Long acknowledged as one of the leading forces in Twentieth Century American Theater, Tennessee Williams has also been a powerful voice in film. Nearly all of his major plays were adapted for the screen, some of them more than once. Even those works that were regarded as experimental, controversial and, at one time, failures, were considered worthy of transfer to film, attracting the medium’s greatest actors (and stars), and resulting in collaborations with some of cinema’s most important directors. Among the legendary performers who appeared in Williams-derived movies are Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Richard Burton, and Geraldine Page—each of them twice-- along with such other acting luminaries as Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Montgomery Clift, Kirk Douglas, Jane Wyman, Laurence Harvey, James Coburn, Lynn Redgrave, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Noel Coward. Major filmmakers with whom he worked, or who helped guide his vision to the screen, include Elia Kazan, John Huston, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Sidney Lumet, Joseph Losey, Sydney Pollack, Paul Newman, and Luchino Visconti.
With respect to awards and accolades, Williams received this country’s highest honors for stage writing , including two Pulitzer Prizes and the Tony. In film, an extraordinary total of 45 nominations were accorded to a mere ten of the movies that were written, co-written by, or adapted from Williams’ work. Most notable among the nominated films are: “A Streetcar Named Desire (10 nominations, 6 wins); “The Rose Tattoo” (8 nominations, 3 wins); “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (6 nominations); and “Baby Doll,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” and Summer and Smoke,” (4 nominations apiece). Roles he created won Best Actress Oscars for Vivien Leigh (“Streetcar”) and Anna Magnani (“The Rose Tattoo”), a Best Actress nomination for Katharine Hepburn (“Suddenly, Last Summer,”) and two apiece for Elizabeth Taylor (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Suddenly. Last Summer), and Geraldine Page (“Sweet Bird of Youth” and “Summer and Smoke”). Karl Malden and Kim Hunter each won Supporting Actor Oscars (“Streetcar”) and Grayson Hall and Lotte Lenya were nominated (For “The Night of the Iguana “ and “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone”, respectively). Though Williams was personally nominated twice for Oscars as a screenwriter (for “Streetcar” and “Baby Doll”), those were both adaptations. Before “The Loss of the Teardrop Diamond,” no screenplay written directly for the screen by Tennessee Williams was ever produced.
Thomas Lanier Williams, who did not adopt the name “Tennessee” until late in the 1930's, was born on March 26, 1911, in Columbus. Mississippi, the son of a traveling shoe salesman. He grew up in St. Louis and began attending the University of Missouri in 1929. After an extended interruption while, among other things, he worked for a shoe company, he graduated from the University of Iowa in 1938. He had begun to write plays during those years and to have them produced locally. His first national recognition came in 1939 when he received a citation for a related group of one act plays, American Blues, in a Group Theatre play contest. His first commercial production was Battle of Angels (1940), which closed in Boston after a losing struggle with censorship and contentious reviews. He spent six months in 1943 as a contract writer for MGM, during which time he wrote an original script, The Gentleman Caller, which he eventually turned into a play, THE GLASS MENAGERIE, his first theatrical success. Since the New York opening of Menagerie (March 31, 1945), Williams was accepted as one of the leading American playwrights.
He wrote steadily for the theater, averaging rather more than a play a year, with a list of his major works including You Touched Me! (1945), written with Donald Windham; A Streetcar Named Desire (1947); Summer and Smoke (1948); The Rose Tattoo (195l); Camino Real (1953); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955); Orpheus Descending Long Ac(1957); Suddenly Last Summer (1958); Sweet Bird of Youth (1959); Period of Adjustment (1960); The Night of the Iguana (1961); The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963; revised 1964); Slapstick Tragedy (1966); The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1968); In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969); Small Craft Warnings (1972); A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (1979); and Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980). His last known play, A House Not Meant to Stand, was published posthumouslyin 2008, and Williams called it a “Southern Gothic spook sonata.” His greatest commercial and critical successes have been The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Night of the Iguana. These plays not only had the longest runs, but they all received the Drama Critics Circle Award and two of them (Streetcar and Cat) were given Pulitzers.
Tennessee Williams was, without doubt, among the most important playwrights to emerge in America since World War II. He made a consistent attempt to put the world as he saw it onstage in dramatic parables that brought both pleasure and shock to his audiences, an attempt that sometimes brought attacks from those who imagined that his fables were realistic portraits. His sharp eye for nuance of speech and gesture gave the American theater a number of powerful and often funny characters. His attempts to impose nonrealistic plays on the essentially realistic American theater – even when they were considered failures---have been one of the major theatrical endeavors in the United States since 1945. The lonely woman inhabiting a world of dreams was to remain one of Williams’ most powerful themes throughout his career. Clearly, this characterizes his early great plays such as The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, just as it aptly describe THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND. This theme can also be seen in Summer and Smoke (1947,) which is about a woman who, lost in dreams of her purity, is unable to respond to the man she loves and is driven into lonely spinsterhood and The Rose Tattoo (1951,) a humorous and sympathetic treatment of a Sicilian-American woman who has misplaced ambitions for her daughter. Less typical and more controversial was Camino Real (1953), an experimental play featuring such characters as Don Juan, Casanova, and Kilroy, the ubiquitous American G.I. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which also won a Pulitzer Prize, deals with the tensions and pretensions of a wealthy Southern family. Suddenly Last Summer (1958), produced on a double bill with Something Unspoken under the title Garden District, concerns a possessive mother and her homosexual son, who use others for their own selfish purposes; the son is killed and devoured by a mob of starving children. Other, lesser known plays from this fertile period of Williams' career include Period of Adjustment (1960), his first social comedy, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963,) and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1965,) which Williams considered two of his best and most difficult plays.
Much of Williams' work is fueled by difficulties of his early family life (he was briefly paralyzed as a boy, and his sister was plagued by mental illness,) and by feelings of alienation from society at large that sprang from his homosexuality. Williams' plays are not dramas of reconciliation, although he sometimes leaves a hint of hope. His characters are unhappy creatures who experience loneliness, fear of death, and profound sexual anxiety – all of which generally remain unresolved. He wrote one novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950), and collections of stories, such as Hard Candy (1954), The Knightly Quest (1967), and Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed (1974). Memoirs was published in 1975, and selected personal essays, Where I Live, in 1978.
Williams died on February 24, 1983, after choking on an eyedrop bottle cap in his room in New York’s Elysee Hotel. (He would routinely place the cap in his mouth and lean back to administer his drops, but this time, accidentally, swallowed it. However, the police report suggested that his use of prescription drugs and alcohol contributed to his death and may have diminished his gag response). His funeral took place on March 3, 1983 at St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church in New York. His body was buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. Williams left his literary rights to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee and the funds support a creative writing program. When she died after many years in a mental institution, Williams’ sister Rose bequeathed $7 million dollars from her portion of the estate to the University of the South as well.
Williams is still the most highly produced playwright on Broadway and intensely popular in London's West End. His estate licenses nearly 1000 performances of his works throughout the world every single year. Festivals run every summer devoted to his plays and there are numerous retrospectives around the world.