Geology informs us that centuries of subterranean pressure will turn carbon-bearing minerals into diamonds. Tennessee Williams’ long-neglected film script The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond needs to cook another millennium or two before it becomes a gemstone, if the new film adaptation is any indication. A Streetcar Named Desire director Elia Kazan nearly filmed Teardrop Diamond in the late 1950s, but it sunk into obscurity, surfacing only in anthologies of Williams’ lesser-known works. Williams’ only screenplay based on an original story (as opposed to being adapted from his plays), The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond looks like costume jewelry compared to his classics.
If you didn’t know Teardrop Diamond as a Williams work, you’d probably guess almost immediately, given its portrayal of the overripe, class-conscious South in the mid-1920s. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Fisher Willow, a well-educated but erratic heiress to two fortunes. Though she longs for the life of cosmopolitan Europe, Fisher grudgingly agrees to make her debut to please her wealthy aunt (Ann-Margaret) in Memphis. The young flirt in a leopard coat enlists hunky Jimmy Dobyne (Fantastic Four’s Chris Evans) to be her escort. As a governor’s grandson, Jimmy passes muster with the snobs, even though his family has fallen on hard times.
Teardrop Diamond’s first half combines the clumsiest aspects of theater and film. It alternates between exposition-laden speeches and quick, heavy-handed scenes, such as Jimmy’s visit to his demented mother at a Gothic asylum – in the rain. The script and the storytelling improve significantly during the second half, which takes place almost entirely at a single Halloween party. Predatory sexuality and debutante party rituals, including a game of “post office,” come under equally sharp scrutiny. A long scene with Ellen Burstyn as a dowager on her deathbed comes off overly theatrical, but makes emotional connections the rest of the film misses. Unfortunately, the evening also includes a clichéd tracking shot of guests in creepy costumes and a moment of transparently fake piano playing.
Howard zestfully plays Fisher’s flirtatious side and finds a ruthless rival in a friend’s cousin (Jessica Collins). But Evans fails to give any depth to Jimmy (the brooding Montgomery Clift role), who comes across less as a beacon of integrity than a passive-aggressive jerk unworthy of Fisher’s attention. Jodie Markell’s adaptation proves frustratingly superficial, leaving most of the characters’ motivations unexplored. Between the script’s dated flaws and the direction’s sluggish pace, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond probably need never have been filmed, but its theatrical virtues suggest that it wants to be on the stage.