The Hollywood Censorship of Tennessee Williams

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In the early 1930s, the artistic freedom which Hollywood filmmakers had enjoyed up to that point came to a screeching halt with the establishment of the Motion Picture Production Code. The Code—popularly known as the “Hays Code”—was in effect for more than thirty years until the ratings system was established in 1968. The Code strictly regulated motion picture content, forbidding the portrayal of controversial plots about sex, politics, and other social taboos.

The effects of this code were especially noticeable in book-to-screen adaptations. A number of playwright Tennessee Williams’s works included allusions to homosexuality and other themes deemed inappropriate by censors that sought to sanitize works that might “lower the moral standards of those who see it.” During the 1950s and 1960s, Williams saw many of his works adapted for the screen. He was famously vocal with his displeasure regarding the countless ways in which Hollywood censored his writing. Below are three notably censored film adaptations of Williams’s plays.

Photo of Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams (1911–1983)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, dir. Elia Kazan)

When Williams’s classic tale of lust and betrayal was adapted for screen, it was the final scene, altered in a very significant way, that changed the entire tone of the film. At the end of the play, published in 1947, Stella Kowalski refuses to believe that her brutish husband Stanley has raped her fragile and mentally unstable sister Blanche. Stella turns a blind eye and has Blanche committed to an asylum. Of course, the reader knows that Stanley has indeed raped Blanche, which ends the play on a very somber tone as Stella, a new mother, carries on in her marriage and her life, refusing to acknowledge what her husband truly is.

When the play was adapted for film, the prospect that the ending would see Stanley Kowalski receive no comeuppance for the crime he committed was too severe for film censors. Thus, a brief scene was added in at the very conclusion of the film in which Stella, heartbroken at seeing her sister carted away, clutches her newborn and says “we’re never going back there again!” before rushing off. No such scene appears in the play, and was intended to leave viewers with the hopeful impression that Stella would be leaving her husband.

A black and white snapshot from the film of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh sharing a tense moment. Brando is gripping Leigh's wrist as she stares at him with wide eyes.
Stella (Vivien Leigh) and Stanley (Marlon Brando)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, dir. Richard Brooks)

Movie poster of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Depicts a painting of Elizabeth Taylor lounging in a lacy white dress on a bed and staring sultrily at the viewer. Next to her is a pillow and the words "This is Maggie the Cat..."
Movie poster for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

The theme of repression—in particular, repressed homosexuality—permeated much of Williams’s writing. It reflected his personal struggles with his own sexuality. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was published in 1955 and later adapted for film in 1958. The central conflict involves former football star Brick Pollitt, his sexually neglected wife Maggie, and the reasons for their crumbling marriage—many of which revolve around Brick’s now-deceased former teammate Skipper and the romantic tension between them.

In 1958, the cinematic portrayal of a homosexual relationship—especially one involving a central character played by All-American idol Paul Newman— was still unheard of in Hollywood. The final cut of the film adaptation eliminated all traces of sexual relationship between Brick and Skipper. This altered both the tone of Williams’s play and its most poignant thematic element.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, dir. Richard Brooks)

Sometimes, it was simply the prospect of an ending deemed too dark or distressing for viewers that gave film censors pause. Sweet Bird of Youth, Williams’s 1959 play, tells the story of Chance Wayne, an aging gigolo and failed actor. He returns to his hometown with delusions of youthful grandeur and hopes of reuniting with his long lost love, Heavenly, whose father had long ago driven him away. The play ends on a decidedly bleak note when not only does Chance fail to reunite with Heavenly, but her brother and his friends descend upon him as the curtain closes with clear intention of maiming or even killing him. In the film adaptation, the ending is altered to see Heavenly show up and thwart the attack. The two drive off together, giving audiences what they have long been known to crave—a happy ending.

Melissa D’Lando

Want to learn more about Tennessee Williams and other creative American minds? Check out the American Voices virtual exhibit!

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