Playwright Tennessee Williams made a name for himself in the middle part of the last century writing some of the most celebrated plays of all time, which included "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Glass Menagerie" and "The Night of the Iguana." All of these plays went on to be made in to some of the finest films of the last hundred years starring screen legends like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglass, Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. Now, after almost fifty-five years, the late playwright's long-forgotten lone screenplay has been resurrected into a feature film starring the very talented Bryce Dallas Howard as Williams' heroin Fisher Willow in "The Loss Of A Teardrop Diamond." The screenplay, which harbors elements from Williams more celebrated plays, as Willow is a unique combo of Blanch from "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Brick from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," is as interesting to listen to as Williams' words usually are but has somehow lost some of it's power over the years. In fact, I fear that as fine a job as all the actors and the director, Memphis-raised former actress Jodie Markell, did with the film that it's stiff period language and subject matter will be lost on today's audience leaving the film as an interesting yet somewhat empty piece of work.
Originally intended to be shot by Elia Kazan, the director of the film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and arguably Williams finest collaborator, the movie would have been made in the early '50s and was intended to star actress Julie Harris from Kazan's "East Of Eden" as Willow. One can only wonder why the film was never made when that does sound like a winning combination of talent, alas the film was not made then, which is a shame as I think the film was better suited for that time. While this latest version is well done and at times is fascinating to watch, it does play-out a bit like an acting exercise, as if the cast signed on just to hear themselves speak the words of the legendary playwright, which is a fine reason to make the movie but not a great reason to watch it. The film honestly feels more like a PBS movie then a theatrical release but if anything saves the film it is the remarkable performance of Howard, who does share a striking resemblance to a young Julie Harris. Howard, who of course is the daughter of director Ron Howard and has been making a name for herself over the last few years as a strong and steady actress in various genre movies like "Spider-Man 3," "Terminator: Salvation" and the upcoming "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," makes a stunning turn in this often melodramatic film, never becoming melodramatic herself and in the end showing off her impressive acting chops. As a lead actress, Howard completely carries the film and carries the audience's interest along with it. She is breathtaking to watch and you really feel that she, at least, understands the material and what she is doing even if the audience may not. It is a respectful and completely captivating performance by the young actress and one I hope to see more of in the future but perhaps in a more contemporary film.
The film tells the story of Fisher Willow played by Howard. After returning from overseas, she falls in love with Jimmy played by a perhaps over-his-head Chris Evans, the son of an alcoholic father (Will Patton) and an insane mother. She does everything in her power to pass him off as a wealthy suitor so that she can appease her family, especially her aunt (Ann-Margret), who controls their fortune and who would deem Jimmy completely unsuitable based on his family's background. Fisher, however, realizes she has lost a diamond, which might put her relationship in jeopardy. These events unfold, for the most part, over one night at a social event when Fisher looses the diamond. While Fisher is desperately looking for the diamond and trying to save face among the dignitaries, Jimmy is reacquainted with his former lover Vinnie, played with just the right vicious tone by Jessica Collins. As Fisher desperately searches she is forced to make up excuse and inadvertently blames Jimmy for the loss. Innocent and offended by the accusation Jimmy is not so happy with being Fisher's boy-toy and has an unexpected rendezvous with Vinnie, who may be hiding some secrets of her own. Eventually, the diamond is recovered but that is not satisfying enough for Fisher as she needs to get to the bottom of the nights events, realizing before too long that Jimmy has only been looking out for her best interests, which leads to their inevitable attraction for each other.
First time director Markell has a daunting job bringing Williams' script to the big screen after all this time and does an adequate job of doing so. Again, any problems with the film lay in the out-of-date script and subject matter but I do wonder if any thought was given to updating the material a bit? In some ways the story is "much to do about nothing" so as unthinkable as it may be to re-write Tennessee Williams' words, I think the film could have used a modern day shot-in-the-arm. Perhaps, the film would have worked better in a contemporary setting, I don't know, but as is the film often falls hollow despite its fine performances. Both legendary actresses, Ann-Margret and Ellen Burstyn, who perform in the film, are wonderful to watch in their limited scenes although both actresses seem to be short-changed by the script. Chris Evans, who is best known to audiences as Johnny "The Human Torch" Storm in "The Fantastic Four" movies gets major credit for even trying to tackle material like this, which is way above his pay grade. I think Evans is a good young actor but his modern day swagger doesn't translate in this period piece and I believe the actor is much better suited for contemporary action and comedy roles like we are used to seeing from him. He does his best in this film but I believe at times is lost by the material. The other important performance I'd like to point out in the film belongs to Jessica Collins who is best known for her role on the short-lived ABC series "The Nine." The actress, who clearly has a feeling for this role, transcends the period and the dialogue to portray a damaged girl, clearly out of her element and is a strong adversary for the impressive Howard. I hope that this performance garners her some attention, as I'm very curious to see what role Collins chooses next.
But in the end, it is the brilliant performance of the talented Bryce Dallas Howard that saves the film. Her understanding of the material, no matter how out of date it might be, is truly extraordinary. She eases through the film with a certain grace and quality that is not abundant any more with contemporary actresses and it is quite refreshing to see. She holds her own in her scenes with veterans like Margret and Burstyn and practically carries poor Evans in all her scenes with him. This is the type of film that will probably come and go. While it won't achieve any real recognition this awards season, partly do to the fact that it is being released on practically the last day of the year, I do hope that the Hollywood community will take notice as it is a coming-out-party on some level for Howard, who clearly proves that she is one of the finest young actresses working today and can do far more than perform the "girlfriend roles" in big budget blockbusters. Just as a side-note, it should be mentioned that troubled-actress Lindsay Lohan had been originally cast in the role of Fisher Willow and thank God that the filmmakers decided to recast because it goes without saying that Lohan's involvement in the film would have been a disaster. In the end, I feel that the director and cast did the best they could with the material but the bottom line is that the script is simply out of date and not appropriate for today's audience, thus unfortunately falling flat at times. Perhaps there was a reason why Kazan never made "The Loss Of A Teardrop Diamond" himself, maybe he felt the material just wasn't right and he wouldn't have been wrong, as Williams's long-lost screenplay may have been better served if it had just stayed lost. But it is the truly remarkable work of the talented Bryce Dallas Howard that makes this film worth seeing at all as she is able to transcend the muddy writing and give a performance that is real, organic, layered and absolutely lovely.
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is out January 1, 2008.