Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Pedro Almodóvar's "Homage" to Tennessee Williams

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Pedro Almodóvar's "Homage" to Tennessee Williams

Article excerpt

"A Streetcar Named Desire has marked my life."1

The filmic qualities of Tennessee Williams' plays and stories, their perceived adaptability and the writer's own willingness to explore the possibilities of an emergent Hollywood cinema in the early part of his career have contributed in no small part to the wide reach of his success and reputation. Indeed, his experimentation with dramatic forms, evident as early as 1944 with The Glass Menagerie and its "plastic theatre",2 has been seen as an extension of the techniques Williams no doubt assimilated from a youth spent in movie houses:

The drama of Tennessee Williams derives its lyric naturalism from the adaptation of the modem short story for the cinematic theatre. Throughout the canon, film techniques undermine the conventions of stage realism. Music comes out of nowhere. Lighting is symbolic.3

Williams often seems to have had one eye on a broader canvas, one which eschews the limitations of theatrical mimesis and which measurably assisted the transition of his work to the big screen.

Notwithstanding these artistic overlaps, we have, in the post-war Hollywood versions of his plays, a second Tennessee Williams, one that may, for a variety of reasons, have reached a receptive public ahead or instead of his work for the stage. And, because adaptations can themselves become influential or even adaptable properties, Williams' affinity with the theatre risks being diluted further still. This is not to say that the playwright has been sacrificed amidst the wider commercial distribution of the films - Williams is still a considerable draw at the theatre - but just that some of the exclusivity of theatrical productions has been transcended.

While Williams' writing continued to be a source of inspiration beyond the heyday of the Hollywood adaptations, few directors have acknowledged the legacy of the films as openly as the Spanish auteur, Pedro Almodovar, especially in his most celebrated film to date, Todo sobre mi madre {All About My Mother, 1999). The winner of seven Goyas in Spain and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, this story of Manuela's search for her transsexual ex-husband after the death of their son, Esteban, draws on scenes from Elia Kazan's 1951 version of A Streetcar Named Desire, especially its ending - an enforced change from that of the original play.

An obvious admirer of Williams, Almodóvar has also earned a reputation for referencing a plethora of artistic works in his films - anything from visual echoes of familiar Hitchcockian scenes to the subtle inclusion of novels by celebrated writers like Alice Munro in his recent film La piel que habito {The Skin I Live In). A complex patchwork of allusion, his films fully exemplify the postmodern sensibility of crafting art from the fragments of earlier works, on the premise that originality in the conventional sense does not exist; it is only to be located in a simultaneous admission of its impossibility and in the plagiaristic amassing of conscious and unconscious influences. Todo sobre mi madre is no exception in this respect. Indeed, it represents a zenith of intertextuality and references - visually or in its script - texts and artists as seemingly disparate as All About Eve, Music for Chameleons, Blood Wedding, Gaudí and Chagall.4 None of these, though, either singly or in conjunction with the others, is quite as instrumental as A Streetcar Named Desire, which "takes on an active role" by marking the protagonist's life.5

This essay will trace Williams' transnational influences on Almodovar and seek to evaluate Almodovar's use of both Kazan's film and Williams' play, which he seeks to capture in essence, if not in certain crucial details. Should this process be correctly labeled "homage", reverence for texts and an author or merely a set of values they embody? Or is Almodovar's approach more utilitarian, an unashamed use of a recognizable source for his own ends? As we will see, Almodovar is not averse to talking about this subject in interviews, though he tends to elide his film and Williams' play, with the result that the former's apparent justification of single motherhood in certain circumstances seems to become part of Williams' legacy. …

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