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Wonderful Tennessee

Michael Portantiere reviews the Broadway Theatre Archive's DVD release of the definitive film version of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, starring Katharine Hepburn. logo

It's something of a shock to realize that Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, acknowledged as a true masterwork of the American theater, has had a less than stellar performance history.

Think about it. Although Laurette Taylor's characterization of Amanda Wingfield in the original Broadway production was the stuff that legends are made of, critics weren't equally impressed by the lady's co-stars. The 1950 film version of Menagerie -- with Gertrude Lawrence (!) as Amanda, Arthur Kennedy as Tom, Jane Wyman as Laura, and Kirk Douglas (!!) as the Gentleman Caller -- is generally viewed as a disaster. Over the years, New York stage productions starring such highly respected actresses as Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, and Julie Harris earned mixed reviews. And a 1987 film version, directed by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, Karen Allen, and James Naughton, is arguably even more bizarre than the 1950 flick. (I'm unfamiliar with a 1966 TV Menagerie that starred Shirley Booth, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Loden, and Pat Hingle.)

There is, however, a definitive film of this masterpiece. In 1973, ABC telecast a magnificent TV movie version starring Katharine Hepburn, Sam Waterston, Joanna Miles, and Michael Moriarty. I have long treasured a VHS tape of the movie that I made years ago when it was repeated by the network, and I'm thrilled to report that this Glass Menagerie has just been released on DVD courtesy of the Broadway Theatre Archive, distributed through Image Entertainment. Truth be told, Hepburn's performance as Amanda was not universally praised when this film was first aired; indeed, a friend of mine made a face when I recently told him about the new DVD, going on to say how "wrong" the great star was for this role. It's telling to note that Miles and Moriarty won Emmy Awards for their work in this Menagerie but Hepburn did not. (Neither did Sam Waterston, who went on to have a more successful career than Miles or Moriarty.)

The chief objection to Hepburn's casting seems to have been that such an inveterate Yankee was no Amanda Wingfield; but, to my ears, Kate the Great sounds quite convincingly Southern here. And, of couse, her acting is nonpareil. She brilliantly captures the contradictory aspects of the character, a woman who often loses herself in memories of her youth but who is ultimately a realist, resorting to selling magazine subscriptions over the phone in order to help keep the wolf from the door and pushing her daughter to find a job or get married. Hepburn is especially touching in the "dependency" speech early in the play, sinking into a chair with her feet turned inwards, the picture of sorrow and bewilderment. When this film was made, the star had already begun to demonstrate symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, but her shaking is mostly under control -- and when it is evident, it only serves to further indicate Amanda's physical fragility.

Amazing though it may be, this performance isn't the star turn of a diva. Rather, Hepburn functions as an essential member of a heaven-sent ensemble. Waterston is perfection as Tom Wingfield (i.e., Tennessee Williams), fully communicating the character's frustrations as well as his deep affection for his sister and his love/hate relationship with his mother. Miles has what must have been her finest hour as Laura; it's difficult to play this role without seeming bathetic, but she manages to do just that. And though many of Moriarty's later performances were notable for their eccentricity, the actor is fully in control as Jim O'Connor, so charming and gregarious that it's easy to see why Laura revered Jim in high school.

Fortunately for posterity, this Glass Menagerie was captured on film rather than videotape, which makes it look better and feel less dated. Directed sensitively and intelligently by Anthony Harvey, it preserves the effect of a stage production. There's a nice balance between medium shots and closeups, and the various scenes are filmed in long takes with few fadeouts for commercials. (The only jarring fadeout comes at the worst possible moment, right after the breaking of the unicorn's horn, and one has to wonder why it wasn't eliminated through simple re-editing).

Textually, the film is faithful to the play -- not surprising, since Williams himself did the adaptation. The one major excision is Tom's opening monologue ("Yes, I have tricks in my pocket"), which is far too stagey for the screen and which, at any rate, is the one weak section of the original script. (Williams stumbled in trying to place his gentle tale within a socio-political context.) Tom's later words to the audience, including his heartbreaking ode to Laura, have been retained. Wisely, they are rendered almost entirely in voiceover.

Produced by David Susskind, Menagerie benefits from delicate, haunting music by none other than John Barry. Production designer Terry Marsh and art director Alan Tompkins give us a 1930s St. Louis apartment that is at once warm and claustrophic. Costumes by the late Patricia Zipprodt are spot-on, especially those for Hepburn's Amanda, which range from an ugly housecoat to the gorgeous gown {"Historical, almost") that she wears in the Gentleman Caller scene. Overall, the ultra-naturalistic style of the film's acting, direction, and design softens Williams's often blatant symbolism.

Clearly, the film has not been restored for DVD release, but I'm guessing that the original camera negative is no longer in existence and, therefore, a thorough restoration was impossible. The print used here is in good condition, with a few scratches and speckles at the ends of reels. The DVD doesn't have much in the way of extras but there is an "image gallery" of production stills and publicity clips, including a wonderful TV Guide cover drawing of Hepburn.

Let me close by saying that the Broadway Theatre Archive is an invaluable resource. Through it, one may obtain tapes and/or DVDs of excellent TV productions of works ranging from Fifth of July to The Iceman Cometh to Hamlet, featuring some of the finest actors in recent theater history. For more information, visit the website or phone 1-800-422-2827.

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