Entertainment Magazine

Two Glass Menageries: 1950 and 1987

Posted on the 15 May 2014 by Christopher Saunders
Two Glass Menageries: 1950 and 1987Tennessee Willams has fared pretty well onscreen: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer all became classic movies. (We can pretend Boom! never happened.) The Glass Menagerie spawned numerous adaptations, none reaching iconic status. The Anthony Harvey-Katharine Hepburn version is solid but not especially cinematic - understandable, given its television origins. But it's far more satisfying than Menagerie's two big screen adaptations.
Before plunging into the films, and to avoid repetition, a brief plot synopsis from my earlier review:
Amanda Wingfield plays the part of Southern belle, ignoring her failed marriage and troubled background. She smothers her grown children: Tom, a would-be author, and Laura, a daughter beset by a physical handicap and crippling shyness. Amanda enlists Tom to find Laura a "gentleman caller," eager to rescue Laura from introversion. Tom invites Jim O'Connor, who makes a genuine connection with Laura, but the evening doesn't go quite as planned.
The Glass Menagerie (1950, Irving Rapper)
Two Glass Menageries: 1950 and 1987 The first Menagerie, a staid stage-to-screen adaptation, quickly faded into obscurity. Williams co-wrote the script (with Peter Berneis and Norman Corwin) but disowned the end product; it's claimed that Gertrude Lawrence, cast as Amanda, demanded her role be expanded at costars' expense. This is one just one of Menagerie's many failings.
There's nothing wrong with Irving Rapper's direction. His primary job is making Menagerie cinematic, expanding things outside the Wingfield home. Hence Laura's ill-fated trips to business school, Tom and Jim's warehouse job or a mother-daughter shopping spree. Hence even glimpses of Amanda's youth and Tom's travels after leaving home. And Robert Burks's camerawork is fluid and expressive; Jim and Laura's big scene is well-handled, spotlighted leads peering through the dark drawing room.
But Menagerie really fumbles bringing Williams' story to screen. Strike one is the odd characterization. Amanda veers wildly from domineering monster to warm, supportive matriarch; so drastic are the transitions, she seems less complex than bipolar. Tom, sympathetic though troubled in the play, is a whiny, irresponsible jerk - especially given the altered finale. Jim comes off as a glad-handing sleaze, manipulating Laura like his dopey boss. Even Laura seems less emotionally crippled than a shy girl needing some affection.
The cast only exacerbates these shortcomings. Gertrude Lawrence broadly overplays Amanda, reducing her to scatterbrained caricature. Arthur Kennedy's Tom is just plain surly. Jane Wyman's egregiously miscast, a pretty star unconvincingly uglied up. But Kirk Douglas is the biggest miscalculation. Charming in absolutely the wrong way, Douglas's Jim is less well-meaning interloper than professional huckster. Who on Earth would deem Kirk "medium homely"?
Narrative alterations prove the final straw. It's fine to visualize Laura's classroom breakdown or to have Jim take her to the Paradise Club. But this Menagerie refocuses the drama, cutting early scenes and excising several exchanges (Tom's early tirade against Amanda is shorn its meatiest lines). Laura's marginalized as interstitial material redirects focus on Amanda and Tom. And the ending inexplicably swaps the play's bleak despair with unearned optimism. No wonder Williams hated it.

The Glass Menagerie (1987, Paul Newman) 
Two Glass Menageries: 1950 and 1987Paul Newman directed this later version. His wife Joanne Woodward played Amanda in a successful off-Broadway production, inspiring Newman to capture her performance onscreen. But his Menagerie is little more than competent. It hews closer to Williams than Rapper's adaptation, but its characterizations again feel off-kilter.
Of the three films we've examined, Newman's Glass is arguably most faithful to the text. This version neither "opens up" significantly nor significantly trims Williams' text; Newman's direction is straightforward, stage bound, no outbound scenes or expressive montage work. There are certainly peculiarities in interpretation, though. Tom and Amanda have a much closer relationship than either previous version; their scenes are definitely an improvement on either Rapper or Harvey. Yet their relationships with Amanda have a totally different tenor.
This Menagerie seems definitely skewed towards Amanda. Possibly it's inevitable given the director-star relationship, but Newman greatly downplays her unpleasant side. Lacking ruthlessness or bite, Amanda becomes a gentle, hardworking mother beset upon by ungrateful children. Even Gertrude Lawrence's Amanda had a viciousness confronting Laura which Woodward's lacks. And Tom is a backstabbing layabout; who can disagree with Amanda bewailing this shifty flyweight? It's a valid interpretation, but not overly satisfying.
Accordingly, Joanne Woodward is spirited and vivacious but lacks the edge necessary to sell Amanda's grating desperation. John Malkovich seems to be impersonating Tennessee Williams: soft voice, vaguely effeminate mannerisms, melancholy tinged with indefinable weirdness. James Naughton's Jim falls somewhere between Douglas and Michael Moriarty, slick but essentially sincere. Karen Allen is the standout. She's sweet, soft-spoken and convincingly vulnerable, the most rounded screen Laura.
* * *
Studying the three Menagerie films, it's striking how subtle changes make such an impact. Both movies go for extreme interpretations of characters and plot. Harvey's film (and/or his actors) go for more understated shadings. Katharine Hepburn's Amanda is both horrible and sympathetic, a monster who genuinely wants what's best for Tom and Laura. She's much more rounded than Lawrence or Woodward. Similarly, Sam Waterston's Tom mixes guilt and resentment, ambition and responsibility better than Kennedy or Malkovich. And Michael Moriarty's Jim is a world apart from either Douglas or Naughton, less salesman than awkward everyman.
Obviously different filmmakers and actors will interpret characters, actions, plot and themes differently. Certainly Rapper or Newman's takes draw on the play (though Rapper's ending is something else entirely), and nothing's so fluid or subjective as literary adaptation. As it stands though, I still find Harvey's the most satisfying adaptation of The Glass Menagerie.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog