The Fugitive Kind: When Sidney Went to Tennessee

<i>The Fugitive Kind:</i> When Sidney Went to Tennessee

In the late 1940s, driven by the opening-night ovations for A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams embarked on more than a decade of immense success. During this period, he wrote at a furious pace: Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana—a list that carries us from 1948 to 1961, with motion pictures made of everything except Camino Real, and one screen original, Baby Doll. Yet despite his triumphs, nothing could shake his inner certainty—call it dread—that he deserved disaster and ignominy. (Those things would come, if he was patient.)

Over and above the reviews and praise, this was also the era in which Williams became a rich man, a household name, and the apparent owner of a gothic, nightmarish South (which coincided, oddly, with the dawning of the civil rights movement). He was attended to, he was given prizes, he was esteemed, no matter that onstage he had a brave instinct for depicting fineness and creative passion as fugitive urges hounded and destroyed by an unkind world. And so the more Blanche DuBois was led away, the more securely “Tennessee” existed. But in that halcyon period, Orpheus Descending was the one portent of fall and dismay to which Williams clung. So it is the distress signal that may still alert us to one of the best films made from Williams’s material—The Fugitive Kind.

It was in 1940, in New York, that Williams, not quite thirty, had written a play called Battle of Angels, the outline of which is very close to that of Orpheus Descending and The Fugitive Kind: a small Mississippi town; a storekeeper dying of cancer; his frustrated wife, Myra; a roaming visitor to the town, Val Xavier; a love affair between Val and Myra; and a mob that murders Val for the threat of life he brings. The Theatre Guild elected to produce the play, with movie actress Miriam Hopkins as Myra. Williams was not happy with his own text; he was not happy with anything. The play went to Boston first, where, despite some good reviews, it closed because of local fears of indecency and the guild’s belief that it was not working. The production never reached New York.

Over the next seventeen years, during the riot of his success, Williams returned to the play time and again, and eventually renamed it Orpheus Descending; he now employed the Orpheus myth to stand for the angelic Val’s fall to earth in a shabby town. It was Williams’s hope that Anna Magnani would play the wife. He had met her in Italy in the early fifties and been swept away by her impulsiveness. In his Memoirs, he would write, “I often wonder how Anna Magnani managed to live within society and yet to remain so free of its conventions.”

Williams was delighted to see Magnani win an Oscar for her portrayal of Serafina in the movie of his play The Rose Tattoo (which he had written for her), and he recommended her for Orpheus Descending. She might not be from the American South, he said, but she was from the Italian south. (In fact, she encouraged the idea that she had been born in Alexandria, Egypt, though in truth she was from Rome.) Magnani was interested in Orpheus Descending but uncertain—she feared her English was not good enough, and she wanted Marlon Brando to be her Val. That never worked out, and Magnani refused to commit to appear in the play for more than two months. Its producers felt sure that would be insufficient.

So Orpheus Descending opened in New York on March 21, 1957, with Harold Clurman directing. Maureen Stapleton was the wife (now named Lady Torrance), Cliff Robertson was Val Xavier (replacing Robert Loggia after the Philadelphia previews), and Lois Smith was Carol Cutrere, the local lewd vagrant. It ran for two months and was generally disparaged by the critics. This was a new experience for Williams, albeit the thing he had secretly waited for—failure. Shortly afterward, the English theater critic Kenneth Tynan was in New York, and Williams felt that Tynan ducked seeing him—the world had turned, he was himself now an outcast.

Well, not quite. Within the space of a year, the idea arose to film Orpheus Descending—this time with Magnani and Brando—and Williams was eager to write the screenplay, along with Meade Roberts, a television writer with a growing reputation. The director would be Sidney Lumet, who had made one of the great debuts of the day with 12 Angry Men (1957). That adaptation, from a teleplay by Reginald Rose, was a model of unfettered “naturalism,” taking place in continuous time in a cramped jury room, as the twelve men argue out a verdict in what seems like a clear case.

Lumet had been a child actor and then a director of live television. To this day, it’s fair to hail him as a leading American realist: from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon, from The Verdict to Q&A, Lumet shows us what happens as clearly as possible. He is a master of complex working situations, of limited time and space, of plot intrigue, of real-life settings and natural drama. Fantasy, expressionism, the deliberate splash of poetry are seldom felt in his pictures; it’s easy to see in hindsight that people lost in love are not his favorite subject. And so Lumet asked Boris Kaufman (the cameraman on 12 Angry Men—and On the Waterfront) to do The Fugitive Kind, in a harsh black and white that looked like life. But Lumet knew that the Williams material used the grittiness of reality as camouflage for a high-flown poetic symbolism. He asked designer Richard Sylbert to add light and dark to the decor, and he urged Kaufman toward a more theatrical level of lighting.

The Fugitive Kind is not talked about too much today, but it was a big production for its time. To start with, Brando had won a contract of one million dollars to do the picture. Next, the teaming with Magnani was hailed as a bold chemical experiment—though the talk only made Magnani more nervous. As for Brando, his life was full of troubles: he had a bitter child custody suit pending with his wife, Anna Kashfi. As a further distraction, he had to fly back to Los Angeles from the East Coast on weekends to help with postproduction on what would prove to be his only directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks.

It was not a happy shoot. At the first read-through, the lead actors lost all confidence and started whispering their bold lines so they couldn’t be heard. Rumors had it that Magnani (fifty-one at the time) assumed in advance that there would be a sexual encounter with Brando (thirty-six), and when that failed to materialize, she became aggressive and insecure; and that Brando believed she refrained from washing to goad him. Magnani felt that her costar was lovelier than she could ever be, it was said, so she resorted to wearing scarves on her head and begged Kaufman for a softer look—something he was opposed to in a doctrinaire way, for he was the brother of Soviet director Denis Kaufman (a.k.a. Dziga Vertov) and the trusted eye of Jean Vigo, the great French director (L’atalante).

The location was Milton, New York, up the Hudson near Poughkeepsie, but the small town was mobbed with kids, eager for a glimpse of Brando. He and Joanne Woodward did not get along, for reasons never made clear. And there was a further problem: Maureen Stapleton—the star of the stage production—had been offered the supporting role of Vee Talbot in the film, so Magnani had to work under the eye of the role’s expert. According to Brando biographer Peter Manso, Williams would ask Stapleton how they had done a thing onstage, and the good-natured actress would admit tactfully, “You know, I can’t remember, Ten.” On one occasion, in a scene with Brando, as he paused without quite cuing her, Stapleton said, “Marlon, you’re a genius, I’m not. While you’re waiting, I don’t know what to do.” Meanwhile, Lumet noted, Brando would test him early on by offering two takes of each scene—one okay, technically exact; one untidy but heartfelt, brilliant—and waiting to see which way the director would go.

In the end, Lumet (still a novice) won Brando’s trust. There was a challenging scene, Val’s bird monologue, that entailed unusual difficulties. In his book Making Movies, Lumet recounts the two and a half hours they spent on it, the repeated problem Brando had remembering his lines, and the technical obstacles. It was 5:30. They went into overtime. “We could break,” said Lumet, “and nail it tomorrow, but I feel you need to get it tonight.” Brando agreed. They worked on until, finally, the shot was delivered.

But movies are not just the sum of the stories that can be told about their shooting. The Fugitive Kind was unlike other films, and it was something Lumet had never tried before: a portrait of small-town meanness in which the outward action was to be fired by internal demons. In that sense, it was not too far from the wasteland of Psycho, which was filmed at the same time.

Is Psycho a crime story from local papers (like In Cold Blood) or is it a movie that stirs at dysfunction in America? In the same spirit, The Fugitive Kind is true to the stark paranoia in Williams, minus the lush color and starry glory that marked the films of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth. Those hit movies look so much less now than Streetcar, Baby Doll, and The Fugitive Kind.

This is a mood picture, where, if you pay close attention, you can feel the lights come up and fade away to match the eloquence of the speeches. You can see the decor giving an emotional or spiritual force to the text. And you begin to hear Brando’s shy lyricism rising in the long speeches—this Orpheus in a snakeskin jacket sings. Woodward gives one of the least guarded performances of her odd career. And Magnani looks like a great sensualist terrified of getting her last chance. There’s no question that Magnani could do too much, but Lumet restrains her here and urges his cameraman to trust her tragic face and wounded voice. It was not often in this era that an actress shared the screen with Brando—so many were erased by his light. Lumet began by using markedly different lenses on the two leads, but as the film progressed, he let Magnani have more and more long-lens close-ups to match Brando’s. And so we feel their relationship growing in the most natural way.

No one went to see the movie in 1960. It got no nominations at Oscar time. It lost a fortune. But it may be one of the most intriguing Tennessee Williams pictures, in that we are asked to weigh and consider the faults of its provincial society. It is about time we yielded our trust in box office, the Academy, and journalistic critics as measures of quality. We have to see the pictures for ourselves. In which case, it’s natural enough to notice that The Fugitive Kind is only two films before Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, another study of the light fading in a small town.

This piece was originally written for the Criterion Collection in 2010.

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