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January 10, 2010

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Disregarded film script was better left ignored

"THE Loss of a Teardrop Diamond" was made from a screenplay written by Tennessee Williams in 1957.

Unfortunately, the film does little to suggest the script's neglect over decades was unwarranted.

When Williams wrote "Teardrop Diamond," his play "Streetcar Named Desire" had already been filmed. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" would make its big screen debut in 1958, and "Suddenly, Last Summer" the year after.

"Teardrop Diamond" is also unique among Williams' works in being written purely as a film. Elia Kazan, so often Williams' collaborator, supposedly passed on making the film. It sat dormant ever since, though it was published in a collection in the 1980s.

It's difficult to know if the failings of "Teardrop Diamond" are due to the material or the long-delayed, worshipful production. At any rate, actress Jodie Markell, making her feature film directorial debut, has apparently stayed very close to the script.

Set in Memphis in the 1920s, the film stars Bryce Dallas Howard as Fisher Willow, a Sorbonne-educated heiress who has been summoned back from Europe by her great aunt (Ann-Margret) in Memphis to attend debutante balls.

She convinces the son of her father's caretaker, Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), to escort her through these high-society parties.

Willow is a classic Williams heroine: sexual, melodramatic, unbalanced and headed for disaster. Our first glimpse is of her boozily swaying alone on a blues bar dance floor, clutching a bottle of liquor.

She storms through the debutante balls, declaring "propriety is a waste of time" and that Memphis society "bores me to blazes."

She's something of an outcast because her father is a villain, having years earlier killed two men in an accident at a levee.

Willow soon begins to fall for Dobyne even though he couldn't be more boring, nearly mute for the first half of the film.

Evans seems content to get by on his chiseled looks - which are at least enough for Dobyne to win attention from Willow and an old flame (Jessica Collins).

Most of the film takes place at one eventful party where Willow loses a US$5,000 teardrop diamond earring. Whether she'll find it is about the sum of the drama. Her larger battle is to keep herself together and win Dobyne.

Markell succeeds in some respects in capturing a mood of '20s class friction. One can feel the sweaty Mississippi summer night but she doesn't show any sense of pace or simple scene construction.

Howard, working just as earnestly as Markell, is easily the brightest thing in the film. If she knows "Teardrop Diamond" is mediocre, she doesn't show it.

She gives everything to the part, imbuing Willow with an exciting mix of desperation, arrogance and sensitivity. Too bad she spends so much time whining about a boy. "Teardrop Diamond" very likely would have worked better as a play.

It also probably needed a few revisions, even in 1957. Though it's dated, the larger issue has to do with those timeless problems of plot and character.


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