THE ROSE TATTOO, Tennessee Williams 13th opus, debuted on Broadway in 1951, scooping Tony’s for Best Play and for acting leads Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach. When the 1955 film version came to pass, Williams, as he’d done for his A Streetcar Named Desire, adapted the screenplay, with Daniel Mann (Come Back, Little Sheba) directing Anna Magnani, magnificent in her English-language debut, and an ebullient Burt Lancaster. Location shooting was done in Key West, Florida (next door to a house Williams owned), the interiors back in California. Like Tennessee’s other Southern Gothic fever dreams, this centers around a vividly imagined female character riven by cross-currents of emotional turmoil, dealing with men who are often either brutes, flops or clods. Unlike some of his other scab-ripping reveals, this one is leavened by some mordant humor and a glimmer of deliverance hope. If the whole isn’t as fresh and gripping as it seemed back when Eisenhower was President, the dominating center—magnetic Magnani—has not lost an iota of power over seven decades. Burt’s good, too.
Down South, ‘roun the Gulf. Sicilian seamstress ‘Serafina Delle Rose’ (Magnani) suffers an emotional breakdown when her beloved husband dies in a truck accident. Crushing her further is realizing he may have been adored but wasn’t faithful. Not enough to deal with grief and public humiliation, her rebellious teenage daughter ‘Rosa’ (appealing Marisa Pavan) falls for a sailor (they only want one thing!) and then to cap it all along comes hunky but goofy ‘Alvaro Mangiacavallo’ (Lancaster), who courts the wary widow with clumsy sincerity.
“My husband’s body…on a man who smells like a goat.”
Uber-confident Lancaster, 41, was always eager to extend his range (for critics; we lesser mortals always dug him), and his uncouth but essentially gallant Alvaro is an acceptably plum addition to his (underrated) gallery of distinct rascals. The other supporting players are fine, but as designed the piece belongs to the dynamic Magnani, who had been a star in Italy for a good while (see Open City and The Golden Coach) but waited until this to make her American and international debut. Raw and vibrant, funny and furious, mature and unglamorous but decidedly sexually charged, she was a revelation, her soulful eyes and every expression and intonation genuine, injecting earthy European reality into the theatricality of Hollywoodian make-believe.
Along with Magnani’s prize, Oscars went to the Cinematography and Art Direction. Nominations went up for Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Pavan), Music Score, Film Editing and Costume Design. Magnani’s trophy was a lock, even against truly formidable work from Katherine Hepburn in Summertime and Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow (also directed by Mann) but the other wins and nominations were not really warranted.
Together with solid reviews and the Oscar buzzing, the public lined up, a $12,000,000 gross making clocking the year’s #21 earner. 117 minutes, with Ben Cooper, Virginia Grey and Jo Van Fleet. *
* Fire-eating Jo Van Fleet in the same movie, let sharing a same scene with the smoking Vesuvius of Anna Magnani? Duck & cover! Van Fleet’s quick shot here was just part of her big screen debut year, taking an Oscar for East Of Eden as well as adding more grit to I’ll Cry Tomorrow.
Williams had originally written the play specifically for Magnani, but the Italian actress knew her limited English skills wouldn’t suffice in live theater, thus giving the boon role to Stapleton. A few years later, slightly improved with Englese (basically she mimicked to perfection) and aided greatly by editing fixes, her capacious range of expression and innate honesty slayed it on the screen. Forty-seven in ’55, she only made three more English-language pictures: the vital Wild Is The Wind, The Fugitive Kind (a snore with Brando at his mumbliest) and the mixed bag The Secret Of Santa Vittoria.