Tuesday, 8 June 2010

How to be a Tennessee Williams Heroine

I have been thinking: most of the modern-day feminine icons we admire and try to behave like (and none of us girls can deny having at least 12 and looking up to them as if they were the 12 apostles) are flawless examples of serene beauty, impeccable behaviour and exemplary self-control. You know what I mean: the charming Audrey Hepburn, the distant Greta Garbo, the mysterious Coco Chanel, the ice-cold Catherine Deneuve.
Now I like to think I'm not the only one who absolutely can not stay cool, calm, charming and sweet like them at all times. I also like to think I'm not the only one that feels closer to Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown than to Little Women.
I have no clue as to why women ideals are so perfect and above everything. Is it the evil hand of man, who wants us to be like that, or are we just obsessed with being superwomen? I won't go into all that; but I figured there are other role models we can look up to, women who are positively messed up, like any human being is, only more so! These are playwright Tennessee Williams's heroines. Mississippi-born Williams specialized in femininity, obsessions, odd behaviours and loss of control. The great thing about Williams's girls is they might experience different degrees of lunacy or despair, but they always stay fascinating and passionate. And are there any better qualities to a woman than those two?
Also, Williams depicts all kinds of women, so we have plenty of options when it comes to choose our favourite Southern heroine:

1: the frustrated lady (Liz Taylor here in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Poor Maggie the Cat is a beautiful Southern lady trying (unsuccessfully) to grab his alcoholic husband's attention. To those of you who haven't yet experienced this feeling ... I hope you never do. Like every single character in Williams's plays, Maggie alternates a strange sense of calm with hysterical "fits" every half an hour. But she is still pretty and very well dressed.
2: the hysterical and overtly sexual girl (Liz again. She did Southern accent like nobody). In Suddenly Last Summer we confront Catherine, whom everybody thinks totally mad (and I must say she doesn't do much to persuade others she's not). She screams, cries and makes no sense, but in the end she turns out to be completely sane. Paradoxically, it's that apparent madness, together with her unapologetic sexuality, what makes the charachter strangely irresistible.
3: The troublesome hottie (Sue Lyon was born to play this role). A silly blonde teenager almost drives a priest to madness in Night of the Iguana. She might not be one of the most important characters in the play, but the play would go nowhere without her. Her insanity is of a different kind: every adolescent's. Her unawareness of the pain she is causing is disagreeable and appealing at the same time.
Williams's works also cast a whole collection of ageing women, each one living her own (melo)drama in a particular way; none of them close to perfection, all of them simply amazing. After all who wants botoxed, lifted perfection; I prefer wrinkled, vulnerable fascination!
4: The ageing diva. Sweet Bird of Youth features what is now called a "cougar". A bit on the drunken side, Alexandra del Lago bears nonetheless the inevitable magic of a faded superstar.
5: the icon. Blanche Dubois is one of the most talked-about fictional characters ever. I could blog half a mile describing her but in a nutshell she appears to be the perfect Southern lady and deep inside of her she is more like the perfect Southern floozie. The duality drives her crazy (this time for real)... Her affected manners are unnerving yet weirdly attractive.
6: the (seemingly) venerable lady. Kate Hepburn masterfuly played Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer; a respectable rich widow, she deludes herself into believeing her son was the Southern gentleman version of Jesus Christ (instead of the filthy pig he really was). Obviously she is nuts (at this point you must have realized Tennessee's predilection for mental issues), but her apparent self-assurance and otherworldy talk make her striking.
And finally my favourite!
7: the anxious but optimistic solitary girl. Ava Gardner gave her best performance ever in John Huston's Night of the Iguana (after all, she had the advantage of having a natural accent). Maxine is a passionate, insecure, raw character who has nothing but troubles around her. But she still is Ava Gardner and she fights them troubles with the help of rum coco cocktails and two mexican men playing maracas who follow her wherever she goes. I think we all should solve our problems like that.
Do all these ladies seem a bit... unbalanced? It is understandable. On top of the many issues they have to deal with, the men they have to confront would make anyone nervous to say the least. Just take a look at the actors chosen to be their leading gentlemen:
Montgomery Clift or the doctor with the most appealing grey eyes in the world (Suddenly Last Summer).
Paul Newman or Mississippi's most attractive disabled drunk (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).
Marlon Brando or a truly charming bastard (A Streetcar Named Desire).
Richard Burton or the hottest priest alive (Night of the Iguana).
As you can see, it's not easy being a Tennessee Williams heroine, but it's worth it, and I think it's good to have some realer-than-real feminine references in times of trouble. And by trouble I mean situations that start like this,

and end like this:

So, even if you are not Southern (or Mediterranean), go ahead and be proud of the imperfect sides of yourself. Not feminine enough? I don't think so; after all Tennessee Williams was the ultimate expert on femininity. Also, don't be afraid to holler, cry, twist and shout whenever life calls for a little drama.


  1. Amazing article, superb images, as always ^^
    You're right and all the examples were perfect new role models. I believe it's not only men who make us feel like you said, but we have that tendency to want to be perfect..always in every occasion. to have the perfect behaviour and attitude..well, it's not possible all the time :) and we mediterranean gals know that! Thank you for this post ***

  2. Un article fascinant... j'ai mes petits préjugés contre les 'Southern' et les visions 'autant en emporte le vent' mais c'est vrai qu'Hollywood n'offrait pas si fréquemment que ça des analyses psychologiques de femme aussi subtiles et ambivalentes... et souvent, on aime les haïr!


Thanks for your lovely comments.