The Glass Menagerie

Paul Newman aspires to make this film version of Tennessee Williams’s first play, one of the great works of the American theater, as definitive as Sidney Lumet’s 1962 film adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it’s seriously marred by some unfortunate decisions. Starring John Malkovich as Tom, Joanne Woodward as Amanda, Karen Allen as Laura, and James Naughton as the Gentleman Caller, the film is powerfully acted, but problematically rendered in film terms. Perhaps the biggest problem is that, despite claims that The Glass Menagerie is Williams’s most filmable play, it’s one of the most stagebound in overall conceptionone needs to see Amanda and Laura while Tom is delivering his monologues, not wait to rediscover them in flashbacks. Translating its essential textures into film requires a bolder stylistic approach and a more precise feeling of place (and space) than anything Newman has attempted, despite some rather adventurous and successful uses of camera movement in the second half. Another problem is the way Newman directs Woodward and Malkovich, which seems predicated on what might be termed the Meryl Streep Fallacy: encouraging or allowing the sort of showboating that draws more attention to the actors than to the characters they play. Woodward and Malkovich are consummate professionals, and they work mightily at their parts. But too much of this effort is visible, and in Woodward’s case the same sort of shameless Oscar-mongering that destroyed the latter portions of The Color of Money, when Newman’s actorly ambitions apparently overwhelmed Martin Scorsese’s directorial judgment, is allowed to wreak some havoc here. (Malkovich reinterprets the role of Tom with suggestions that the character is gaya plausible readingbut Malkovich’s performance is too mannered to allow us to forget he’s acting.) Still, the casting and direction of Allen and Naughton are perfect, and in their long scene together the film is every bit as good as it wants to be. Henry Mancini composed the original music (to go with Paul Bowles’s theme, which was written for the original stage production), and Michael Ballhaus was the cinematographer. (JR)

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