Saturday, January 28, 2012

Three Women on Tennessee Williams

Find The Loss of  a Teardrop Diamond on Video

Three Women on Tennessee Williams

(from brinkzine.com 12/27/09)

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A film made from a rediscovered original screenplay by Tennessee Williams should be cause for celebration or at least curiosity and excitement, so I hope The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, a small movie, doesnt get lost among the year-end blockbusters. It is lovingly and loyally-directed by a bona fide Williams aficionada, theatrical actress Jodie Markell, who is making her feature debut. It features a powerhouse lead performance by emerging star Bryce Dallas Howard (yes, Ron's daughter is a talent) that is as good or better than those that will be receiving award nominations in the next couple of months. And it presents a female, Fisher Willow ( a role originally intended for Julie Harris), who takes her place with Williams' quintessential strong but fragile, out-of-step heroines. The film is set in Memphis in the early twenties. Fisher is a headstrong, shaky young heiress who rebels against societal constraints by asking Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), the son of her father's impoverished caretaker, to escort her to a ball and party, to which she wears, to the dismay of her Aunt Cecilia (Ann-Margret), expensive diamond earrings. On her dates, she falls for Jimmy, she loses an earring, she nearly loses her pride and her sanity, and she does a big favor for the suicidal, bed-ridden Addie (Ellen Burstyn). The film opens in New York Wednesday, so seek it out. I took part in the following roundtables with Jodie Markell, Bryce Dallas Howard, and, a big thrill, Ellen Burstyn. I note my questions.
Roundtable with Jodie MarkellDanny Peary: More things happen in the film than Fisher losing Cornelia's expensive diamond earring at the party. So the title must be more than about the loss of a diamond, and have a metaphoric meaning as well.
Jodie Markell: Fisher's losing the teardrop diamond is a plot point, but that's not what this film is about. Somebody said it is a movie about a teardrop diamond before they'd seen it, and I say Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not about a cat and A Streetcar Named Desire is not about a streetcar. Tennessee Williams liked to use metaphors. He was poet and said said, "I put poetry my dramas, I put poetry in my screenplays, I put poetry in my short stories." He wrote in the language of the heart and everything he wrote was about loss, so all of that is there in this story. We talked about the title. I love it because it's so lyrical and it wraps up everything--the loss of innocence, the loss of too much wealth that was almost suffocating. You can just dream on that title forever. Williams was a master at giving you stuff to dream on.
Q: When did you first discover Williams?
Jodie Markell: Well, I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was from, and when I was fifteen I played Laura in The Glass Menagerie. I was smitten with him and by the time I was seventeen I'd read everything else I could find. I felt an affinity for these people who were on the outside, who sometimes are too sensitive in a harsh world. All the great Williams films had a big influence on me--Streetcar, The Fugitive Kind, Baby Doll, which was my favorite.
Danny Peary: In Baby Doll the Old South is looked on as being honorable and the New South is kind of decadent, represented by Eli Wallach's character. But isn't it reversed in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond?
JM: I think Williams was really interested in that transition of the South, which was why he placed this in the 1920s, when you were feeling the fight between the old and the new. He felt that the New South was pragmatic and there was avarice and mendacity. In regard to the Old South, which is represented by Fisher's aunt Cornelia, I feel he was dealing with the grace, and perhaps the culture, that was lost. I don't think he ever thought the Old South or New South was better. But again, he was interested in loss. In particular he was interested in how the Old South was brought down, what vices and greed brought it down. He wanted to explore that. I asked each of the actors, "How did your character deal with this transition?" And you can see that each character is on a different journey with it. Fisher is trying to find how to make her way in this world. So is Jimmy. They're both looking for something real. Jimmy's parents are just being squashed by this transition. They didn't make it. Fisher's father killed some people and stole property and ruined other people's lives, but he's doing well in the New South. It's up to the young people to start something new and different.
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DP: Why do you think Williams named his heroine Fisher?
JM: Down there, a lot of people name their children with the last name of someone in their family. Her aunt is Cornelia Fisher.
DP: Early on, when Fisher arranges for the poor Jimmy to escort her to events, it's hard to tell if she loves him. Is there a moment when Fisher falls in love with Jimmy?
JM: We had about five days of rehearsal before we started shooting, which is unheard of on an independent film, especially when we had just twenty-eight days to shoot. During the rehearsal process, we talked a lot about that. She's not in love with him when she proposes the arrangement where he becomes her escort. It's not just one moment when she falls for him, it happens slowly. You start to feel it in the ballroom sequence, when they have their first date. That night she's in bed--I think that's when she begins to fall for him. She realizes it. As for Jimmy, he has to figure out what makes her different from every other woman he's ever been with. Williams was great at creating these enigmatic, smoldering guys...
DP: ...who usually disappoint the women.
JM: Usually. You don't know what they're thinking. Jimmy looks like he stepped out of a romantic ballad. That's the kind of guy Williams was fascinated with, and it's true the women project on that kind of person. But I think Jimmy really has a voice, especially as we discover more about him through his relationship with Vinnie [Jessica Collins] at the party.
SPOILER ALERT
Q: Do you think the end is sad or positive for the young Fisher and Jimmy?
JM: Williams never wanted to answer questions and critics always wanted him to. Williams would say let the work speak for itself but I think there's the potential for hope at the end. We get a little snapshot of what their life might be like when they're talking about the moon being reflected on the water. Fisher talks in a very romantic way and Jimmy in a practical way and we think, "Okay, that's what their lives are going to be like." Each of them experienced a major journey at the party and it's the first time they're seeing each other for who they really are. I think that's really hopeful. However, I don't know if that means they're going to have a great marriage or even that they're going to get married.
END SPOILER ALERT
Q: Can you talk about casting? I can imagine a lot of actors would want to be in a newly discovered Tennessee Williams screenplay.
JM: At a certain point it was a bit overwhelming because there were some great film actors who wanted to get in but weren't right for the particular roles. I had already cast Bryce as Fisher but when word got out a lot of young actors were interested. That was exciting for me because I believe that when the young generation hears Williams they are turned on by him, as I was. They think, "This kind of work is why I became an actor."
Q: How did Chris Evans feel about playing an iconic Williams male, in the tradition of Paul Newman and Marlon Brando?
JM: I think he was really excited and knew it was a challenge. He worked really hard and during the rehearsal process he had questions about his character and we were able to make so many discoveries about Jimmy during that period. He really participated in the process. He and Bryce would get together and rehearse. He's a great actor.
DP: In terms of being loyal to a discovered screenplay, did you change anything in that scene in the men's room where the man approaches Jimmy and he punches him? Was that in a screenplay from the 1950s?
JM: Well, Williams referred to it and I wanted people to see it. That incident couldn't have been shown in a movie when it was written in late 1950s, but I thought it was essential to show it today. It helps define Jimmy. It's not because he's a homosexual that he's not accepting Fisher's advances--you can take that issue off the table if you're wondering about him--but it could be that he is trying to figure out his own sexuality. That could be why Jimmy hits that man. Again, Williams is not answering the question about what is going on with Jimmy there but I think it's important to have that scene.
DP: Is that gay man supposed to look like Tennessee Williams?
JM: No, but I just was so happy when I found that actor because he was exactly what I had in mind. He was a local, Louisiana actor. He does a lot of film work down there.
Q: Did your acting experience help you with this kind of material where the acting is up front?
JM: It did. When I was in acting school I was living in Manhattan and going to a lot of Williams productions on Broadway that were not working for me. I thought there was a lot of veneer, all these layers covering what Williams' real vision was. Those layers were pushing people away from his work. It was all about mannerisms and they didn't seem true. As an actor I heard this other voice in Williams' work and wanted to see a fresher approach. For an actor it's like being home when you read Tennessee Williams. He gives you so much to work with.
Q: Do you think young people in the audience will relate to Fisher and Jimmy?
JM: I thought with these two characters, we will possibly invite in a whole new audience. Before they would just know that Williams wrote the line, "Stella!" So I wanted them have to chance to know more because I really related to him when I was young. That's exactly why I wanted to do this Tennessee Williams film!
Roundtable with Bryce Dallas HowardQ: How do you feel becoming part of the Tennessee Williams legacy?
Bryce Dallas Howard: It's incredible because he's the greatest writer of the Twentieth Century. To be able to play a previously uncreated Tennessee Williams heroine is extraordinary and humbling. It's a heavy responsibility. Jodie Markell, who is an incredible filmmaker, helped me really understand this world and the characters.
Q: Had you been a fan of Williams or acted in anything of his previously?
BDH: One of my first and most potent memories of the theater was seeing Gary Senise in A Streetcar Named Desire at Steppenwolf. I was about fourteen and it was such an intense, visceral experience that I felt it was like my sexual awakening. That's still my favorite play, but after that I absorbed myself in Williams and read as many of his plays as I could get my hands on. My background is in theater and I went to drama school but it was a disappointment that I never got assigned to the Williams scenes. Whoever got the Williams scenes were the luckiest because they were the most dangerous, sexual, dramatic, and entertaining. They were considered the hardest to play. It's kind of ironic that now I got to originate a Williams character! Danny Peary: Fisher's great first line is "I haven't been to bed yet." Does she ever sleep?
BDH: That's a good first line. There's one scene where she finally goes to sleep after spending a long day with Jimmy Dobyne. Otherwise, she doesn't really sleep. She talks about her hand shaking because she drinks so much black coffee. She's really not at rest, and that's really classic of a female character in Tennessee Williams. I think that during this film she really struggles with her sanity. I perceived her as almost Blanche Dubois ten or fifteen years earlier when she still had a chance. She's deeply unrested as she struggles with the society that surrounds her. She's a woman who is ahead of her time, suffering and possibly going to lose her grip of reality.
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Q: Do you find yourself still slipping into her accent?
BDH: There is a twenty-four-year-old woman who is my sister's best friend since boarding school. She watches over my two-year-old son, so I spend a lot of time with her. I based this character a little off of her. She has really dark hair and is really brazen and bold. She says when she gets a boyfriend and he proposes to her, "If I don't get a three-carat ring, I'll just diiiie." Oh, my God. Whenever I imitate her I slip back into the accent. She knows that Fisher is based on her, and she loves the character and thinks she is flawless.
DP: The challenge of playing this role, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that while Fisher is brittle beneath the strength and is on the verge of losing it, she never does. Was it hard not being able to explode?
BDH: When she's playing the piano piece at the party she finally loses herself and escapes and releases all her anxiety and mournfulness. Her unrequited love is expressed in this one piano piece that she plays at a climactic point of the film. What is distinctive about this film from Williams' canon of work is that he wrote it specifically for film. So he did write in scenes that were meant to be totally visual. I think that is a very poetic moment that has no dialogue. It's exciting to explore Williams' perspective of a moment that is visual and has music but no words.
DP: That is Fisher's release. Was that a release for you as an actress?
BDH: It was and it wasn't. It was through the character. But it was also inordinately stressful because I don't play the piano but learned that piece for that scene. I practiced it for three months. So it was like the moment of reckoning when I said, "O-O-O-K. Don't mess up, don't mess up!" It was really hard and what you're actually hearing is someone else playing because it was enough for me to just put my fingers on the right keys. So that was in a way anxiety-inducing scene.
Q: What did you take away from working with Ellen Burstyn?
JM: She's a true master and it's incredible to be able to work with someone like that. She is connected to something so intensely profound and everyone, including the crew, could feel it when she was working. She has a gift. Her work ethic and how she has studied all her life and applied herself is something to strive for.
Q: She moves back and forth between theater and film. Is that what you want?
BDH: I started my career in theater and then started doing films and became fascinated with cinema. Then my husband and I relocated to Los Angeles and had a baby. I LOVE film, but I never stopped studying and doing scenes and recently my mind has been going back to doing theater. I just started writing a play and I've thought about going back to that form of acting. We'll see how realistic that is. lossofteardropbrycepose.jpg

Roundtable with Ellen BurstynQ: Prior to being in this film, what experiences have you had with Tennessee Williams plays?
Ellen Burstyn: I never did a full play. I did a scene from Baby Doll for Lee Strasberg, a memorable occasion in my life. And I worked on a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire and then I ended up not doing it because I got a job and I had to interrupt it. It was very interesting doing that. I was working with a friend, Katherine Cortez, playing Stella, and Katherine's about 22-years younger than I am. I said, "You know, there's something weird here. Theyre talking about their childhood together so they must be close in age, and Stella's pregnant with her first child, she was married recently, and Blanche is a fading beauty. What does this mean?" So I looked up the original ages and in the screenplay Stella was 21 and Blanche was 24. But when it was written, in the '40s, thats what a fading beauty was--24. Isnt that astounding? I remember when I was 24 I had a friend who turned 24, we were the same age, and we got on the phone and said, Have you noticed any new wrinkles? Do you look any older? Because that was considered the peak of a woman's beauty. So thank God that's changed.
Q: What is it about Tennessee Williams that has stood the test of time?
EB: I think he was a genius. He was a poet, he wrote poetry. To me poets are people who really have the ability to express the soul. He seemed to be able to do that. There is a direct line from his deep self. When somebody speaks from that place, people listen. His writing is not like anybody else's and it's recognizable.
Q: This movie deals with women's roles and the place women had in those days and how Fisher trying to break out and how society is smothering her. Your role as Addie is a little different, although it's about breaking out in a way, too. Did you feel that the screenplay was addressing that?
EB: Bryce's character Fisher is a woman who has a lot of energy that she doesnt know what to do with. Theres a certain kind of wildness about her. I think she's probably like Tennessee in many ways. As a young man, he didnt know quite how to fit into society. There's always in Tennessees plays a correlation between homosexuality and women who don't fit in. He showed his feminine side. I think he didnt know what to do with himself when he was younger, and finally when he got a little older he got comfortable with his sexuality and was willing to own it. But I think that's always played out in his female characters; theyre trying to fit in and not being able to, so thats certainly an element of the story.
Danny Peary: How does Addie relate to Fisher? Do you think Addie was like Fisher when she was younger?
EB: I think she was like her but she got away and that helped her. She found a profession as a travel writer, and she traveled to other cultures. Tennessee has her say a wonderful line about the Orient being tolerant, and so she moved to the tolerant Orient. I'm sure that's Tennessee telling us something about his being more accepted in the Orient with his particular ways. I think Addie was able to make a life for herself. There were always the women in all periods who found a way--George Sand or Emily Dickinson--somebody who found their own grace. But it wasn't easy and it wasn't usual.
DP: Does she recognize that Fisher is going to have a problem fitting in?
EB: Well, yes, and she says to Fisher at one point, There was something hard and honest about her. I love that combination of qualities.. And I think she recognized something about herself in Fisher--that's why she felt she could ask her to do a great favor.
Q: Your character wants to commit suicide and some people might find it disturbing to see that in a film where its not being condemned. It does come across as a noble, necessary act.
EB: Addie says that her organs go on functioning unmercifully and her mind is functioning but the rest of her body isn't, and you always wonder what you would do in that situation. Is life at any cost better than an intolerable life? I dont know. Do we have the right to take our own lives, or does somebody else have the right to tell us that we can't? These are moral issues that have been argued about for centuries in different cultures and I dont know if theres one clear answer.
Q: Addie wants to commit suicide while theres a party going on in the house. Is that for dramatic purposes, like she wants to kill herself at a time when many people in the house may find her? Or is the opposite of that and no one will find her because they're distracted?
EB: I think it has nothing to do with there being a party. She was brought back from the Orient, as she says, by her brother against her will, and she's kept alive against her will, and there's nobody who will help her end her life. But she remembers Fisher and knows she is at the party. She met Fisher once and remembers something about her that makes her feel she will help her when nobody else will.
DP: The scene at the end of Resurrection when your character, a healer, hugs the little boy with cancer is one of my favorite moments ever in a movie. The character you play in Resurrection is an isolated woman, like Fisher is in this film. Talk about being isolated not because you're a bad person but a special person, as are Fisher and Addie.
EB: It's a blessing in a way because there is a box that most people fit into and they're very comfortable and they live their lives and theyre not challenged. But there are some who come into the world and look at themselves and say, "Oh, I'm one of the people that don't fit in the box. What does that mean?" Then they go off on their own journey and find their own voice and path. It's more difficult, but it's more awake and alive. I consider anybody who's in that position to be specially blessed.
DP: Do you like that scene I mentioned?
EB: Sure. Not only that. I know that anybody who approaches me and says, "My favorite film of yours" is Resurrection is a special person!
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Q: Watching Bryce, I thought she was kind of a younger version of you. When you were working with her how did you see an actress?
EB: First of all, she's so beautiful. Looking into her eyes is like looking into Elizabeth Taylor's eyes. You just have this sense of this radiant beauty, a radiant field. And then she's a very finely tuned, very sensitive actress, so its easy to align with her in a scene. I havent seen her on stage yet, but I think shes a really beautiful film presence.
Q: How was it working with Jodie Markell on her first feature?
EB: She's a very likable person, first of all. She's very sweet and nice and good, and you feel that about her immediately when you meet her. And she's an actress so she has an understanding of the acto'rs craft, which is always a big help for actors. Then I found her on the set to be as sweet as she is but completely in control. I have been on sets where there have been women who are inexperienced directing and the crew is not necessarily cooperative. I've seen crews be really unfriendly to women in that position, but I could tell on this set that they all liked her and respected her, and she knew how to ask questions when there was something she didnt know, and she knew how to insist on what she wanted when she had to. So she carried a lot of authority and respect and I think she has a big career in front of her.
Q: Is there a difference between a theater director and a film director? Do you find its just different people or is there an approach or attitude they have?
EB: There are good directors and bad directors in film and on stage. Good directors are ones who understand the medium, whether its film or stage, and are attuned to other people's creative process, and know how to call on it and have it contribute without feeling squelched by their concepts.
Q: Do you find teaching keeps you tapped in a way that you might not otherwise be?
EB: I like teaching a lot, I think it's important for one generation to share with the next generation. I don't know if it affects my acting or not, I'm not sure. There was a period in my life, in the '80s or '90s, where I felt teaching was interfering with my work, that I was putting my whole creative energy into teaching and I sort of pulled back. But I'm not feeling that now; I'm feeling very alive doing each of them.
Q: Youve had such great success both on stage and in films. You're a rare actress who's able to find that balance--how do you manage that?
EB: Well, my training was in the theater, and it's easy enough to make the step to film or television. If it goes in the opposite direction and your early career is established in film I think it's a shock to go on stage because its a very different process.
Q: When you think about awards and nominations, do you feel blase now at this point?
EB: The last award I won was the Emmy and I thought, "Well, thats very nice, I don't have an Emmy, I'm very happy to win an Emmy," and the next day there was all this press about being a Triple Crown winner, and I thought, wait a minute! First of all, it sounds like a horse. Then I started to see all these lists and there are only eighteen people that are Triple Crown winners, who have won an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy. Then I heard there were two people that were Quadruple Crown winners, two actors who also had won a Grammy for the spoken word.
Q: And youre working on the Grammy?
EB: Yes. I'm publishing a book of my photographs accompanied by my favorite poems and a recording of the poems. It's spoken word. So I'm going after a Grammy!

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