THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND:
Author Tennessee Williams (“A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “The Glass Menagerie”) is one of America’s most iconic playwrights, and many of the movies based on his works have become classic pieces of cinema. “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond”, written by Williams in 1957 with the big screen in mind, went 51 years without being produced. In 2006, lesbian wannabe Lindsay Lohan was originally in mind to play the lead role of Fisher Willow– a rich, beautiful, bored heiress– in a movie version. Mercifully, that decision was torpedoed. With the film’s literary pedigree, a rising young actress now cast as Fisher (Bryce Dallas Howard, who appeared in “Spiderman 3” and “Lady in the Water”), and two legendary Hollywooders (Ann-Margret and Ellen Burstyn) in the cast as well, you’d think this hot, sticky Southern drama would have gotten more attention. But, no. Made in 2008, the movie was shelved for a year and quietly made its way into a few theaters this weekend.
Being a Tennessee Williams creation, we’re treated to all the visuals you’d expect: a long shot of a sprawling Southern mansion, a huge portrait of an ancient patriarch on the wall, the opulent ball scenes, etc. There are also Williams’ recurrent themes of class, pride, family, the tyranny of emotions, and repressed sexuality running through the film. When we meet Fisher Willow (Howard), she’s first seen drunk and wandering through an unknown city, then seen dancing alone in an African-American watering hole. It’s very similar to the way we met Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar”: a southern belle looking conspicuously out of place in a crowded, urban jungle. “Streetcar” was set in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the ’40’s; “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” is set in Mississippi, 1923. When we meet Fisher the next morning, all sobered up, she evokes the horniness of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”‘s Maggie, and the free-spirited rebelliousness of Scarlett O’Hara. (The fragility of Blanche DuBois comes later…) The soul of a cosmopolitan flapper caught in the all-too-genteel South, she’s too restless for the pageantry and pretense of life as a debutante. And, with the makeup and wardrobe sensibilities of a drag queen, she just looks out of place. Fisher sets her sights on a handsome working guy (Chris Evans) with a story of his own: His mother is in an asylum, and the father is a drunk. (Again, this is a Tennessee Williams story.) Fisher ostensibly wants Jimmy as an “escort” for the parties and balls she goes to, but we suspect she wants more (Ball? Ball? Did anyone say “ball”?!). Jimmy resists her advances, perhaps sensing that this dark-haired Dixie is just a bit crazy. At the party, her rentboy of sorts becomes the object of attention of another woman. At the same time, Fisher loses one of the the $500 teardrop diamond earrings of the movie’s title. Motivated primarily by jealousy of that other woman, she accuses Jimmy of stealing the earring. It’s at this point where appealing free-spiritedness starts to show as subtle mental instability. (Kind of like the same situation with the cute guy at the club who rips off his shirt and starts dancing on the bar, but then later starts smashing glasses). Unfortunately, it’s also at this point when “The Loss of A Teardrop Diamond” takes a disastrous turn– losing its momentum and, at times, almost lulling the viewer to sleep. It’s unclear whether this is (1) Jodi Markell’s direction, (2) the fact that these characters just aren’t as appealing as Williams’ other literary figures, or perhaps that (3) the material just doesn’t work as well in 2010 as it may have in an earlier generation.
It’s worth noting that although Tennessee Williams was gay, most of the portrayals of gay or bi characters in his films were clearly not positive. Blanche DuBois’ gay husband killed himself in “Streetcar”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”‘s Brick was troubled by repressed homosexual feelings; and “Suddenly Last Summer”‘s gay character Sebastian was about as likable as a drunk Paul Lynde during a weekend at Fire Island. In this movie, Jimmy gets seriously cruised in the men’s room, resulting in him assaulting his admirer. The director no doubt added this scene added this scene to keep the screenplay faithful; but knowing what we know about Williams in retrospect, it seems like nothing more than a display of the late writer’s internalized homophobia. A big tease comes when Jimmy strips down to bare his skin to prove that he did not steal Fisher’s earring. But don’t get too excited, boys: It happens off screen. Gay content (or, lack thereof, more accurately…) aside, “The Loss of the Teardrop Diamond”, overall, is unsatisfying and only watchable about half its running time. Bryce Dallas Howard’s hard-working performance is a standout, nonetheless. Ann-Margret, in bad aging makeup, is wasted as Fisher’s great-aunt, while Ellyn Burstyn’s portrayal of a bed-bound opium addict is actually one of the film’s livelier moments. “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” is for Tennessee Williams buffs only. You know who you are.
“The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” is now playing.