The 60s
Career - Theatre

Book Excerpt: A Look at Tennessee Williams

Deborah and Peterby Mike Steen (1969)
Cuckoo4kitties shares another piece. This time Deborah and Peter discuss Tennessee Williams, adapting plays for the screen and the roles she would have liked playing from Tennessee’s plays. Everybody repeat with me: “Thank you Lisa!” 🙂

Deborah Kerr is a perfect example of the song “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and the favorite melody of her husband, Peter Viertel, should be “I Married an Angel.” I had never met Deborah Kerr prior to this interview but everyone said, “You’ll love her, she’s an angel.” I couldn’t agree more, and she is more than an angel. She is vivacious, intelligent, chic, and talented. She is the answer to any man’s dream!
Deborah and Peter make their home in Switzerland. When in Los Angeles they usually take a house on the beach. Peter is an ardent surfer, and after spending all morn ing at his typewriter, he often heads for the Malibu beaches. He is the author o f White Hunter, Black Heart, a thinly disguised account o f the making o f John Huston’s film The African Queen.
When I went to see them at the Bel-Air Hotel, Deborah had a rare day off from her heavy film schedule on The Arrangement.
Los Angeles November 27, 1968

KERR:    As I remember it, I first met Tennessee outside of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with Elia Kazan when we were rehearsing Tea and Sympathy. As you know, Kazan and Tennessee were great chums, and whether he had been to a rehearsal or not I don’t really remember because I don’t think he wanted me to know that anybody was there. But I remember they were together in the street outside and I said, “Hello” and “How do you do?” and that’s all. That was the first time.
Then I didn’t meet him again until The Night o f the Iguana in Puerto Vallarta. I arrived later than the rest of the company. Richard Burton and Ava Gardner were already there working, and Tennessee had arrived earlier, too. Even then I didn’t really see him very much. Dorothy Jenkins, who designed the costumes for the film, was someone who knew him quite well. She was passionate that he come and take a look at the one principal costume that I had, which was very simple-kind of arty-crafty. It was a marvelous outfit, actually. We were having the clothes made in a tiny shop in Puerto Vallarta. It was terribly hot and you didn’t feel like taking all your clothes off and getting other clothes on. And I think Tennessee had said Yes, he would come, and sort of dived into the shop and took one look and you just felt he wished he wasn’t there at all. And we said, “Hello. How are you?” again, and so on. He muttered something and shot out pretty quickly. I think we chatted for about five minutes, that was all, and about what, I really don’t know, other than he thought the outfit was great. Dorothy did most of the talking.
MIKE: You were there at the same time, weren’t you, Peter?
VIERTEL: Yes, I was. I remember he came in and made some very complimentary remarks about Deborah, about her looks, and then buzzed off right away again.
MIKE:    I think Tennessee was in Puerto Vallarta for about a week or two weeks, wasn’t he?
KERR:    About a week, I think, or ten days.
VIERTEL: I suppose he was there a week prior to our arrival and stayed about a week afterwards.
MIKE:    Was he doing some rewrites on the script?
VIERTEL:    I think he said he would, but then I believe he just fiddled around with one scene.
MIKE:    That was the period when he wore a beard, wasn’t it?
KERR:    Yes, I remember. It was kind of scruffy, you know. It was startling. I remember it very well because he didn’t look at all as I remembered him. It changed him enormously, didn’t it?
VIERTEL: Wasn’t he down in Mexico years earlier, when he had the idea for this play?
MIKE:    I think he got the idea for the short story, which is not a precise basis for the play, during his first trip to Acapulco in 1940. The play didn’t come until quite a bit later.
VIERTEL:    But the play is based on the short story?
MIKE:    I don’t think it really is. He used the same title and minor aspects of the short story, and wrote an entirely different thing with it. The same way he did with the short story called Three Players o f a Summer Game, which has a distant relation to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If you read the short story it is very minutely connected with the play. In fact, he’s written another screenplay now called Three Players o f a Summer Game, which is taken more directly from the short story of that name.
KERR:    He is a great man for titles, though, isn’t he? Night of the Iguana is a marvelous title. Summer and Smoke! What a title! It’s my favorite play of his. I really love it.
MIKE:    It is a part you would have been beautiful in, too. You would have been very suitable for Miss Alma.
KERR:    Yes. You know, I have only done the movie of the Iguana. I have never had a chance to do anything of his on the stage.
MIKE:    When you were doing the film of Iguana, did you feel any autobiographical aspects in the character of Hannah Jelkes in common with Tennessee’s own life, especially with his life with his Grandfather Dakin?
KERR: I would think so, yes. From what I know of him. You feel everything he writes about is very autobiographical. All his passions and feelings that he expresses in plays are obviously his own. Hannah represented his fight against the violence and brutality of the world. The period in which he wrote that play, the Germans represented brutality. I understand leaving that out of the film from a world point of view, but for me it was one of the strongest things in the play. This is what Hannah was against and yet had had to woo. She almost had to kind of prostitute herself to sell her drawings to the type of person who represented everything she really was against. And I am sure that expressed some feelings that were in Tennessee.
MIKE:    Yes, it certainly expresses his feelings about letting his material pass on to a producer, especially a Hollywood producer!
KERR:    Yes, that probably is the feeling to parallel, actually, personally, and you know him so much better than I do. I don’t know.
VIERTEL: Well, actually he’s been very lucky. He had a couple of very good ones, which is rare. Streetcar Named Desire was well done, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as well as Night of the Iguana.
KERR:    Sweet Bird o f Youth.
MIKE:    That was one of his favorite films of his work. VIERTEL:    So he’s been very lucky. He really has no complaint against Hollywood, compared to most other writers.
MIKE:    Of course, a writer’s critical opinion of a film done from his own work is more severe. So just because Tennessee himself wouldn’t think something of his is well done doesn’t mean that other people wouldn’t enjoy it.
VIERTEL:    Yes, but he’s the one that knows what he wants from it, and knows what he wanted to represent. So his opinion finally is the best opinion as far as that goes. But I think that on the whole he’s had a pretty good shake compared to, for example, Hemingway, who never had one film really which was even close to what he wrote. Or Faulkner, who never had one that remotely resembled what he had written in the first place.
MIKE: How much do you think that has to do with the fact that a certain writer’s material may be more easily interpreted by a screenwriter?
VIERTEL: I don’t think that’s the cause of it. Tennessee Williams was careful whom he sold his material to, and then, as he’s a dramatist, the dialogue was all there and didn’t need much adapting. A stage play is somewhat easier to adapt than a novel. Usually the writer who gets to adapt it is lazy or smart enough to just use scissors and a pot of pastel It’s a little more difficult with a novel. Maybe that’s why playwrights on the whole have been luckier than novelists with the movies. Even Eugene O’Neill has been quite fortunate. A couple of things of his have come off very well. Of course, Tennessee came at a later time, so his plays were bought for the screen when the screen was more adult.
KERR:    I think that’s very true. His movies, most of them, have been made at a time when, really, one can speak out.
VIERTEL:    Not only speak out, but better people bought the material and made the films. Hemingway’s books were always distorted and bastardized by the people who bought them. For instance, Howard Hawks made To Have and Have Not, and not one scene even resembled what the book was about.
MIKE:    They were just buying Hemingway’s name?
VIERTEL:    That’s right. He sold a book like For Whom the Bell Tolls to a man called Sam Wood, who was an opponent of Loyalist Spain. He wanted to make the book impartial
KERR: But Ingrid Bergman was gorgeous!
VIERTEL:    Yes, but it was a lousy picture, considering what a great book it was.
MIKE:    Peter, you wrote the screenplay for The Sun Also Rises, didn’t you?
ViERTEL:    That was a bastardized version, as well.
MIKE:    But didn’t you have to do whatever studio heads or the producer would want in order to make a commercial film?
VIERTEL: Well, yes. In the case of The Sun Also Rises, there were scenes added, so the script was changed. And then we had to make concessions in casting. We never found the right Lady Brett, and the bullfighter was played by somebody who shouldn’t have been playing that part. Still, there were moments that were good, but that’s about all.
MIKE:    Did you ever meet Hemingway and know him? VIERTEL:    Yes, I knew him very well. He wasn’t happy with the picture.
MIKE:    I don’t think he liked any of his films, did he? VIERTEL: The one he wanted made most of all was Old Man and the Sea and even that didn’t work out very well, although the text was his. The picture he liked best was probably the first version of A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, which had good things in it and was, to an extent, true to the book. He also liked parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls. He liked Cooper’s portrayal of the hero. But with Tennessee it’s a different story. What Tennessee has to say, in my opinion, is much harder to sell to the public than what Hemingway had to say. Tennessee’s message, as far as the general public goes, is one they have to reach for. Hemingway’s was much easier to accept, especially because he more truly represented America. His feelings about physical bravery and macho-ism are very important to America. Tennessee represents the battle of the sensitive people against the brutalized people. And that’s a difficult pill for the general public to swallow. But he’s said what he had to say! And he said it in the theatre and he said it in the movies to some extent.
MIKE:    Sometimes I think what Tennessee has to say is only really understood by the people who already feel the way he feels.
VIERTEL:    I think that’s true to an extent, but I think finally he reaches everybody. Because there’s tremendous power in his writing. He really is a great playwright! He organizes the emotions of the people who see the thing and they’re touched by it. Whether they’re in agreement with what the writer says, they’re being touched by it just the same.
MIKE: Like in Streetcar. Whether they identify with Stanley Kowalski or with Blanche DuBois, they still come out of the theatre with some sort of understanding of the play’s message.
VIERTEL: In the theatre you have to understand everybody’s point of view. Even if you sympathize with Stanley Kowalski, and if you’re not put off by his brutishness, you can’t help but be upset and impressed by the downfall of this tragic woman, Blanche. And if you are moved by it, that’s half the battle.
MIKE: Deborah, when you met Tennessee in Puerto Vallarta during the filming of The Night o f the Iguana, was there any particular aspect of his personality that impressed you or that you remember?
KERR:    Well, I suppose probably the same thing that everybody notices: his intense shyness. And the feeling that he’s about to say something to you and doesn’t say it and you wish that he would, you know, whatever it might be. That was the impression I had of him. He appeared to be an extremely shy and sensitive person in just the few minutes he came in during my wardrobe fitting. You feel that he’s about to say something that you’d love to hear, but he doesn’t and dashes off.
MIKE:    Did he work well with John Huston?
KERR:    I think they got on very well. John is enigmatic, too. You never quite know him. Actually, I never really saw them working together.
MIKE:    The reason I asked is that some of Tennessee’s best work was done with Kazan, who is a very strong, domineering director, which I think Tennessee needs. And I guess John Huston is in the same category. It seems to me he would be a good director to discipline Tennessee to do rewrites and polishing on a script.
VIERTEL:    Yes, except that in the case of Night of the Iguana the play had already been written. He had written a play and it was past history as far as he was concerned. You could feel that. They wanted him there to do some writing, but I don’t think he did much. That’s because he had done it, you know, and it was long past. Kazan always came in at the formative period of a play-when he had just written the play, and the play was being produced, and the creative process was still valid. The creative process with The Night o f the Iguana, as far as Tennessee was concerned, was finished.
MIKE:    Deborah, you have only played one Tennessee Williams part. Are there others that you find particularly suitable or interesting for yourself?
KERR:    Yes. He is one of the few that write great parts for women. I love Summer and Smoke, as I said before. I think it’s a marvelous part. I would have loved to play that. Who wouldn’t want to play Streetcar?
VIERTEL: Yes, and it will be played again, obviously. MIKE:    You would certainly be right for that now. KERR:    Maybe it’s time to revive it!
VIERTEL: I believe that all of Tennessee’s plays will be redone in the next ten years.
MIKE:    You would also be perfect for Sweet Bird of Youth now.
KERR:    Well, yes. Unfortunately, I was working on another movie at the time it was filmed. I was offered it and I couldn’t do it. Geraldine Page played it, and she was marvelous! She always is! That was seven years ago. Seven years makes a big difference. Now I would be great for it.
VIERTEL: It’s casting against _your type, though, Sweet Bird o f Youth.
KERR:    ‘Tis a bit, yes.
VIERTEL:    Certainly you’re closer to Streetcar and in another ten years Glass Menagerie. Nobody wants to follow Laurette Taylor’s performance … still, I believe they have redone it a couple of times, haven’t they? Glass Menagerie?
MIKE: It’s been done on television and it was revived in New York with Maureen Stapleton.
VIERTEL:    Was it well revived?
MIKE:    Yes, it was well received. Deborah, you’re speaking in terms of theatre, not films, for revival?
KERR:    Well, yes. Because they have all been done in films really, so there’s not much reason to hope to redo Glass Menagerie again, unless …
VIERTEL:    Who played it in the movie?
KERR:    Gertrude Lawrence.
VIERTEL:    Was she good in it?
KERR:    Well … no.
MIKE:    She was miscast.
KERR:    And she-her specialty was a whole different world, wasn’t it?
VIERTEL:    Must have been very difficult-to follow in Laurette Taylor’s shoes.
MIKE: I think it is interesting to remember how many British actresses have played Tennessee’s parts.
KERR:    The queen is Margaret Leighton! She’s played practically all of his parts. It’s funny. He sort of writes as if they were English, although they are usually Southern. But I guess that’s almost the same thing.

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