Long 'lost' Tennessee Williams screenplay finally reaches the screen: Q&A with 'The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond' filmmaker Jodie Markell
Having previously been screened at various film festivals, Jodie Markell's handsome filmization of a long “lost” Tennessee Williams screenplay, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, opens on Dec. 30 in New York City at the Quad Theater, and in the Los Angeles area at the Laemmle 4 in Santa Monica and the Laemmle 5 in West Hollywood.
The story of a young, privileged, and willful Memphis heiress, Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard), in love with a young man, Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), whose family has seen better days, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond was written directly for the screen in 1957.
The film's title refers to the loss of one diamond earring given to the heroine by her Aunt Cornelia (Ann-Margret), which leads to various emotional and class-related conflicts at a house party. (Though, admittedly, nothing as tragic as what results from Madame De's earring loss in Max Ophüls' The Earrings of Madame de….)
Would-be Tennessee Williams-Elia Kazan collaboration
According to the press release for The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, Tennessee Williams hoped that Elia Kazan – who had done wonders with A Streetcar Named Desire both on stage and on film (1951), in addition to having handled the scandalous Baby Doll (1956) – would shoot the script. Julie Harris, who had played opposite James Dean in Kazan's East of Eden (1955), would star. But that never came to pass.
Kazan would eventually become involved in a couple of other period stories set in the rural South – Wild River (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) – while Williams focused on co-writing screen adaptations of his own Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and Orpheus Descending (rebaptized The Fugitive Kind for the screen in 1960).
More than half a century would pass before The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond reached the big screen, under the direction of actress-turned-filmmaker Jodie Markell and with Brad Michael Gilbert as its producer.
'The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond' cast
Besides Chris Evans, Bryce Dallas Howard (according to Markell, not a Lindsay Lohan replacement despite reports), and two-time Academy Award nominee Ann-Margret (as Best Supporting Actress for Carnal Knowledge, 1971; as Best Actress for Tommy, 1975), The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond features:
Best Actress Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, 1974).
Mamie Gummer. Will Patton. Peter Gerety. Zoe Perry.
Jessica Collins (who has an excellent dramatic bit at the film's climax).
Tennessee Williams received solo screenplay credit.
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond review.
'The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond' Q&A with Jodie Markell
Jodie Markell, whose acting credits include Todd Haynes' Safe (1995) and Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending (2002), has kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) about The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond for Alt Film Guide. See below.
- How closely does The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond follow Tennessee Williams' original screenplay?
The film is extremely faithful to the original screenplay. The characters, the dialogue, the story are all the same. I tried to find a way to make everything work that Williams wrote. But, of course, I had to make cuts in the shooting script and in the editing process. I also expanded some visual sequences when necessary and illuminated some moments between scenes.
But my overall goal was to retain Williams' original voice in the purest sense to inspire a whole new audience to hear Williams in a fresh way.
- In your view, how does The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond's Fisher Willow compare to other Tennessee Williams heroines?
Fisher Willow is a young woman struggling to find her voice and trying to understand how to connect with someone she loves in a genuine way. Williams was fascinated by the kind of woman who was too smart, too beautiful, too sensual, too romantic, too sensitive to survive in a traditional society. He wrote about witty, intellectual women trapped in a conventional culture that does not prize women for being smart or adventurous in spirit.
He allowed us to experience these women, but he did not judge them. His characters may initially seem too wild or abrasive, but after being in their company we begin to feel for them. Fisher is like a younger Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending (and in the film The Fugitive Kind).
Carol is a rich, rebellious girl, who has a bad reputation in a small Southern town. A bit older than Fisher, she is almost like what Fisher would have become if she didn't find her Jimmy. She is so desperate, but she is brutally honest and she breaks our hearts.
- What about Jimmy Dobyne and other Tennessee Williams heroes?
When Williams introduces Jimmy Dobyne, he says he is like the hero of a romantic ballad. Jimmy fits right into the canon of the great Williams heroes.
Williams was often interested in young men who were enigmatic and had that special ability to smolder and be mysterious. And his strong heroines would often project their needs and illusions onto this enigmatic guy.
We as the audience would often wonder, “What does he really feel about her?” – which only adds to the suspense of the romantic outcome. This kind of relationship also occurs in Sweet Bird of Youth, Orpheus Descending, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to name just a few.
- The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is your first feature film. What were the biggest challenges while filming?
Shooting a period film comes with its own challenges. For the levee sequence, for example, we selected a levee in the middle of nowhere – or so we thought.
We soon discovered that even though we were shooting in the middle of the night, we were bombarded with interfering sound issues. It was like we were suddenly at the hub of all forms of modern transportation! Not great for a period film.
We heard cars on an unforeseen highway nearby, planes, trains, and worst of all the slow moving but very loud barges and tugboats that went by on the river, ruining the scene we were shooting. We had to wait sometimes half an hour for a boat to go by.
That was frustrating because the actors were really in a great place emotionally and we kept having to cut for sound. I hated having to say CUT when the actors were so connected. But that comes with the territory.
Before arriving in Louisiana, Giles Nuttgens, our cinematographer, said he thinks a period film usually requires a minimum of 4 months. But we worked very efficiently and faced the challenge of bringing scope to Williams' world despite the indie budget and our 28-day shooting schedule.
- You come from a stage background. What was it like directing actors for film?
Having worked as an actress in both mediums, I understand the similarities and the differences. The craft of acting for both film and theater is rooted in the same basic goal – to find the truth in each moment. And then communicate that truth to the audience – calibrating for the appropriate scale – whether it is a Broadway house or the lens of a camera.
As a stage actress, I know the value of rehearsal and we were able to build into our schedule about five days of rehearsal, which is unheard of in an indie film. Those days proved invaluable for me and the actors, as we addressed questions about characters' through-lines and motivations.
We also explored how each character serves the story as a whole and how they reflect the underlying themes. Working with Williams' poetic language, like working with Shakespeare, carries its own challenges, its own rhythms and rules.
So it was great to have the rehearsal time to analyze the unusual language and answer the actors' questions about it. We also worked with dialect coach Tim Monich, who was a great source of inspiration.
- How did you get Ann-Margret and Ellen Burstyn to play small roles in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond? What was it like working with them?
I think all the actors were excited by the opportunity to originate a Tennessee Williams role. I don't think of Ann-Margret's role or Ellen Burstyn's role as “small” in any way. They are fully developed characters and quite appealing to an actor.
Ann-Margret is a wonderful, bright, and adorable person who was a joy to work with. She has such an ear for language and a great sense of humor. She was very courageous to take on a role that is so different from her own personality. She played Blanche in a Streetcar on television in 1983 and she was very good.
Every actor I know looks up to Ellen Burstyn with nothing short of awe. She is a goddess. When casting this role, I knew that I needed an actress who could take us on an inner journey despite her character's stroke. She arrived on location having done a great deal of research on stroke victims, she even observed them in a hospital.
And Ellen has a very strong spiritual center. She seems to glow from within, which was essential for a woman on her deathbed who is existing between worlds.
- What about Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Evans?
Bryce is very present and her work is deeply honest and grounded. And her commitment is fierce. I think she is the greatest actress of her generation.
Many actresses make the mistake of playing Williams' heroines in a very artificial, mannered way that tends to keep the audience at a distance. I knew that Bryce would never fall into that trap. She is also a very hard worker and never showed any fatigue, never made any complaints. She and Chris Evans rehearsed even on the weekends.
Chris is a very talented actor and I believe he is the young leading man that everyone in Hollywood is looking for. He has been cast in action films and romantic comedies, but I think we will be seeing more range from Chris – and this film is just the beginning. He has such integrity on screen and he has the uncanny ability to smolder, which is not common among his peers.
- One moment that intrigued me – because I couldn't quite place it within the context of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond's storyline – was when Jimmy knocks down an older, drunken (apparently gay) man in the bathroom. Was there some significance to that bit that I missed, or…?
It was very important to me to retain the scene in the bathroom because it serves several purposes: one is that you get a sense that Jimmy is not rejecting Fisher because he's gay, but also because perhaps there's a part of him that's sensitive to maybe having homosexual tendencies. The man approaching Jimmy disturbs him so much that Jimmy has to hit him. I think Williams was fascinated by men who could go either way. Although, really, there's no certain answer.
Williams didn't like to answer those kinds of questions in a blatant way; he liked to pose the questions. He wrote once about the mystery of revelation of character and he wanted the audience to find their own answers. Also in 1957, I think that scene would have never made it into the film – which was another reason I really wanted to keep it in.
- Now that The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is about to be released, do you have any other projects in the works?
Yes. I have several projects in development and I just have to see which one takes off first.
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond website.
Ann-Margret, Chris Evans, and Bryce Dallas Howard The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond images: Paladin Pictures.
“The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond from 'Lost' Tennessee Williams Screenplay: Q&A with Director Jodie Markell” last updated in April 2018.