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A new Tennessee Williams heroine

Bryce Dallas Howard jumped at the chance to play Fisher Willow in the film 'The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,' based on a forgotten script by the playwright.

December 28, 2009|By Susan King
  • Bryce Dallas Howard plays a Southern debutante in the film based on an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays a Southern debutante in the film based on an unproduced… (Paladin )

He created Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Laura Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie." So it's not surprising that actress Bryce Dallas Howard felt an enormous burden introducing a new Tennessee Williams heroine in the film "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond," based on a long forgotten script by the legendary playwright.

"The opportunity for me didn't even seem rare, it seemed impossible," says Howard. "The fact there could be an unproduced piece of Williams' writing as complete as this project and that I would get the chance to be a part of it 50 years after its genesis . . . it was a tremendous responsibility, because Tennessee Williams is no longer with us, and to present his work is something to be taken very seriously."

The film, which opens Wednesday in Los Angeles, is set in and around Memphis, Tenn., in the 1920s. The story revolves around the rebellious and reckless Fisher Willow (Howard), a young heiress who returns from overseas and finds it difficult to come out in respectable high society because her father's decision to destroy his own levee caused the death of innocent workers.

But Fisher, who had suffered a nervous breakdown in Europe, wants to make an impression. So she hires her family's handsome farmhand (Chris Evans), whose grandfather had been governor but whose boozy father (Will Patton) destroyed their family's legacy, to be her escort. Her strong-willed aunt (Ann-Margret), who holds the key to the family's fortune, reluctantly lends Fisher her $10,000 teardrop diamond earrings. Of course, Fisher loses one at a party -- hence the title.

"Teardrop" marks the feature directorial debut of actress Jodie Markell, a Tennessee native, who became obsessed with Williams when she played Laura in "The Glass Menagerie" in high school at age 15. "I just felt a real affinity for his characters that sometimes feel out of place in conventional society," Markell says. "For a young teenager who had artistic aspirations, he really spoke to me."

Directing a Williams screenplay, she says, "is such a gift."

"It's not something that scares me," she adds. "I know it comes with a lot of responsibility, and you want to give it everything you can. I think everyone who came on this project felt the same way."

Broadway fame

Williams, who died in 1983 at 71, wrote "Teardrop" around 1957. He was then at the height of his fame on Broadway, having written such hits as "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" (which had made a star of Marlon Brando), "The Rose Tattoo," and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The 1951 movie version of "Streetcar" won Oscars for Vivien Leigh, who played the shattered heroine Blanche DuBois; Kim Hunter as her sister, Stella; and Karl Malden as Blanche's ill-fated suitor, Mitch.

"I found this very interesting entry, the only reference to this screenplay in his notebooks that have been published, that said he had been in a writer's block because he had received mixed reviews for the play 'Orpheus Descending' and his father had passed away that spring," says Markell.

"He says that the screenplay 'is the first time in months I have been able to do some satisfactory work'."

No one, says the filmmaker, has been able to discover why the screenplay was previously unproduced. "There are files and files of unproduced works," she says. "He was so prolific."

Markell became acquainted with the script when a director at her acting school in New York showed her the screenplay in the 1980s. But it would be years before she felt she could do it justice. "I carried it along in my heart for years until I got a bit more savvier in the business," she says.

It helped when she met producer Brad Michael Gilbert, who shared Markell's affinity for Williams. "I responded always to these broken characters," he notes. "I knew Jodie shared this feeling toward old discarded pieces of art, of theater and film."

The two collaborated in 1998 on the short film "Why I Live at the P.O.," based on the Eudora Welty story. They then decided to do "Teardrop." But it took many years to persuade the Williams estate to give them the rights. "There was a mandate only to do productions of Williams' plays on Broadway," says Markell.

Eventually, she says, the estate began to loosen up. "Also, Brad put together the financing, and 'Why I Live at the P.O.,' won a few awards. They realized I could do period Southern stories. We were just really grateful."

To prepare for her part, Howard went back through Williams' writings, "stealing little hints and little jewels of his insight," she says.

Eventually, Howard approached Fisher in a "very simplistic way -- interpret her as if Blanche DuBois still had a chance and didn't choose delusion but in the end chose to face reality. That I think is the line this character is straddling the whole time -- does she choose to succumb to her delusion and fantasy world or does she choose to live in the world the way it is?"

susan.king@latimes.com

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