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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Southern Gothic Movies, Part 2 (originally published 12/97)

Last week, in keeping with the general furor over the movie adaptation of John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," I recommended some other films in which the South is presented in its most wildly eccentric and decadent aspect. There was one name I postponed mentioning, however. In all of American literature you'd be hard pressed to find a more deeply eccentric, emotionally broken collection of damaged goods than the characters created by playwright Tennessee Williams. For that reason, and because his plays have been adapted for the screen so many times, I felt that he deserved a column all to himself. For a sampling of one of the most distinguished literary forerunners of Berendt's flamboyant tale, look for these Williams adaptations on video.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951). The show stopper in this classic film is, of course, Marlon Brando placing his stamp indelibly on the character of the blustery, brutish Stanley Kowalski. In a way, though, it's more interesting to watch Vivien Leigh create the emotionally fragile Blanche DuBois. When Blanche comes to New Orleans to visit her pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter), she finds herself immediately at odds with Stanley, who is Stella's husband. Blanche has carefully constructed and maintained a Southern belle fa├žade, but it's long since begun to fray around the edges. As the plain-spoken Stanley repeatedly calls her on the phoniness of her charade, we begin to realize the full extent of her psychological wounds.

"Baby Doll" (1956). Now we're getting into some truly bizarre territory. Karl Malden and Carroll Baker star as Archie Lee Meighan and his child bride, Baby Doll. When Archie married Baby Doll, he promised her father that she would remain a virgin until her twentieth birthday. He has since lived to regret that agreement, since Baby Doll seems to delight in displaying herself provocatively in front of him while insisting on withholding his deferred conjugal privileges. As we pick up their story, Baby Doll is just about to turn twenty, although you wouldn't know it from her behavior. She actually sleeps in a crib, sucking her thumb like an infant while her husband peeps in at her in exquisite frustration through a hole in the wall. As you can imagine, this film created quite a stir in its day, eliciting moral outrage and condemnation from pulpits and editorial desks across the country. It still packs quite a punch today.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). Here's another one of those amazingly dysfunctional families Williams excelled at creating. Burl Ives plays Big Daddy Pollitt, the domineering family patriarch, who is slowly dying but doesn't know it yet because nobody dares to break the news to him. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor add to the fireworks as Brick and Maggie Pollitt. She's a nymphomaniac, but he couldn't be less interested. When her pent-up energies are therefore denied their preferred avenue of release, she turns them to the pursuit of mischief.

"Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959). At a State Hospital in Louisiana, the conditions are less than ideal. Hope for improvement presents itself in the person of a wealthy widow, Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn). Mrs. Venable will make a sizable donation to the hospital if they will agree to lobotomize her niece, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). When a young surgeon, played by Montgomery Clift, is sent to gather further information about her odd request, a strange story begins to emerge. It seems that Mrs. Venable's son, Sebastian, had died following a trip to Europe the preceding summer. He had been accompanied by his cousin, Catherine, who returned from the trip in a mentally confused state. What did she see to drive her to such a condition? Why is Mrs. Venable so anxious to see her go under the knife? As the answers begin to emerge, Williams pushes his portrayal of Southern decadence to its boundaries.

Pat Conroy opened his novel "The Prince of Tides" with these words: "My wound is geography." To a certain extent, I suppose everyone can say that no matter where they live. Still, there's something about the South that seems to lure its literary community again and again into explorations of particularly dark corners of the human psyche. And when adapted for the screen, as "Midnight" director Clint Eastwood knows, such excursions into Southern Gothic have the potential to clean up at the box office.

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