By Matt Connolly
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
Dir. Jodie Markell, U.S., Paladin
A pleasurably weird character study lurks somewhere in the otherwise moldy period drama The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. Based on a 50-year-old screenplay by Tennessee Williams, the film revolves around Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard), a strong-willed but cripplingly insecure Twenties-era Southern belle whose coy flirtatiousness and casual disdain for Southern culture can barely hide the desperation that haunts her every hair flip and eyelash flutter. This vision of womanhood—theatrical, flighty, grappling with tragedies past and present—appears regularly throughout Williams’s plays, which contain some of the most singular female characters in 20th-century drama: Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield, Maggie “the Cat.” But while many of these women come most fully alive as characters in their interactions with brutish, withholding men pushing against their dreams and delusions, Fisher seems most vivid when Williams isolates her from others and lets her anxieties bubble to the surface. These moments not only add an intriguing wrinkle to Williams’s oeuvre but also humanize an essentially archetypal character, hinting at the all-too-relatable strains of isolation and fear that undergird her ostentatious displays of sophistication.
Getting to these moments, however, requires slogging through a thick mess of hothouse clichés and warmed-over Williams motifs. Though a male protagonist appears, in the form of Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), an employee at the Willow family’s plantation store with a fall-down-drunk of a father (Will Patton) and a mother in an insane asylum, he proves less important here than in the playwright’s other works. His rough-hewn looks and plainspoken manner appeal to Fisher, and she asks him to accompany her to the flood of debutante parties that Fisher will reluctantly attend throughout the Memphis social season. Jimmy hesitantly agrees, playing the role of the “acceptable escort” while remaining all too aware of the economic and social divides between them. His courteous but distant demeanor soon proves frustrating to Fisher, though, as she finds herself slowly falling for him.
The one-sided would-be romance complicated by class distinctions is nothing extraordinary in Williams work, and The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond proves a particularly tiresome retread. Scene after scene presents the same set-up of Fisher’s desperate attempts to woo Jimmy with flirty, neurotic chatter, with Jimmy moodily looking off into the distance and reminding her of the separate spheres that money and stature place them in. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, so long as the dialogue is juicy and the performances varied. Neither is true here. Williams’s trademark lyricism here often tips into self-parody, weighed down with clunky, overwritten pseudo-insights (“I don’t like people, but I could like one person!” Fisher declares to Jimmy). But even the most masterfully written lines feel overripe, thanks to the stars’ flat performances. Howard can be a radiant screen presence (certainly, she was a beacon of emotional clarity in the otherwise murky The Village and Lady in the Water), but her work here feels right out of a college production of A Streetcar Named Desire, complete with chewy Southern accent and a trove of rarely illuminating, affected tics. Evans, meanwhile, is simply a washout: all pretty-boy petulance and empty eruptions of pent-up indignation. The supporting cast doesn’t help matters either, particularly Ann-Margaret, predictably cast as Fisher’s imperious Aunt Cornelia. Even worse, first-time director Jodie Markell does not provide any luscious, old-South atmospherics to distract us from the film’s central deficiencies. She and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens apparently shot the film in CinemaScope to get a bit of that ole’ Fifties movie magic, but Markell’s pedestrian aesthetics dampen the visuals. It’s all bland shot/reverse shot conversation scenes and occasional splashes of “moody” shadow.
There’s nothing much of note until Fisher and Jimmy drive off to the secluded home of Fisher’s friend Julie (Mamie Gummer) for a party. Frustrated over her repeatedly rebuffed advances on Jimmy, Fisher leaps out of the car as they approach Julie’s home, losing one of the priceless teardrop diamond earrings she loaned for the night from Aunt Cornelia. This careless mistake quickly turns ugly when Fisher unthinkingly accuses Jimmy of stealing it. The claim touches the raw nerve of class tension pulsing beneath their relationship, and Jimmy demands to be searched before storming off to the party alone. Emotionally adrift and without male accompaniment, Fisher stalks about the party, eventually making her way upstairs. She is called into the room of Julie’s dying aunt, Miss Addie (Ellen Burstyn), a former adventurer turned opium addict lying on her deathbed. Miss Addie shares a bit of her world travels with Fisher, drawing a connection between their mutual suspicions of genteel Southern society. Things take a macabre turn, however, when Miss Addie asks Fisher to give her an overdose of medication. Burstyn goes five miles over the top here, dispensing sage wisdom in a molasses-thick drawl. There’s probably no more amusing moment (intentional or otherwise) in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond than when Miss Addie asks Fisher to put her out of her misery. Fisher tentatively asks her if she is sure she wants to consume all of the medicine. “Awwwl!” Burstyn howls, eyes agleam.
This moment is indicative of the sudden tonal and visual shifts in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, which rapidly swings from stately period piece to baroque, slightly wacked-out burlesque. It begins in Miss Addie’s bedroom when Fisher delivers a soliloquy outlining her own uncertainty about her world and the life she has lived. Perhaps in a nod to Williams’s lyrical stage directions (or perhaps just an overt acknowledgment of her own stagy compositions), Markell slowly dims the lights around Fisher, eventually bathing her in a defiantly nondiegetic spotlight. It’s a jarring choice, but it provides a welcome bit of aesthetic variety, and effectively signals to us that we are about to enter a different, more intimate realm. Fisher leaves Miss Addie, promising to return and complete the promised bit of euthanasia before she leaves for the evening. In the meantime, she wanders about in a kind of stupor, gazing upon the party as if observing a ritual from another planet. Narrative momentum stops here, replaced by a vivid evocation of one woman’s social disconnect. Symmetrical compositions seem to rise up and entrap Fisher as she walks, somnambulist-like, through the house and the garden. Later, when she sidles up to an abandoned piano and begins to play a violently intense piece seemingly from memory, Markell cross-cuts between her and the object of her affection, screwing another party guest in the backseat of a car. There’s something a little cruel about this moment, and about the whole passage in general: a fascination with Fisher’s zombie-like state that only sometimes reads as empathy. Still, Markell’s willingness to dive into Fisher’s solitary headspace (and Howard’s skill at making her emotionally-catatonic state somehow accessible) provides a welcome glimpse of what it feels like to be one of Williams’s troubled heroines on a moment-by-moment basis, alone in a crowd that neither loves nor understands her.
It’s a shame the film didn’t have the good sense to stay in her mind. The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond ends up dumping us back into dreary reality via Jimmy’s dalliance with aforementioned guest Vinnie (Jessica Collins), a duplicitous working-class woman to whom he feels a sudden and powerful connection. This return to class dynamics feels more than a little rote, a kind of penance for spending so much time chronicling a spoiled rich girl’s psyche. But that—not Jimmy’s thwarted attempt at running away with Jessica; not even Jimmy and Fisher’s ambivalent reconciliation—is where the heart of The Loss of Teardrop Diamond lies. If only Markell (and Williams) had the wherewithal to follow this idea awwwl the way through, plunging into the emotional deep end rather than listlessly skimming its surface.