by Brent Johnson
It was one of the most polarizing films of its time.
In 1956, the black comedy “Baby Doll” — a tale of feuding cotton gin owners and a teenage virgin bride in the Mississippi Delta — drew controversy for its sexualized themes and images. The Roman Catholic National Legion of Decency even launched a campaign to get it banned.
At the same time, the film — written by iconic playwright Tennessee Williams and directed by the legendary Elia Kazan — drew critical acclaim, garnering four Academy Award nominations.
Now, nearly six decades after its release, the movie has come to life as something else: a new play.
“I’m a great lover of Tennessee Williams,” explains playwright and adaptor Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton, NJ. “I’ve directed a number of his plays. I knew him, actually. And I always felt that this particular film didn’t quite come off or have its due. I felt there was a play trapped inside this movie.”
Mann adapted the film with French playwright Pierre Laville, whose own adaptation premiered in France in 2009. The new Mann/Laville adaptation debuted at the McCarter last year. The Fountain Theatre production is the West Coast premiere.
“I read his adaptation and said, ‘Yeah, it’s really interesting, but I don’t think it’s quite right for America yet,’” Mann says. “There were some things that felt rather dated. So, I went back to the original screenplay that (Williams) had written for Kazan and found some other material and started to work on it and fell in love with it and just discovered a play. It’s like finding a new Tennessee Williams play.”
Mann — a two-time Tony Award nominee — says she was drawn to the themes Williams was exploring in the film: “race and caste and color in the South.” And not just between black and white residents, but also between whites and foreigners like Vacarro. They are themes, she says, that continue to rear their heads today — especially in the wake of the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., last year.
“If you look at what’s going on with the shooting in South Carolina and you see that kid, we have the grown-up version of that in this play in the character of Baby Doll’s husband,” Mann says. “He’s a born and bred ‘peckerwood,’ as he calls himself.
“So, you have all of these themes in play — the desire and the passion and the humor and the South,” she continues. “All of the legacy of slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow, all the way up to what now resonates in a very present tense, that we see why we are dealing with what we’re dealing with, because we see what people came up and out of.”
Mann says the story is less risqué now, but it does include one of the most erotic scenes she’s ever staged: when Baby Doll begins to awaken sexually. However, when it was released, it was the film’s sexuality that drew the most attention — especially the image of Carroll Baker as Baby Doll, dressed in a nightgown and sucking her thumb while lying in a crib. (The movie has been credited with naming and popularizing the babydoll nightgown.)
“That’s pretty risqué no matter how you do it,” Mann explains. “It takes your breath away to see a young girl feel herself aroused to a level where she can barely stand up. It’s not pornographic. It’s just watching a man genuinely know how to touch a woman and get her to places she’s never been and she’s never felt before in her life. It’s transporting. “
Technically, Mann wrote none of the play herself. She pieced the stage version together from Williams’ finished screenplay, his early drafts and other pieces that the playwright had written using these characters — including the one-act play “27 Wagons Full Of Cotton.”
“He was always trying to figure out how to begin and how to end it,” Mann says “Which characters were in, which characters were out. Whether it was a girl’s awakening, or whether it was a rape … I was able to see all of his drafts and see what he might want to construct now. I laced it with those things.”
Tennessee Williams was a man she was happy to call a friend.
“Oh, he was such a darling man,” she remembers. “Funny, irreverent, emotional. He was just like his plays. He called me ‘Miss Emily.’ We just had a lovely relationship. We just got on like a house on fire. He was just an amazing spirit.
“I just wish he were here to see this.”
Brent Johnson is a writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He’s currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark and the co-founder and co-editor of entertainment website Pop-Break.com. This post originally appeared on JerseyArts.com.
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