Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie is one of the most eloquent investigations of family claustrophobia ever written. Although set in the 1930s and first produced on the London stage in 1948, Williams’s classic will resonate as long as there are overly possessive parents and children who resist them. Last week a new film version of the play—directed by Paul Newman and starring his wife, Joanne Woodward—premièred at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. It is an elegant piece of work, laced with passages of virtuoso acting. But the wider reaches of Williams’s tragic genius frequently prove too much for it.
Amanda (Woodward) is the neurotic, overbearing mother of two children in their early 20s, Tom (John Malkovich) and Laura (Karen Allen). In their dim St. Louis, Mo., apartment—an appalling warren of small rooms sheathed in wallpaper of faded gold—Amanda revels in her own distant genteel youth, oblivious to the young lives withering around her. Woodward excels in those flowery passages of reminiscence, stroking the vowels with a
southern accent that drips honeyed sentimentality. But she is frequently too earthy, too fundamentally sane, to do full justice to the brittle, high-strung and ultimately tragic Amanda. Waddling heavily down the hall during one of her frequent bouts of disappointment, she looks more like a charlady than a woman with pretensions to dignity.
Amanda’s problems began years earlier, when she was deserted by her rakish husband. Now she has to subsist on the meagre salary that Tom brings home from his warehouse job. But Tomplayed with great intensity but too little vulnerability by Malkovich—is planning to run away and become a writer. Meanwhile, Laura’s own stifled life receives a ray of hope when Tom brings home a friend whom Amanda promptly nicknames the Gentleman Caller (James Naughton). The long, halting scene between Laura and her prospective lover is one of the most powerful, sexually charged and heartrending passages of recent American film: it is only in Allen’s and Naughton’s hands that the full darkness and tenderness of Williams’s vision stands revealed.
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