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MOVIE REVIEW : View From the 'Menagerie' : Paul Newman Offers His Perception of Williams Classic

November 04, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

John Malkovich as Tom, a still-young man in a merchant seaman's pea jacket, studies a ruined St. Louis apartment building, climbs its fire escape into a long-deserted suite of rooms and takes us back with him to the 1930s and into one of the most haunting tragicomedies about that haunted era, Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" (at Century Plaza Cinemas and Beverly Center Cineplex).

Twin impulses prompted Paul Newman to direct the film: first, the desire to have a permanent record of the performances by Joanne Woodward and Karen Allen, given in Williamstown, Mass., and at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven under the direction of Nikos Psacharopoulos. Second was the idea of doing right by the playwright on the screen--something of a rarity in Williams-based films, most of them made in the unliberal '50s. (This film's PG rating is a comment on how tame Williams seems today.)

Newman has succeeded almost totally. In this rich and tender production he has certainly done honor and homage to Williams. He has preserved Woodward's brave and controversial reading of Amanda in which the role has more vigor and energy than we may be accustomed to, primarily because the actress is actually the right age for it. And in casting Malkovich as Tom, Williams' semi-autobiographical "poet with a job in a warehouse," Newman has caught on film a great, shattering and definitive interpretation of the role.

The only possible reservation comes with Karen Allen as the pathologically shy and crippled Laura, who must complete the delicate balance of the play's three main roles: mother, daughter, son.

Laura, two years older than her brother, is described by Williams as being "like a piece of her own glass collection," and she must be shatteringly fragile. Allen gives the role a simple, lovely reading but she cannot overcome her own exceptional looks: She is a suntanned, freckle-faced, shiny- haired Laura who looks as though she could whop her brother in straight sets of tennis and have energy enough left for a couple rounds of golf.

It is an odd miscalculation of casting, made poignant by the obvious care the two actresses have taken in their work together. They have alternately loving and tortuous scenes together, but as Amanda strokes her daughter's cheek with a gentle forefinger, forbidding her to use the word "crippled" and instead to cultivate vivacity and charm , to divert gentleman callers' attention away from her "little defect," it is a moment of real heartbreak.

For the few who may never have been introduced to the play, those for whom the "The Gentleman Caller" or "I am going to the movies " are phrases without the slightest resonance, the very briefest of synopses:

The three Wingfields live in this shabby apartment in various stages of withdrawal from reality. Their mother, Amanda, clings to her past as a Southern belle, before she married the children's handsome father, who deserted them a long time ago. Most of their income comes from Tom's job at a warehouse, which he loathes and which he can see himself nailed into, like a corpse in a coffin, for all time to come unless he acts soon.

Amanda, who earns a pittance selling magazine subscriptions by phone to her regular clients, has pinned her greatest hopes on "little sister" Laura's marriage. In view of the fact that Laura is translucent and withdrawn and has never had so much as a date, it is not the strongest possibility.

Nagged ceaselessly to provide "a gentleman caller" for his beloved sister, one night Tom brings home Jim (James Naughton), his only friend from work. His presence brings the real world into the Wingfields' shadowy one of denial and false hope.

The physical presence of this set, designed (along with the costumes) by Tony Walton with John Kasarda as art director and Susan Bode as set decorator, is phenomenal. The interior walls, if you look very closely, are far from monochrome; they are an exquisite layering of colors, oranges and pinks, beneath their dun brown surface. It gives the scenes played against them, under Michael Ballhaus' exceptional lighting and camera work, a quiet, mysterious texture. And when there is the inevitable Tennessee Williams' music-from-the-dancehall-nearby scene, as the men share a cigarette on the fire escape, it is an escape for them too from the faintly smoldering pinky-orange of the house into moonlight of the palest, coolest blue. (Henry Mancini did the unobtrusively delicate music; David Ray was the film's unshowy editor.)

Woodward slips into Amanda gently; she may be relentless, she may be constitutionally unable to give Tom a minute's peace, but her approach is light, quiet, never overbright or brittle. And her performance grows within the film until, with her great "jonquil" speech recalling her youth on the Delta, she is transcendent. Actually, of all the Amandas within memory, Woodward's is the one you believe had 17 gentlemen callers that afternoon in Blue Mountain so long ago.

James Naughton's Gentleman Caller is just fine--not as much of a falling star as he's been in other productions, but obtuse and sensitive in just the right proportions.

The triumph of the film, however, is still Malkovich's Tom, who will be forced by his unrelenting mother into one great act of desertion and haunted by it for the rest of his days. It is a performance with all the range of possibilities that Williams intended within its boundaries, and if we have wondered where our next great, charismatic young actor was going to come from, the answer by now should be perfectly clear.

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