STAGE TO SCREENS: Recovering Tennessee Williams' "Teardrop Diamond," Plus "Young Victoria"
By Harry Haun
Director Jodie Markell unearths an original, never-produced Tennessee Williams screenplay, "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond," and Mary Poppins writer Julian Fellowes conjures Queen Victoria.
"I had to stay in China because I'd become addicted to something that I could only have there . . . to a drug that made it bearable for me to live when living became unbearable for me. You see, I'd quit my travels and settled down in one place. For needing something so badly to make life bearable, I found something the poppy the smoke of the burning poppy. And then, early last summer, the terrible thing that was coming that the drug made me forget was coming happened. I had the strokes that caused my present condition. My brother Jack was told, and I was brought back here by force, as I am kept living in agony by force."
Really! Who talks like that anymore? The answer, said with an equal measure of joy and melancholy, is nobody certainly nobody since Tennessee Williams left us with such a huge loss of lyricism 27 years ago next month. His cries of the heart linger on in revivals, of course, but it's startling to encounter for the first time such an essentially Tennessee outpouring as the anguished confession above.
It's from a screenplay he wrote in 1957, which has finally found its way onto the screen, under a poetic (again, typically Tennessee) title you can dream on "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond." Ellen Burstyn does the honors above (splendidly, too), playing a travel-book writer who was stopped in her tracks in "the tolerant Orient" by her human failing; now she's relegated to her protracted deathbed in a backroom of an antebellum Memphis mansion that's alive downstairs with a party-in-progress. There are more Tennessee-isms where she came from, too: There's a shop-girl (Jessica Collins), who makes out with the trophy-date (Chris Evans) of our heroine (Bryce Dallas Howard) while the latter is playing an overheated "Liebestraum" on the living-room piano; she proclaims to be "as common as dirt" (as did Stanley Kowalski before her), and, when she spies her main chance, she meows like Maggie the Cat's "You can be young without money, but you can't be old without it." She figures, "A girl who works at the cosmetic counter at Liggett's Drug Store on a side street in Memphis does not think about pride." The high price of pride is kicked around by quite a few characters (a la Miss Alma). There is the obligatory visit to the madhouse, a perpetually soused patriarch, a men's-room altercation and great gobs of guilt that our heroine has inherited for the sins of her father. The two survivors of all this are left, like reflections in The Glass Menagerie, staring at the moon with urgent (if utterly unfounded) hope. The film dips and glides and waltzes with Tennessee's ghosts, someplace between self-parody and variations on a theme.
The name of the heroine is something only a Tennessee Williams would attempt: Fisher Willow. That may not be Spanish for soul (Alma) or French for white woods (Blanche DuBois), but it is true to the code of the South, according to the film's director, Jodie Markell, herself a native of Memphis. "In the South, they often use last names for first names, and her aunt's name is Cornelia Fisher," she noted.
The aunt is a brick-fortress of a matriarch, played by a thoroughly filled-out presumably padded-out Ann-Margret ("Bye Bye Birdie," indeed), who, nevertheless, still takes a lovely "mature close-up." Her plot function is to loan Fisher her pair of $10,000 diamond earrings to wear, and lose, at the party.
Interestingly, both Burstyn and Ann-Margret have Blanche DuBois in their repertoire, and she's the yardstick that actress Howard used for Fisher Willow albeit, a prequel version of Blanche (in her Whoopee days at Belle Reve). "I thought of her as Blanche 15 years before A Streetcar Named Desire," she said. "She yearns, like Blanche, for a more refined way of living and yet she hasn't lost herself to her delusions as completely as Blanche did so there is still a chance for her."
Markell, however, sees the character careening into Carol Cutrere (Lois Smith in Orpheus Descending, Joanne Woodward in the movie version, "The Fugitive Kind"). "Again, Fisher is a younger version of what would happen if she went down that same self-destructive road and was never able to find her heart's desire."
It won't surprise you to learn that Markell is a former Laura Wingfield. "The first play I was ever in was The Glass Menagerie when I was 15. By the time I was 17, I had read everything that I could find that he wrote." When she was 21 and in acting school, she read more: "One of my teachers, Adam Berkeley, showed me a collection of Tennessee Williams screenplays. I thought this one was the most cinematic. I just carried it around with me in my heart for years and years until I became a little savvier in the business and met Brad Michael Gilbert, our producer."
And did she shoot it as written? "I think I worked as any director would work with an original screenplay. I had to make adjustments and cuts. I had to expand visual sequences. But I tried to retain as much dialogue and writing as I could."
Howard admitted to a mixture of feelings about getting the enviable shot of originating a Tennessee Williams heroine especially at this very late (as in posthumous) date. "It's a huge responsibility that's what it feels like because you don't want to mess it up. Just the fact that this is a fully formed piece is incredible.
"When I first heard that this is a lost piece of Tennessee Williams' writing, I thought, for all types of reasons, 'Well, how is that possible? Was it lost for a reason?' I really thought that, but, when I read it, it was so beautiful, so a part of his canon, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, am I seriously being asked to do this? Is this actually a possibility?'"
"The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond" was Williams' first original screenplay his way of writing himself out of a depression and writer's block that descended on him with the lukewarm reception of Orpheus Descending. The screen suddenly looked like an attractive alternative to him. In the summer of 1957, when asked what he was working on by The New York Times, he cited this screenplay. "He said he'd like [Elia] Kazan to direct it and Julie Harris to star in it," relayed Markell, "but we don't know if either actually read or even saw the script. They were busy at the time." Consequently, the script got lost in the shuffle, or shelved, and Tennessee moved on.
There's no mistaking the authorship, though. "It's incredible to hear these words you have never heard before his words," she said. "It's a huge pleasure for that very reason. The really, really exciting thing is that people who have come to see the film say afterward, 'You're not thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, who is this writer? You could not know this wasn't Tennessee Williams!' That's one of the great things about this film because it's really him. I did feel he was always hovering over us."
What a difference a little gold man makes in one's life! At the time director Robert Altman put in his order for an English country manor murder mystery, Fellowes was in the middle of a four-year BBC series, a Scottish laird lording over "Monarch of the Glen." Now, if he goes near a camera, it's to direct a script he wrote ("Separate Lies" with Tom Wilkinson or the upcoming "From Time to Time" with Maggie Smith).
Mostly, though, he's content to sit at his computer and slog out scripts for others to execute. His current Exhibit A-film, "The Young Victoria," examines the never-before-told much-less-suspected early years of England's longest-reigning monarch. It was helmed by a French-Canadian director, for some reason Jean-Marc Vallee but the "Masterpiece Theatre" stiff-upper-lip manners are a constant.
For producers, Fellowes had some pretty strange bedfellows: Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Martin Scorsese, Master of Mean Streets. It was "Fergie" who suggested the Albert-Victoria love story, and it was Scorsese's producing partner, Graham King, who pitched the premise to Fellowes. "I knew there was a movie in it," said the screenwriter, who'd already researched the subject thoroughly and knew it wasn't the movie being proposed. With a little diplomatic jiggling, he got the others to agree to switching the emphasis to Victoria's difficult, character-building struggle to ascend to the throne at age 18 before The Right Man entered her life.
This approach of a headstrong, take-charge heroine made her attractively accessible to a contemporary audience, and Emily Blunt's spirited title performance did much to banish the universal image of Queen Victoria as a dour and dumpy dowager in lace-trimmed widow's weeds. "She's very hard-working, Emily is," conceded Fellowes. "She had worked out how she wanted to play the part." Her portrayal of Victoria the woman falls somewhere to the right of Vicki the Vixen Queen.
Our first view of Victoria is quite the opposite a super-protected teen, imprisoned by the protocol forced on her by her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), herself manipulated by Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), a power-hungry politician bucking to become Victoria's regent. Happily or not happily, Victoria's uncle, William IV (Jim Broadbent), dies just in the neck of time, enabling her to take charge of her life and her country and give the royal gate to all who hold her back.
Fellowes didn't set out to write a film that sits well with the royals but it does. "I think the monarchy is a good thing, although I wouldn't have wanted to write a film that ridiculed it or made out it was a bad thing so, in a sense, that comes from me.
"I think it was a pretty dramatic story," he continued. "One minute she's bullied and chucked around, the next minute she's queen, the next minute she's provoking a revolution all that is pretty natural film material. Queen Victoria was a very interesting person the country was lucky to have her so I wasn't wrestling with my desire to denigrate her as oppose to praise her. I don't think inherently she was a bad person inexperienced and young, but I don't think she was ever a bad person."
Enter belatedly Albert, her Germanic first cousin, played with a reasonable physical facsimile by Rupert Friend. "He's terribly like him," admitted Fellowes. "Prince Albert was fantastically handsome. He didn't look like Rupert, but he looked sorta like Terence Stamp that kind of very dark, very dramatic, very good-looking. Early drawings of Albert when he first came to the court are astonishingly like Rupert."
Truth to tell, Albert only came to court once when he met Victoria. What followed was three years of love letters, which Fellowes translated into love scenes from the actual correspondence. There were lots of princes attending Victoria's coronation so the screenwriter took the dramatic license of sneaking Albert into the proceedings for some up-close quality time. The arranged-marriage proposal soon followed.
There were five assassination attempts on Victoria's life on the way to her diamond jubilee. Fellowes only deals with the first because it profoundly affects the love story but he does fudge a tad. As he tells it, Albert threw himself in front of the wannabe assassin's bullet, protecting his wife but getting grazed in the shoulder in the process. "The only thing that I altered was that the bullet missed him," he said.
"When I was talking about this to the British press, I made the incredibly stupid assumption that they would know that the assassination attempt had happened. Of course, they didn't. They thought I was creating the whole incident, which I wasn't.
"They were coming down Constitution Hill. The guy, Edward Oxford, pulled out his gun. Albert saw it, Victoria didn't, and Albert pushed her down. The important thing for me was that Albert covered her body with his own. He put his back to the gunman. All of that is completely true. Only because of my own idiocy, I have The Times saying, 'Oh, he has converted Prince Albert into an action man.' I didn't.
"Of course, it is only just after that as in the film that she decided, after fighting it for a year, she changed her mind about letting him come into her work and had the desk brought through and put next to hers, and all that stuff, which is all in the film.
"I cannot believe because it did happen, literally ten days later she was not influenced by the realization that he was, if necessary, was prepared to die for her."
The marriage lasted 20 years, till Albert's death hence, the lingering image of the dressed-in-black Victoria. She also kept his dressing room in the state it was when he died, with clothes laid out for him. "That was her eccentricity," Fellowes said.
And is he pleased with the accuracy that emerged in this dramatic re-creation? "Given the fact that you have to get the events of four years into an hour and 40 minutes, I am pleased that we have got so much of the true story into the film, yes."
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