EXCLUSIVE: Literary biographies tend to be either too literary or too biographical: so artful as to be ruined by artifice or so bogged down in minutiae they’re a challenge to pleasure. The singular achievement of John Lahr’s magisterial book, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage Of The Flesh is that it’s one bewitching writer’s journey into the lives – public and private – of another.
It is no secret that the visionary poet-dramatist of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire led a life suffused with danger, tenderness, excess, mystery, decadence, wealth, squalor, love, lust and as many more contradictory attributes as one might possibly conjure on a humid night in the Garden District of New Orleans.
Williams had an often chary relationship with Hollywood, made vivid through the genius of Elia Kazan and tamped with threat by the censors perched on their shoulders. In this exclusive excerpt from Mad Pilgrimage, Lahr recounts an interview with the late Sidney Lumet, recalling his work with Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani on Williams’ The Fugitive Kind, the 1959 film version of his stage play Orpheus Descending, from two years earlier. Magnani had been fearful of appearing on Broadway but was seduced by the prospect of working with Williams and Brando in the medium where a flawed take could always be reshot. Magnani played Lady Torrence, the married, sexually frustrated proprietress of a dry goods store, whose thermostat goes haywire with the arrival of Brando’s drifter Val Xavier. Once the casting was settled, other problems arose regarding the two stars, as Lahr writes:
“The money wasn’t nearly as much a problem as the fact he wouldn’t sleep with her,” the director Sidney Lumet said. Brando and Magnani never shared off-camera the sweet sensuality of the romantic attachment between Val and Lady. “After we had some meetings in California, she tried several times to see me alone, and finally succeeded one afternoon at the Beverly Hills Hotel,” Brando explained in his autobiography. “Without any encouragement from me, she started kissing me with great passion.”
He went on, “To refuse her would have been a terrible insult. But once she got her arms around me, she wouldn’t let go. If I started to pull away, she held on tight and bit my lip, which really hurt. With her teeth gnawing at my lower lip, the two of us locked in an embrace . . . we rocked back and forth as she tried to lead me to the bed. My eyes were wide open, and as I looked at her eyeball-to-eyeball I saw that she was in a frenzy, Attila the Hun in full attack. Finally the pain got so intense that I grabbed her nose and squeezed it as hard as I could, as if I were squeezing a lemon, to push her away. It startled her, and I made my escape.”
Magnani posed problems for her director as well. “The essence of Anna?” Lumet said. “One day our call on set was 9:10, no Anna. 9:30, no Anna. 10:00, no Anna. I go, ‘Fuck.’ I went up to her dressing room. I come in. Marlon is there by the door, against the wall, shaking his head. She’s seriously stain-faced, mascara running, the works. I said, ‘Jesus, Anna, what’s happened!’ So help me God, she says, ‘Even in Italy, even in Italy, he won’t give me first billing!’ ”
Magnani commanded Lumet to shoot her only from the right side. “It completely ruined my staging,” Lumet said. “It meant that everyone had to be in a certain position in relation to her. You never saw Marlon’s right side, because he was always opposite her. I cannot tell you how destructive this kind of thing is to a movie.” Lumet went on, “A very gentle cameraman will sometimes imply a tenderness to a scene. I used it on Marlon’s big speech about the bird sleeping on the wind. I couldn’t do those gentle movements right to left with her. I generally stayed above the eye level. It was fatal because of the lack of tenderness, the lack of knowledge.”
Despite Brando’s opening five-minute monologue to the camera, which was done in one take and is among the finest, and least known, of his great film performances, and Magnani’s magnificent fury, their chemistry never lived up to the shout line of the ads — “Their fire! Their fever! Their desire!” The Fugitive Kind “sputters more often than it sizzles,” Variety said. The fact that the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther found his senses “throbbing and feeling staggered and spent at the end” hardly mattered. The Fugitive Kind, which Lumet knew was botched from “the first time I saw the rushes” because of Magnani’s caveats, was a box-office disaster.
— Excerpted from Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage Of The Flesh by John Lahr, © 2014 by John Lahr, with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Lahr by telephone from his home in London. The son of the great comic actor Bert Lahr, John Lahr was for two decades the chief drama critic of The New Yorker magazine and a prodigious writer of profiles, reportage, fiction, plays and earlier biographies, notably of Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage), Frank Sinatra, and his father. Mad Pilgrimage Of The Flesh has been 12 years in the offing.
DEADLINE: How did Tennessee Williams fare among the Hollywood set?
LAHR: Williams was sort of starstruck. He loved the stars — he courted Katharine Hepburn, courted Anna Magnani. He was quite canny about their power at the box office. Although he was quite wealthy in the early films — The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar were the highest top-dollar that had ever been paid for a play — he had a big nut, especially with [his institutionalized sister] Rose. So he was always a kind of worried. He was flattered when he came out the first time. He found Hollywood people rather touching, not the monsters he’d been warned about. But he was disabused of that when he discovered they had ghost writer on Glass Menagerie. He got well and truly fed up with it.
DEADLINE: What about some of the specific works?
LAHR: He hated Gore Vidal’s version of Suddenly Last Summer. What he was keen about was getting Brando and Magnani onstage together. Brando wanted rewrites and Magnani’s demands were so great they could never make a deal. But they did want her for the movie, and she did her thing. The Fugitive Kind has one of the great unheralded moments in movies — the first five minutes of Brando talking to the camera is just a great piece of acting. But no way that film is a good film.
DEADLINE: How did Williams and Kazan deal with the Hayes Office, the Hollywood censorship bureau that in the ’50s was run by Joseph Breen?
LAHR: It’s not unusual in censorship situations, censorship for subtle artists enhances the elusiveness of the metaphor. Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Slawomir Mrozek — they’re talking a public language and private one at the same time. When you turn the subtext out and make it literal, it loses verve, mischievousness. What was funny and interesting about the Hayes Office is that Kazan and Williams foxed them and they didn’t realize they’d been foxed — Streetcar had passion and carnality without the lines. Tennessee’s loyalty and trust in Kazan’s acumen was one-hundrd percent.
DEADLINE: And yet the ending of Streetcar the film is not the ending of Streetcar the play. Stanley Kowalski’s rape of Blanche is merely suggested and in the aftermath, Stella has hardened to him. It reminds me of how Bernard Show was willing to compromise the ending of his Pygmalion for both the Broadway and Hollywood audiences, when his play was turned into My Fair Lady.
LAHR: That’s right: The film says exactly the opposite of what the play said. [For Hollywood] Stanley had to be punished, and in that sense the play is bastardized. Williams’ whole point is that Blanche is sacrificed so that their [Stella and Stanley’s] carnal life can continue. It’s about the rapacity and selfishness of human nature, desire as omnipotent.
DEADLINE: Was there a moment of epiphany, when you thought you’d finally navigated your way into Williams’ complicated life, which so often, especially in his final years, was lived outrageously on the public stage as much as any of his plays?
LAHR: I started to see the plays through Williams. He would project his problems in the plays, and as he changed, the plays changed. I saw that that would be a way of charting the life. Then I read Hysteria, by the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. He writes about “hysterical performance” and “showing off,” and that sort of changed the lens in my glasses, the colorization of the family.
I called [Williams’ younger brother] Dakin — this was the moment I knew I had the right angle — I said, “As a kid, were you ever hugged?” He said, “No.” I said, “Didn’t you ask to be hugged?” and he said, “Why would you ask for something you knew you wouldn’t get?” [Their mother] Edwina talked her love. Tennessee called her a “monumental Puritan.” Dakin said that for her, language was erotic. Tennessee Williams, whose life was spent in search of an audience to embrace him and that he was seeking to embrace, used his wounds to bring people close to him, to re-create the seductiveness and evasiveness of the mother. The fact that your parents worry about you isn’t the same as being loved. The only way Tennessee Williams had of being seen was to make a spectacle of himself. And when his plays didn’t work, he made a spectacle of himself in public. He said “For love, I make characters.”