Tennessee Williams was both a prolific writer and celebrated personality in his day. His plays are still making the rounds of community theaters and even more than a few higher- end performance halls around the country. Songs have been written about the guy, and he’s quite honestly become a bit of a mythic legend over the years. A lot of that owes, in no small part, to his huge hit A Streetcar Named Desire. The 1947 play was a huge hit on its own. The thing even snagged a Pulitzer. There hadn’t been a bigger play before it, and few have reached the popularity and classic status since. Then director Elia Kazan got his hands on the material. And while another writer worked on the screen adaptation, Kazan was smart enough to have Williams himself write the screenplay. A couple of things happened with that 1951 film. While this was actually his second screenplay, it would catapult him into the film and television side of life. His career … and our screens … would never be the same.
A Streetcar Named Desire is still huge today. But is it the material from Williams or the amazing performances of Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, and Vivian Leigh that stand out after all of those years? Isn’t it Kazan’s inspired direction and his unique eye for cinematography that make the film so memorable? I guess the argument could be made for any of those things. Likely, it was the fortunate combination of these elements that made that film what it remains today. There’s been a kind of rediscovery of Williams of late. There’s also Hollywood’s penchant for “lost” material. All of these things combined to bring actress and first-time feature director Jodie Markell and one of Williams’ “lost” screenplays together for the 2010 Loss Of A Teardrop Diamond.
Okay. First of all, Loss Of A Teardrop Diamond was never lost. It was written in the wake of the popularity of Streetcar with the intention of reuniting the playwright with Kazan. There’s very little record on why the film was never made. My guess is the controversy surrounding the pair’s next film, Baby Doll, slowed down the momentum for another teaming. By the time the dust settled, both had gone on to other things. Who knows what the material would have been like back in Kazan’s hands. I suspect it would have been quite different from the film that Markell delivers here.
Jimmy (Evans) is the grandson of a great Tennessee governor. His family has fallen on hard times since those glory days. Now his father (Patton) is a crazy drunk who is the supervisor of a rundown plantation. His mother (Garrick) has been committed to a sanitarium. But Jimmy has caught the eye of young socialite Fisher Willow (Howard). Fisher has returned from spending much of her life living and being educated in France. She’s a bit rebellious but needs to begin to settle into high society if she hopes to inherit her family’s rather extensive fortune. One of these duties is to act the part of a social debutant and attend those galas. To do this, an escort is required, and she hires Jimmy for the job. She outfits him in socially acceptable clothing. She’s actually quite taken with Jimmy. And while he’s not really in love with her, he sees an opportunity for his family to be rehabilitated by a union of convenience with Fisher. She understands that that’s his motivation, but she loves him and suspects no one will ever really love her. She’ll settle for Jimmy “getting used” to her.
At one of these parties the film’s real drama begins to play out. Jimmy has resisted a romantic gesture from Fisher on the way to the party. She’s so upset that she jumps out of the car before it stops at the event and loses the titular teardrop diamond earring. A misunderstanding ensues which causes Jimmy to wrongly believe he has been accused of stealing it. Emotions are farther heightened when one of the attending debutantes has feelings for Jimmy. All of these events play out in a rather bizarre setting at the party.
There is little doubt that Markell is in love with the works of Tennessee Williams. It shows in every shot she photographs in this film. In an interview she expresses her devotion since she was a 17-year-old girl. But they say that love is blind, and for Jodie Markell, that couldn’t be more evident than it is here. Her first mistake is not taking on a new writer to take a pass at the original Williams screenplay; at least none is credited. A lot has changed since the 1950’s, and what worked then just won’t work today without some kind of adjustment. It also appears to be true that the original screenplay was written for an entirely differently skilled director and cast. No matter how hard Markell attempts to cram this square peg into today’s round hole, the effort is going to be painfully obvious. I’m afraid that she’s allowed her passions to drive her without engaging her better senses. On the bonus footage we see the crew constantly exclaiming how much Tennessee Williams would have loved something or another that they did. And that’s the whole problem. They made a movie for a dead guy and not for the live potential audience that they might hope to sell their film to.
The film also has some quite serious presentation flaws. There are moments that the movie transforms into an obvious attempt at looking like a stage production. There is a scene where Fisher is sitting with an old dying woman and suddenly the room’s lights go out and a white-hot spotlight shines on them as she delivers a soliloquy. That would be fine, I guess, if the rest of the film followed the same pattern. But there are filmatic moments that could not possibly be from a staged production, and Markell enmeshes herself into those fast scenery changes and wonderful Southern sunsets and riverfronts. Both styles work. But next time Jodie, pick one, please.
I like Ron Howard’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard. She has an incredible range at times. She does the absolute best she can with the material here. She can’t help that her character shifts from film to stage personality. The melodrama is so thick at times that you want to get yourself an insulin shot to counter all of the sweetness. Give her credit for totally submerging herself into the part to the point where actress is completely lost in the character. Fine effort. It just wasn’t enough. Chris Evans looks and sounds like a young Kevin Costner at times and only seems to have a single note here. The supporting cast is more than up to their tasks, and there is an atmosphere of authenticity to be found in the set designs and locations. There was promise here. It never quite gets fulfilled.
Loss Of A Teardrop Diamond is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of only about 21 mbps. Here is where Markell’s inexperience is the most telling. This looks very much like a made-for-television film. She makes it sound like she invented the anamorphic wide shooting style in her interviews, but fails at almost every turn to take advantage of the larger palette. Everything takes place directly in the center with little to widen your perspective. Colors are quite soft with the notable exception of a few primary colors. The yellow of Fisher’s vintage car and the red of her lipstick stand out considerably against a mostly drab color scheme. There are a couple of sunsets and riverfronts that provide the exception to both the scale and color limitations. Here colors work quite realistically, and the view is opened up for us to enjoy. Black levels are only average providing little shadow definition at all. There is often a haze over the image, likely provided by a filter in the attempt to create an older style.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 is a bit claustrophobic, for me. There really is almost nothing in the way of ambient sounds. I guess the idea is to create the sound presentation of a play, rather than a film. Dialog and music are here, but there is nothing to excite your ears or immerse you very strongly into the film. Sounds are soft, almost muted at times. This sounds like a film that is playing in the background, never really demanding your attention.
Behind The Scenes: (12:32) This is a very casual look at the production with mostly candid footage of the shoot.
Conversation With Jodie Markell: (13:15) She talks about all of the aspects of the film. It’s obvious that this was a very personal journey for her.
Deleted Scenes: (1:48) Just 2 very short pieces here.
With all due respect to Jodie Markell, you can’t revisit the past. It’s so obvious that she wanted to make a vintage Tennessee Williams film or play. It’s like buying grapes at the local supermarket and trying to make a 1951 vintage bottle of wine. It isn’t possible. You will never be able to reproduce today, what was possible to create then. That world is gone forever. It doesn’t mean this story can’t be successful, but you have to find ways to make it work for a modern audience. It’s not enough to try to make the film Williams wanted to make in the 1950’s. Williams himself would have made a different film today than he would have then. You can’t force it. As Al Stewart once said, “If it doesn’t come naturally, leave it”. “Propriety is a waste of time.“