Heartburn: Heat as Catalyst in Adaptations of Tennessee Williams

The effects of heat on human aggression are well-known, if not entirely understood. Crime often rises during heat waves, civilized behavior breaks down; scientists fear for humanity’s future amidst rising global temperatures. There’s even a theory called CLASH which posits that “a hot climate combined with less variation in seasonal temperatures can lead to a faster life strategy, less focus on the future, and less self-control, all of which contribute to aggression and violence.” Heat gets us going like melting candles—we are reduced, stripped to essential emotions and instincts. In one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, “The Midnight Sun,” two women try to survive at the end of a world doomed by heat. Survival, of course, is about the body—but the mind is more affected here: One woman is slowly driven mad, while the other has to fend off a looter who claims he was honest and good before the heat drove him to crime.

All this to say that heat can be a catalyst for social collapse. And social collapse—and all the nuances, causes, conflicts, and passions that play out while society is busy breaking down—often accompanies the constant presence of heat in cinematic adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ plays.  

I never fully understood this until I first saw the film adaptations of Williams’ plays made primarily in the ‘50s and ‘60s (don’t kick me out, theater community). I was subletting a studio in Wisconsin and doing dinner theater for the summer, and to this day it’s the sweatiest I ever remember being at such a long stretch. My apartment had no air conditioning, not even a ceiling fan; I had a crappy little fan I bought for 10 bucks at Target to cool the whole place. I’d roll out of bed around 12 or 1, head to the theater, put on my heavy wool Victorian dress and boots and gloves and wig, sweat through my performances, and then head to a sweltering bar packed with sweaty bodies.

When I finally came back home, I’d eat popsicles and binge on classic films on TCM, enjoying the relative cool of the early morning hours. At one point, I caught a running stretch of Williams’ films and, though I was intimately familiar with the plays, I still felt as if I was experiencing them for the first time. It wasn’t just the iconic performances by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando and Richard Burton and Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, or the intimate feel the films gave Williams’ words. It was the heat, too—how it could be felt, seen, and experienced on screen in a way that simply couldn’t be captured on stage. The damp under Karl Malden’s armpits in Baby Doll, the dripping sweat Kim Hunter wipes from her neck in A Streetcar Named Desire, the heat-dazed eyes of Burton in Night of the Iguana; these were the tangible effects of heat that only a camera could capture.

Throughout his career, heat was a Williams’ staple. Raised in Mississippi, and later in Missouri, Williams made New Orleans his home as an adult, and the South is the subject (or object) of most of his plays. Throughout his life, he saw the thin veneer of the mannered South stretched over the gaping wounds of slavery, racism, sexism, and of course, homophobia. In all his plays, it’s less that people break down, and more that they become who they really are, forced to shed their Southern propriety. Pressure points drive discovery and force confrontation, and one of Williams’ favorite pressure points was always heat.

But heat in these films—in Williams’ scripts—isn’t just a backdrop or a piece of scenery, like streetcar lines or wisteria. It’s a driving force, a change agent. Williams’ plays are often about polite society breaking down, strict social norms and niceties giving way to primitive instincts and passions: hate, lust, jealousy—even cannibalism. In the lush jungle heat of Puerto Vallarta, defrocked reverend Lawrence Shannon loses his footing over a girl and two good women, in a single night. Blanche DuBois loses what’s left of her mind in the humid heat of New Orleans, amid the “animals” she sees leaning into the loose aspects of the hot weather. Catherine Holly loses her cousin (and later, very nearly her prefrontal lobe) in the swelter of a Spanish beach. And of course, Big Daddy’s whole family loses the (false) ties that bind on a humid summer night on a Mississippi plantation.

Still, it wasn’t until I watched the movie adaptations of these plays that I could actually see the heat, trace its path, watch it wind its way about the characters and sets, wrapping them up in its smothering embrace.

Take A Streetcar Named Desire. During a card game at Stanley and Stella’s home, the camera lingers on the middle ground where the smoke and heat collect and collide. It’s a suffocating wall between Blanche—clean and fresh in her fine dress and hat—and the men at the table, stripped down to sweat-soaked undershirts, their glistening brows and coarse speech a stark contrast to her forced Southern belle.

This kind of shot occurs often in Elia Kazan’s film: the contrast between the “civilized” Blanche and the “animal” Stanley and his cohorts. With repetition, it increases the tension between the two, in a way no stage version ever quite could. We watch Blanche more or less dissolve before our eyes, out of focus, her reliance on “the kindness of strangers” brutally stolen by Stanley. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, a sweaty Stanley strips off his shirt in the background, while Blanche strives to be cool and mannered in the foreground.

“Be comfortable, that’s my motto,” says Stanley.

“It’s mine, too,” says Blanche, but we can see that they’re talking about two completely different things. “It’s hard to stay looking fresh in hot weather,” she says, “why, I haven’t washed or even powdered.” For Blanche, comfort comes with maintaining that veneer—washing, powdering, and obliterating all trace of the heat. For Stanley, taking off his sweaty shirt, comfort comes from being in control, from being the one doing the unbalancing. He’s not really talking about the heat at all, or at least not the kind that comes from weather. He knows taking his shirt off will throw Blanche off, and it does. The camera lingers on Brando’s muscled torso and tight tee shirt, before panning to Blanche’s face, as it fights arousal and disgust. It’s a dynamic that comes to define the tension between the two, along with Stanley’s desire to bring Blanche down to his level through any brutal means necessary.

With heat can come a storm, a literal breaking point, and Night of the Iguana is full of them. A beach scene alternates between shots of Maxine (Ava Gardner) wrestling with cabana boys in the warm water and the streaks of lightning splitting the sky overhead. It pours as Burton’s Shannon has his initial breakdown, sending his disgusted parishioners out into the rain following his fiery sermon about the true nature of God. Later, Shannon is literally tied to a hammock, sweating, to wrestle his own devil as yet another thunderstorm threatens to break. Among Williams’ adaptations, It is perhaps most in Night that we get not just a breakdown but the buildup, too—forced reckonings with the soul that lead to a rare happy ending. (Williams allegedly did not appreciate Huston’s happy ending, though he did like the movie.)

Sometimes the simmering heat in the films gets turned all the way up, and flares into a Grand Guignol. The film version of Suddenly, Last Summer certainly has its problems—Gore Vidal, hired to write the script, was forced to meet regularly with a priest to make sure Sebastian Venable’s homosexual nature remained safely hidden (though, thanks to sly Vidal and an oblivious priest, it remained a pretty obvious subtext). But the heat is a key to the shocking event that the film hinges on; the vengeful murder of the predatory Sebastian by his young victims couldn’t happen in a Minnesota winter.

Suddenly, Last Summer also effectively displays the contrast between Violet Venable’s cool, carefully manicured home and gardens, and the wild summer sun of the Spanish beaches where Sebastian preys and later, becomes prey. Katharine Hepburn’s dialogue presents the contrast—civilization versus breakdown—and cinematic magic amplifies it. “My son, Sebastian and I constructed our days,” she says. “Each day we would carve like a piece of sculpture, leaving behind us a trail of days like a gallery of sculpture, until, suddenly, last summer.” Heat comes, civilization breaks down, and the loss of human control, the takeover of base instincts, is total.

But the irony here is that it’s not the young boys who broke down the barriers of civilization. It was always Sebastian and his mother, cynically using the world for their purposes, the most primitive pure ego of all, despite their money and refinement. We see this not just in the high-purpose platitudes of Violet, but also in the beach scenes exposing the real savagery she and her son possess. We get shots of the heat rising off the shore, the bright sun fiercely reflecting off the water, the shirtless boys with makeshift instruments striding up the sand. We get lingering shots of Elizabeth Taylor’s white bathing suit, sheer in the water, terrifying in its true purpose: bait, not beauty.

In Williams’ plays, of course, dialogue is king. I don’t mean to say the physicality of the actors isn’t crucial, and often brilliant. But onscreen, heat competes with his words, pushes them aside, revealing their limitations and falsehoods. Yes, the words matter, but so too does Ava Gardner’s long hungry stare in tropical heat, or Paul Newman’s exhausted disappointment in his family’s humid plantation home. Films, of course, can be just about anything, from oneiric to rooted in an absolute reality. Adaptations of Williams’ plays tend toward the latter, but the sweat and smolder tend to lift them slightly out of a firm reality and into that odd, altered state where humans turn savage and manners melt away.

I’ve watched these films many times since I was living in Wisconsin, and have seen several staged versions, too. But I first saw them during that barely civilized summer when I spent damp afternoons in Victorian mansions and my nights in sweat-soaked bars, lonely and listening to strangers’ too-candid conversations and fearless fights. I’ll always see the shimmer of hot air, the black and white beaches almost painful in the sun’s bare glare, the smoke filled, humid rooms of that New Orleans apartment with its tepid bath and simmering tensions. I’ll always watch the clouded eyes and sweaty brows of the heat-dazed protagonists. Tennessee Williams plays are full of many things—verbal gymnastics most of all—but the film versions will always be, for me, about the lush, swollen catalysts of deep summer.