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THE PERFORMANCE: Bryce Dallas Howard

Gratefully heading South in 'Teardrop Diamond'

Howard's passion for theater prevails over her nerves in originating the Tennessee Williams character Fisher Willow.

December 31, 2009|By Michael Ordoña

The significance of taking on a "new" heroine in the Tennessee Williams canon did not escape Bryce Dallas Howard, star of the just-released "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond."

"As an actor, it's kind of one of the biggest responsibilities I could be presented with, to originate a character by such a beloved playwright who's not with us anymore. I had a few moments when I was questioning, am I the right actor? I felt so grateful to have [director Jodie Markell] around because she instilled a lot of confidence and really carried me through each day.

"I think it's Freudian, but I'm really all about directors," says the daughter of Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard, cackling wickedly.

The tracks of this "Teardrop" originated in 1957, when Williams penned it to be a third collaboration with director Elia Kazan ("A Streetcar Named Desire," "Baby Doll"), with Julie Harris in mind for the lead. The story concerns the trials and errors of rebellious socialite Fisher Willow, chafing against the constraints of the Jazz Age South as she tries to romance a handsome former peer, now fallen on hard times. "Essentially, something else got greenlit," says Howard, and the legendary writer's estate proved particularly protective of completed works that hadn't been produced.

After more than 10 years of impassioned pursuit, the untested Markell finally persuaded the estate of the purity of her intentions. Actors such as Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret and Chris Evans soon were in the fold. Howard, though, wondered why "Teardrop" initially fell from the public eye.

"When I heard it was a 'lost' screenplay, I was kind of nervous at first: Was it lost for a reason? I read it and I couldn't believe it -- it's so classically Williams. She is so classically a Tennessee Williams heroine," says the actress in her publicists' offices, sporting a scarlet-sexy femme fatale look. "And then the nerves set in."

Howard says her interest in Williams began early: "I saw 'Streetcar' when I was 14 at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago with Gary Sinise playing Stanley Kowalski. And for me, that was like, literally, my sexual awakening. I have a vivid recollection of that production."

The dramatist might applaud such a declaration, considering that rape, homosexuality and other subjects deemed unfit for polite society were routinely pruned from screen versions of his works. "Teardrop" survives intact, including an eerie opium-inflected party scene like something out of Kubrick.

"He was a gay Southern man, and at that time, and to have the nature he did, he needed to express himself. I think that comes across in his work; in this character, for sure. Often she feels totally stifled by provincial Southern society and yearns to leave," Howard says.

"Someone asked him once what 'Streetcar' was about, and he said it was 'a plea for the understanding of the delicate people.' I think that Fisher, although brazen and audacious and courageous and unapologetic, she's a deeply sensitive person. She feels repressed. And that's something, obviously, you do see in his work."

Howard had to be "brazen and audacious" to, for instance, learn the piano for a scene in which Fisher has a near-nervous breakdown while playing Franz Liszt's "Liebestraum No. 3." Once she overcame her initial self-doubts, though, the actress says the theatrical nature of Williams' writing and her stage background were a comfortable fit for a personality of Fisher's size.

"This is a very large character, and she's extremely expressive. She doesn't really think before she speaks," she says, laughing. "I based her a lot on this young woman who's an old family friend; she's very Southern and larger than life. She's a really beautiful woman, she's not superficial, none of that; she liked my engagement ring and said" -- Howard takes on a drawl that would make Miss DuBois blanch -- " 'If Ah don't get three carats, Ah'll just DAH!'

"Who actually says these kinds of things?"

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