Thursday, October 29, 2009

Back from the dead: Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles in Oscar race?

Heath Ledger won a rare posthumous competitive Oscar for "The Dark Knight" in February.

Could Tennessee Williams, who died in 1983, be the next?

For half a century, his original screenplay "The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond" has remained unproduced — until now. But novice feature director Jodie Markell, a Williams aficionado, has rectified the situation with her new independent feature that gives Williams a brand-new screen credit and a renewed shot at the Oscar, which eluded him while he was alive. He was nominated for his adaptation of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1951 but lost to "A Place in the Sun" and then again in 1956 for "Baby Doll," losing to "Around the World In 80 Days." Both movies were directed by Elia Kazan, and the original plan in 1957 was to see a reteaming of the pair on "Teardrop," reportedly to star Julie Harris, but Kazan went on to other projects, and the picture never got made. The script did surface in an anthology of Williams' screenplays (which also include "The Glass Menagerie," "The Rose Tattoo" and "The Fugitive Kind"), but now it has been rescued from the footnotes of Williams' storied career and turned into a feature in a very different cinematic environment than the one in which it was created.

The film, starring Bryce Dallas Howard as Fisher Willow, another of those Southern belles Williams so loved, will open in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 30, just under the wire to qualify for Oscar consideration. It costars Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret and Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep's daughter). In the classic Williams fashion of Maggie the Cat and Blanche DuBois, Howard fiercely and impressively portrays a reluctant debutante who lures a handsome young hired man at her father's plantation to escort her to the season's big societal balls, parties she must attend in order to gain her aunt's inheritance.

Orson Welles, another great name from the ghosts of Oscars past, is also starting to turn up prominently this award season, but in his case he's being channeled by Christian McKay, whose phenomenal and uncanny impersonation of the legend is the driving force of "Me and Orson Welles," another indie trying to get a foothold in the Oscar race. Opening fairly wide on Nov. 25, this 2008 Toronto International Film Fest entry has genuine box office bait in costars Zac Efron, as the 'Me' in the title, an idealistic young actor taken under Welles' wing, and Claire Danes as a love interest for both. Efron and Danes are quite good in this highly entertaining film, but it's McKay who dominates, as you swear the young Orson Welles has returned from the dead. Although McKay could probably qualify as either a lead actor or supporting actor, depending on how you look at it, a run in the supporting category could possibly gain some traction. There aren't a whole lot of contenders there right now, and the academy has shown itself to be a sucker for performances based on people they know, love and, in this case, have even given Oscars to (Welles shared a writing award in 1941 for "Citizen Kane" and also received an honorary statuette in 1971). English actor McKay was nominated this week as most promising newcomer by the British Independent Film Awards.

Of course, with the high costs of campaigning and big-name competition, the Oscar odds are long for both of these independently made and distributed period films, but they are counting on the fondness for a couple of legendary last names that both start with a 'W' to get them through the academy's door this year.

by Pete Hammond

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