Legendary playwright Tennessee Williams hit filmmaking gold when he joined forces with director Elia Kazan. Together they made A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll, combined which nabbed twelve Academy Awards nominations and four wins. What do you do with a partnership that successful? Keep it going of course! That’s where Williams’ screenplay, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond comes in. The plan was for it to be the third collaboration between the duo, but Kazan got involved in other projects and The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond plummeted into the unproduced abyss.
It wasn’t until that screenplay landed in the hands of actress-turned-director Jodie Markell that Williams’ work was long-lost no more. Dusting off the screenplay was easier said than done. During a roundtable interview, Markell admitted Williams has been “relegated to sort of a dusty museum piece of theater.” Things had to be changed in order to make the film appeal to a contemporary audience but Markell explained, “I bent over backwards to figure out everything I could that was there in the text and how to support that original vision.” She added, “Mainly it was just expanding visual sequences and things I thought maybe needed a little more time or quite a filling out.”
Creating the proper imagery was no easy task either. The film takes place in the 1920s South and it was extremely difficult to find locations that would emulate the time period. “That’s why we picked Louisiana and the River Road area, north of New Orleans where there’s still a lot there, sort of a timeless section of the country and we really wanted to capture it before it becomes a big shopping mall like the rest of America. If we had gone to Memphis where I really wanted to shoot, because that’s where I’m from and where it takes place, it’s becoming more and more modernized and cosmopolitan so it’s a little harder to find those things there. Even the Peabody Hotel which is where a scene was written to take place, it takes place in the ballroom, it’s still there but it’s got a lot of modern trappings and we needed to find a hotel that was more like the period that it takes place, the ’20s.”
Another vital piece of the puzzle was the cast, particularly the two main characters, Fisher Willow and Jimmy Dobyne. Markell instantly gravitated towards two actors with theater backgrounds. “Bryce Dallas Howard was my first choice,” Markell admits. “She studied theater; she’s paid her dues. She was in plays Off-Broadway.” Chris Evans has a similar history. “His parents had an amateur theater outside of Boston and so I think he really wanted to get back to his roots.”
Fisher is the daughter of a plantation owner who has been isolated after making a selfish decision resulting in the deaths of innocent employees. Not only does her inherited outcast status make assimilation into the debutante circuit extremely difficult, but so does her brash personality. At a separate roundtable interview, Howard talked to us about the role, “She’s a character that’s entirely unapologetic. That’s something that kind of actually grounded me when I figured that out, that she was unapologetic almost to a hedonistic degree. So when she goes into a scene there’s not so much back-and-forth but she’s like a bulldozer. And then you see the repercussions of that. You see the consequences of a person in a world that is so delicate and so studied and so old-fashioned when someone comes in that is like a Mack Truck, you know what happens.”
In response to a question concerning the female protagonist’s appeal to a male audience, Markell explained, “I think Williams really writes from a sensitive point of view, and I don’t know how its gender-based because he was well-known for creating the most sensitive portraits of women and American drama and he wrote about women that had traits, that he had himself and even said once, ‘I never wrote about a vice in a character that I didn’t observe in myself.'”
Chris Evans’ character is pretty dashing, but as far from a superhero as you can get. Jimmy’s family was wealthy at a time, but eventually crumbled leaving his father with a drinking problem, his mother in a mental institution and him working at the store on Fisher’s father’s plantation. Fisher gets what Fisher wants, so when she insists Jimmy accompany her to a series of parties, he cannot refuse. “It’s hard to find a contemporary actor who can smolder and who can be enigmatic which was my requirement for this role and a lot of Tennessee Williams’ men,” Markell explained. “They need to often be blank slates to be projected upon by these wild creative women and it was hard to find that right person who could do that and I think he really does it.”
Speaking of Williams’ men, Howard likens Evans to the star of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “I remember one day on set I looked to the monitor and (the camera) was on him and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. He looks like Paul Newman.’ He has this presence that harkens back to these old-fashioned leading men and his masculinity and just his earthiness. It really does remind me of Paul Newman actually in many ways.”
Howard and Evans are clearly the stars of the film, but the supporting cast contributes significantly to a number of the movie’s most riveting scenes, particularly Ellen Burstyn. She plays Miss Addie, the dying aunt of Fisher’s good friend Julie (Mamie Gummer). Miss Addie, a woman who once traveled the world, is bound to her bed after suffering a stroke. During Julie’s party she implores Fisher to give her an overdose of medication so she can be free of her prison. During her roundtable, Burstyn recalled, “I went to a hospital and I observed a woman who was really worse off than Miss. Addie because she had a stroke and she had the paralysis but she also couldn’t speak and was more unavailable.” Even though her character’s condition is far less severe, Burstyn found that “embodying her in her restrictions was kind of the challenge.”
An actress with a name you may not be familiar with, but a face that you’d swear you recognize is Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter. “It takes a lot of chutzpah when your mother’s Meryl Streep to perform,” Howard told us. “I really look up to her in that way.” Dallas Howard was eager to give everyone in the cast their due credit. Jessica Collins plays Vinnie, Jimmy’s old flame who takes advantage of his vulnerability after Fisher accuses him of stealing one of her precious teardrop diamond earrings. Collins is a recent Julliard graduate and The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond was her first theatrical film. “When she left, she only came in for a short period of time during shooting, we shot all of her scenes together, and I was sobbing. I was like, ‘This is all about you!'” Howard remembered. “I felt like it was such a good part and for this to be someone’s first role in a film is really special.”
Another cast member who must not go overlooked is Ann-Margret. She plays the far too small role of Aunt Cornelia, Fisher’s aunt and the woman Fisher must impress in order to insure she’ll inherit the family fortune. She’s in the film for a matter of minutes, but to Markell, had a priceless impact on the entire production. During an exclusive interview she exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! Ann-Margret is an icon and she had done Blanche in a television production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ the same year that Tennessee Williams passed away. She was a really good Blanche and we felt that it was nice to honor the legacy of Williams. It was really important to us to have someone in the film who had really worked with Williams in the past and also did let her play a role that she wouldn’t normally be cast in.”
Burstyn and Dallas Howard were eager to sing Markell’s praises as well. Dallas Howard proudly said, “Jodie is such a masterful director. It’s amazing to me that this is her first film. It’s like she’s been doing it forever and she really understood this world and these characters incredibly well.” Burstyn shared a similar sentiment, “All of my favorite directors, not all but many of my favorites directors, were actors because they understand what the process is, what’s going on inside.” She especially appreciated the importance Markell placed on rehearsal time. “I think directors make a mistake when they think rehearsal can be dispensed with. I think it’s the most important thing. All those films I made in the ’70s like ‘The Last Picture Show’ and ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,’ ‘The Exorcist,’ we all had two weeks of rehearsal before we started shooting, so I think more directors should learn from that.”
You would think if Markell were granted the time to chat with Williams, she’d be gunning for advice on working with his script, but she laughed and admitted, “I would just say ‘thanks’ and ‘can we have a drink?’ I’d like to talk to him for hours and hours and hours.”
Regardless of the reception to The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, expect to see a lot more of these ladies in the future. Burstyn just finished working on Main Street with Orlando Bloom, Amber Tamblyn, Patricia Clarkson and Colin Firth. Burstyn called the movie “a beautiful film” but is still concerned about finding a distributor.
Markell hopes to continue to direct and reveals that she’s got “a number of irons on the fire.” Sadly she couldn’t share any details, but should one take off, we’ll be sure to hear all about it.
Clearly, everyone was especially fervent to probe into Bryce Dallas Howard’s upcoming schedule, and of course, there was talk about her franchise hat-trick of “Terminator,” “Spider-Man” and “Twilight,” which you can read about here. She also brought up an interesting project that might turn into a family affair: “Well, [The Originals] is still happening. I co-wrote it with Dane Charbeneau who’s now my brother-in-law–he married my sister–and, yeah, we’re still working away at it and we’ll see. Everyone in Hollywood has a screenplay. It takes a lot for something to get greenlit, especially in this day and age, but we’ll just do our best.” There’s been some rumor that her father Ron Howard could be the man behind the lens, to which she responded, “I don’t want to say ‘no,’ but I could just say a solid, genuine ‘I don’t know.’ I mean, it’s at Imagine, so that’s always a possibility, but there’s no kind of definitive answers.” In response to my embarrassingly overenthusiastic reaction to the potential family project she said, “It would really be a dream for me, but, you know, it’s pretty high standards for first-time screenwriters to write a film that would be worthy of someone like my Dad. It’s a pretty big leap.” Oh, come on. You can never say no to Daddy’s Little Girl!
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond will be one of the last films to hit theaters this year as it opens in New York and L.A. on December 30.