The Glass Menagerie (1987)
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Paul Newman
“Write what you know” is some advice often given to writers struggling to know where to start. Tennessee Williams was an artist who often practiced this, sometimes literally but also metaphorically. In the case of The Glass Menagerie, it was a very personal play that touched on his relationship with his mother and sister. He kept coming back to it in different forms until he found the way that worked, even writing a screenplay (The Gentleman Caller) that would be repurposed for the play. The result is a moving story of a family displaced from the American South struggling to find their way in an increasingly cold, cruel world.
Tom Wingfield (John Malkovich) remembers when he lived with his family in St. Louis. His mother, Amanda (Joanne Woodward), is a delusional woman prone to performative histrionics. She’s been abandoned by her husband, left to raise her two children, who have many problems. As the only man in the house, Tom is expected to bring in enough money to support everyone. Yet, his true passion is to be a poet & make art. So he spends his nights out, telling his mother he’s going to see movies, but is he? And then there’s Laura (Karen Allen), the oldest child but very frail due to a childhood illness. This disability and the world’s subsequent treatment of her have left Laura with an intense inferiority complex. To withdraw, she has collected small glass figurines, which let her imagination drift away from the challenging conditions of day-to-day life.
Amanda is obsessed with Laura receiving “gentleman callers,” potential suitors who will not just marry her daughter but provide the family a lucrative escape from being the working poor. Every day she pressures Tom to find a man at his place of work that he can bring over and begin a relationship with Laura. Laura’s insecurity leaves her dreading that this ever comes to pass. One day it does when Tom reluctantly brings home Jim (James Naughton). Jim went to high school with the Wingfield siblings and had been Laura’s secret crush during those formative years. Now, face to face with him, she is reminded of how her dreams remain fantasies.
This was the final film directed by Paul Newman, who only dipped his toe into filmmaking a handful of times. Previously I watched & reviewed his film adaptation of Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds stage play. I thought it was done well, but it was my first exposure to that play. One thing I noted and noticed here was that Newman doesn’t seem concerned about the elements of filmmaking outside of actor performance. He doesn’t do anything with the material on a visual level that makes the experience cinematic. If you don’t like plays shot on film without any extra flourishes, I could see you finding this adaptation boring. One of the challenging things about theater-to-film adaptation is figuring out how far you can expand on the source material without subverting it.
Because Newman was an actor, his interests clearly lay in getting great performances out of his actors. Of course, it helps that he frequently casts his wife, Joanne Woodward, in critical roles. While you can argue this is nepotism, and I guess it meets the technical definition, I also think it’s because Newman genuinely respected her as a performer and knew he won’t have to direct her that much because she understood what he was looking for. This means he can spend more time with the other actors, confident Woodward will do a fantastic job. It’s the same reason you see many directors employ many of the same actors again and again. Once you find someone who speaks your language, you keep them around to make the process smoother.
The clash at the root of this play plays out generation after generation. Amanda has rooted her mind in the idea that if her children just did what she said, they would be happy, and all their problems would be solved. However, Tom & Laura look out at the world and are justifiably terrified. Laura has evident reasons for having grown up as either an invisible person or the likely target of bullies. She knows what it means to be disabled in America and would rather hide inside, imagining stories for all her friends in her glass collection. Tom also has a rich inner life and, as this is semi-autobiographical, is likely a gay man trying to hide that aspect of himself from his mother, knowing what would happen if he was open and honest. It reminded me of the never-ending clash of generations that each successive generation likes to imagine is exclusive to their own. Amanda’s not a villain; she has been conditioned by her society and chosen to mask to retain whatever sanity she’s held onto.
Amanda muddles things during Jim’s visit as, at moments, she behaves more like the woman being courted than Laura. You can see her affecting an even more lilting southern accent to charm Jim in the only ways she knows how. The result is more confusion & bemusement on Jim’s part than seduction. He finds Amanda to be a funny person, which she misunderstands as her charms being compelling. Many people who read this play or see it performed latch onto hating Amanda, an easy character to dislike, especially if you are a young person reading it. You’re likely to identify with the adult children more than the parent. But Amanda is more complex than this, and the things that annoy you about her are crucial to understanding who she is beneath that mask.
The standout here is Karen Allen as Laura. The only things I really know Allen from are her turns as Marion Ravenwood in the Indiana Jones films and some supporting roles in Animal House, among a few others. None of these roles ever really showcased whether or not she had strong acting chops. The Glass Menagerie reveals that she can be fantastic if you give her strong material to work with. Laura is a tragic character, and Allen can bring those vulnerabilities out without making her feel pathetic. When she finally begins emerging from her shell, believing that Jim actually does like her, you discover a fragile vibrant person. The way she talks about her glass figurines pulls you into that world with her, and when she offers one to Jim just before he leaves, it breaks your heart.
Like most of Williams’ work, the play concludes that life rarely leads to clean, neat resolutions. The story seeks to dispute the claims of the toxic positive American mindset represented through Amanda. She has devoted herself to a particular framework of the world, and if she fully leans into her role as a “woman” as defined in the time & place she lives, there will be contentment. Laura’s disability creates dissonance with that idea, so Amanda ignores any trauma her daughter shares. If they just think positively and go through the performance of femininity, then a man will marry her daughter and their economic woes will be solved. Who Laura truly is doesn’t matter to Amanda; the same could be said for Tom. These are three broken people in a fractured society trying to find peace. That’s a hard thing to do.