February 2, 2020 at 3:24 pm EST | by John Paul King
Movie announced for unfilmed Tennessee Williams play – 37 years after his death
Playwright Tennessee Williams (Image courtesy Library of Congress. Photo credit: Walter Albertin)

Nearly four decades after Tennessee Williams made his final exit from the world stage, one of the iconic dramatist’s most controversial plays is finally set for a film adaptation.

The Tony and Pulitzer-winning playwright became one of America’s most lauded theatrical writers during the second half of the last century; his plays, which largely focus on outsider characters struggling against the pressures of a social norm in which they do not fit, often explored homosexual themes at a time when the subject was widely considered taboo, earning the openly queer playwright a special place in LGBTQ cultural history; many of his works, such as “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” are undisputed classics that have been filmed many times and continue to be revived and performed on stages worldwide, and his influence is so deeply felt that references to his plays and characters still turn up in American pop culture, from classic episodes of “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld,” to movies as far-flung as “The Princess and the Frog” and “The Disaster Artist,” to songs by popular musicians like Lana Del Ray and Lil Wayne.

Williams died in 1983 at the age of 71, after grappling with depression and substance use issues for most of his life, but he left behind an impressive body of work that continues to fascinate scholars and artists today. One such artist is actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke – who, according to Variety, has announced plans to adapt and direct a screen version of Williams’ wildly experimental 1953 play, “Camino Real.”

Ethan Hawke in the 2018 film “First Reformed” (Image courtesy A24)

Hawke – who, in a “who knew?” coincidence, happens to be Williams’ great-nephew – calls the planned feature film a “passion project.”

In an interview at Sundance, Hawke told Variety, “I’ve been obsessed with the piece for years. I kept turning it over and over again in my mind. It’s part rock opera, part ‘Waiting for Godot.’ What I think Tennessee was trying to do, cinema has caught up to and can do better.”

“It’s not dissimilar to what Baz Luhrmann was aspiring to on ‘Moulin Rouge,’ it’s just more spiritual,” he adds.

The original play was a departure for Williams, who in 1953 was fresh from the mega-success of “Streetcar,” which had not only won the Pulitzer Prize but been adapted into a multi-Oscar-winning movie which made an international star out of Marlon Brando. It’s a surreal mélange of history, literature, and myth, following a young American named Kilroy through encounters with characters like Don Quixote, Camille, Casanova, and Esmeralda from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Audiences and critics didn’t respond well to Williams in experimental mode, and its Broadway debut closed after only 60 performances – though it was “rediscovered” in subsequent decades and has spawned countless productions from theatre artists drawn to try their hand at an interpretation.

Hawke first became interested in the play when he starred as Kilroy in a well-received 1999 stage production at the Williamsburg Theatre Festival. He made a previous attempt to bring the play to the screen several years ago, hoping to film in Cuba while Fidel Castro was still in power. That project fell through, but now he has teamed with producer Uri Singer, with whom he collaborated on this year’s Sundance entry, “Tesla,” after Singer convinced him that filming in Rio de Janeiro – where Brazilian incentives for filmmakers would help to defray costs – could provide the kind of cosmopolitan backdrop needed for the piece.

“The play is set at the crossroads of all the world and we want to represent that with the production and the cast,” says Hawke. “Rio seems like the place to do that. There’s an intersection of extreme poverty and extreme wealth.”

Hawke, who has balanced a respected career in theatre with his work in film since debuting as a child actor in the 1985 sci-fi film “Explorers,” says he will not appear in the film. No casting has been announced, though he says he hopes to include Juliette Binoche, with whom he recently worked in the French-Japanese drama “The Truth.”

Filming will take place in Rio this year, and Hawkes says they hope to wrap production by Christmas.

As to whether there’s still an audience out there for a new Tennessee Williams film (particularly one so far removed from the queer icon’s usual mode of expression), that remains to be seen. For Hawkes, however, the motivation for making it has more to do with artistic fulfillment than financial reward.

“When something really daring works, there’s a high,” says the four-time Oscar nominee. “It’s like Jimi Hendrix when he played. When James Baldwin speaks, for example, he’s living on the edge. And Tennessee was living way out there.”

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