STAGE TO SCREENS: Recovering Tennessee Williams' "Teardrop Diamond," Plus "Young Victoria"

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02 Jan 2010

Jodie Markell and the poster for
Jodie Markell and the poster for "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond"

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."


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