Narrator: Frank Langella, with Kim Hunter reading from Williams’ notebooks.
The chief value of the “American Masters” series on PBS is archival, rather than critical: Its profiles reliably gather up film clips, home movies, photographs and other material in one typically polished package, while the people similarly gathered to comment on the subject offer insights ranging from the acute (rare) to the banal (less rare). Such is the case with its treatment of Tennessee Williams, a documentary floridly, if aptly, subtitled “Orpheus of the American Stage.”
Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Williams and Arthur Miller were the id and superego, respectively, of American theater. Williams, born in Mississippi in 1911, had a Southern Gothic imagination, a poet’s sense of language and the depthless feeling of loss and alienation that derived from his virtual fatherlessness and the homosexuality that made him an outsider in an intolerant society.
Above all, he was a sensational — in both senses of the word — fabulist: After clips from several productions of “The Glass Menagerie,” Williams is quoted saying that even “critics, who should know better” claimed the play was “more factual than it was.”
The key people director Merrill Brockway relies upon for commentary are writer Gore Vidal, critic Robert Brustein and playwright Edward Albee. Vidal points out that when Marlon Brando doffed his T-shirt in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Williams presented man as erotically as woman, a seismic occurrence.
Brustein, who had his differences with the playwright, pays great tribute here, noting that when Williams was required to write a drunk scene into “Menagerie” for comic relief, even that was infused with a sad, memorable poetry. There is considerable comment about Williams’ almost obscene trashing by critics in the last two decades of his life.
Williams’ own voice is heard in the docu as well, with lengthy excerpts from interviews with Mike Wallace (in which he refuses to rebut Cardinal Spellman’s attack on his work), Dick Cavett (whom he tells that in New Orleans, “I discovered a certain,” Williams paused, “flexibility in my sexual nature”) and David Frost.
But viewers will most relish the film clips, which include mesmerizing scenes from “Streetcar,””The Rose Tattoo,””The Fugitive Kind,””Baby Doll,””Night of the Iguana” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” They tend to go on too long, and seem like padding, but with Burt Lancaster bullfighting a goat (in “Tattoo”) and the great , menacing eyes of Victor Jory (in “Fugitive Kind”) among the many gems, this seems minor quibbling.
Not so minor: Margo Jones, an early, crucial supporter and friend who co-directed “Menagerie” and later produced the premiere of “Summer and Smoke” at her theater-in-the-round in Dallas, doesn’t rate a single mention.
Finally, docu offers little if any insight into the extraordinary influence of Williams’ work, not only on the culture but on the playwrights who followed him.
Still, moved along by Frank Langella’s plangent narration, docu offers a succinct overview of a life whose influence continues to be felt deeply these 11 years after his death and will, no doubt, continue to do so for many to come.