The Glass Menagerie

May 7, 2020

glassmenagerieWhen Paul Newman announced he would bring Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie to the screen in a definitive version, he wasn’t kidding. Newman, as director, has rendered the play in a respectful transcription; the film doesn’t even carry a screenwriter credit, so faithful is it to Williams’ original.

The play, which made Williams’ reputation in 1945, has been filmed before. A 1950 version was a misfire, and a 1973 TV adaptation was dominated, and perhaps unbalanced, by Katharine Hepburn’s performance.

Newman’s version was prompted by a 1986 stage production, from which he kept three of the four actors: Joanne Woodward, as the faded flower of Southern womanhood, the ruler of the roost (a dingy St. Louis apartment); Karen Allen, as the frightfully shy daughter, Laura, whose life centers on her collection of glass animals; and James Naughton, as the “gentleman caller” who light ups Laura’s life for a few moments. Newman brought in John Malkovich to play Tom, who narrates the play and remembers (though “Time is the longest distance between two spaces”) a crucial moment in the lives of the characters.

These are all fine actors, but I wonder whether the cast and director haven’t been too reverential toward the play. The danger in transcribing the works of the American theater into some sort of Official Classics screen library is that the works will become as careful and shiny and lifeless as the little glass animals on Laura’s table.

For instance, the performances are safe and conventional, an approach that fits the definitiveness of this version but doesn’t spark a fresh view of the play. (Malkovich had wanted to play Tom as an overtly homosexual character, which would have made a provocative connection with Tennessee Williams’ own life; but Newman nixed the idea.)

As it is, Malkovich makes an oddly elusive Tom. Woodward, who has been married to Paul Newman for many years, is in many ways admirable as the mother, a fluttery belle who can’t comprehend her anxiety­-plagued children. (The absent father, you will recall, was “A telephone man who fell in love with long distances.”) But admirability doesn’t always translate into cinematic excitement; there’s a bit too much of the grand dame here, more than the role can use.

Karen Allen, who was the heroine in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is quietly good at catching the dark eyes and hesitant movements of Laura. But the best performance comes from James Naughton, an actor who usually does stage work. His charming Gentleman Caller is full of can-do aphorisms that may strike even his own ear as just a bit hollow.

First published in the Herald, 1987

Looks like somebody cut off this review a little shy of its ending. And yet there was room for a large photo of Karen Allen. For which I can hardly blame the Herald. The Port Townsend Film Festival showed this film for a Karen Allen tribute evening in 2013, and I did the Q&A with the very engaging star. The movie looked good that night, and probably serves as a very good introduction to the play for many.