come to Vivien Leigh. While Brando’s performance electrifies and wholly occupies the screen, dominating the film internally, Leigh’s Blanche DuBois somehow seems to exist beyond the borders of “Streetcar.” Part of this is certainly because of Scarlett O’Hara; we don’t simply imagine Blanche back at Belle Reve as herself, but our image of the Southern belle before the financial collapse of the family is intimately tied up with Leigh’s other great role. But more than that, this is an otherworldly performance, to effectively oppose the brutal, earthen Kowalski. Blanche’s complete lack of touch with reality is perfectly illustrated, and Leigh’s lilting voice and lost expression lead us out of the film and into her mysterious past. It only helps that we are bereft of real concrete information, forced into fog ourselves as we watch Blanche trying to find something to hold onto. It can’t be Kowalski, or Mitch, or even her sister – she’s too far gone for that, and it seems even the kindness of strangers won’t help. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Vivien Leigh bringing this extraordinary role, one of the greatest of American culture, to life on the silver screen. She’s flawless.



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