Williams' Rose Tattoo On Film
Plays are meant to be seen more than to be read. After reading Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo", I needed to see a dramatization of the work to bring it to life. The wonders of Instant Video allowed me to turn immediately to this celebrated 1955 film adaptation of Williams' play. Williams himself wrote the screenplay for the film with the assistance of Hal Kanter. Daniel Mann directed the film and a young Burt Lancaster played the male lead, Alvaro Mangiacavallo. But the film will always be remembered for the fiery, sultry performance of Anna Magnani (1908 -- 1973) as Serafina Delle Rose, the grieving widow whose heart comes passionately back to life in the course of the drama. Williams had modeled the character of Serafina on Magnani and tried unsuccessfully to get her to play the lead in the Broadway production. The movie version marked her first appearance in American film. Magnani won the Academy Award for best actress together with the BAFTA, Golden Globes, National Board of Review, and New York Film Critics Circle Awards. The film was nominated for best picture. Williams wrote of Magnani's performance in the film:
"Anna Magnani was magnificent as Serafina in the movie version of Tattoo. She was as unconventional a woman as I have known in or out of my professional world, and if you understand me at all, you must know that in this statement I am making my personal estimate of her honesty, which I feel was complete. She never exhibited any lack of self-assurance, any timidity in her relations with that society outside of whose conventions she quite publicly existed.. [s]he looked absolutely straight into the eyes of whomever she confronted and during that golden time in which we were dear friends, I never heard a false word from her mouth." (From Williams' Memoirs and reproduced on WIKI)
Set in a small Louisiana town with a large population of Italian immigrants in the early 1950s, the film is a romance. Serafina, a seamstress and immigrant from Sicily, had been passionately and sensually in love with her husband whom she continues to idolize after his death. The couple have a young daughter, Rosa. On the day that Serafina learns she is pregnant, her husband dies while smuggling a load of contraband in a truck of bananas. Rumors that Serafina resolutely ignores arise of her husband's infidelity. For three years, Serafina mourns, becomes overweight and despondent, and refuses to leave the house. She becomes alarmed over her daughter's virtue when Rosa meets a young sailor, Jack Hunter, on the day she graduates from high school. Serafina also gets into a fight with her neighbors when they mock the faithfulness of her dead husband. On that same day, Serafina meets a young truck driver Alvaro, "with the body of my husband and a face like a clown." She becomes physically and emotionally attracted to Alvaro with all his buffoonery and crudeness and raw sexual energy. She gradually comes to love and relish life again. Serafina accepts both her own sexuality and the sexuality of her daughter.
The play and the film are full of erotic symbolism, particularly of roses and of the rose tattoo. The movie was filmed in Key West where the small cottage in which Serafina lived still stands as a landmark. In addition to Magnani's award, the film received Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography as well as nominations in five other categories. The music by Alex North, which received one of these nominations, was particularly effective.
It was valuable to read the play and to see Williams' own adaptation for the screen. Serafina's husband does not appear in the play but he does appear briefly onscreen in the film, including a fiery scene of his fatal accident. More importantly, the film bows to the sexual mores of the day for the screen. It softens or eliminates several highly-charged erotic scenes involving the physical relationship between Serafina and Alvaro. In the process, it weakens the key symbolism of the rose tattoo. With these bowlderizations, the film captures the heart of Williams' play with its script and with Anna Magnani's portrayal of the wildness, sexual repression, and sexual awakening of Serafina Delle Rose.
John Lahr's biography, "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh" moved me to revisit the works of Tennessee Williams. His book discusses the play "The Rose Tattoo" at length. Before reading the book, I had not seen the film or read the play. They both are beautiful works in their genres and deserve to be seen and to be better known.