THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND is a new drama based on a recently rediscovered original screenplay by legendary writer Tennessee Williams. This Southern period piece, the first feature directed by Jodie Markell, exhumes an obscure Tennessee Williams screenplay, written in 1957, in which Williams returned to realism following the crushing reception of his symbol-weighted stage drama “Orpheus Descending.”
A new Tennessee Williams heroine emerges in this unpolished yet intriguing 1920s tale. A troubled woman with a difficult past, humidity that hangs like condemnation in the air and a drawl as thick as honey, if not always as sweet. That’s Tennessee Williams country and it’s right where we find Bryce Dallas Howard’s Memphis heiress, Fisher Willow, in “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,” a prospecting venture into a once rich creative vein.
Ms. Howard’s character, Fisher Willow, has the familiar hallmarks of a wounded Williams angel. Headstrong and flighty with a hint of madness, Fisher is too rebellious a creature to nestle comfortably into any social niche. Having studied at the Sorbonne, dabbled in painting, and flitted through European bohemian salons, she is a conspicuously cosmopolitan presence in a provincial Southern society that Williams views with a scathing contempt. Here the closest thing to art is a prim “end of summer” pageant performed by preadolescent girls and attended by Fisher’s stern maiden aunt, Cornelia (a seriously miscast and wooden Ann-Margret).
Riches notwithstanding, the Willow family name has been tarnished by the drowning of several tenant farmers in a flood caused by Fisher’s father’s demolition of a levee. Fisher is squirming under the thumb of Cornelia, who controls the purse strings and has warned her that if she doesn’t marry respectably and settle down, the millions she stands to inherit will be left to the church.
Fisher’s efforts to buckle down are half-hearted at best. To squire her to social functions, she hires as an escort Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), the impoverished son of the drunk (Will Patton) who runs the commissary on her father’s plantation. At their first fancy social outing, for which she supplies Jimmy’s formal wear, she blithely introduces him as the grandson of a former Tennessee governor. Jimmy isn’t a character so much as a moral ideal held up to reflect the creeping rot of the world around him. Courtly and humble, handsome but without a trace of vanity, and unfailingly honest, he cares for his drunken father and regularly visits his silent, spectral mother in a mental hospital.
The heart of the story takes place at a Halloweenparty at which Fisher loses, in the hostess’s driveway, a $5,000 earring lent to her by Cornelia. The imperious and distracted Fisher is too self-involved to offer much support when Jimmy imagines she has accused him of theft. And when a treacherous former date of Jimmy’s pounces on him, Fisher retreats into a sulk. Upstairs at the party, Fisher visits a kindred free spirit, Miss Addie (a wonderful Ellen Burstyn), now a miserably pain-wracked woman immobilized by a stroke, who entreats Fisher to give her “deliverance” through an overdose of pain medication. In her youth, Addie had fled to China, where she remained for years and became addicted to opium. In a phantasmagoric scene, Fisher takes some of Addie’s opiates and experiences much of the rest of the party as an eerie waking dream.
THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND Directed by Jodie Markell; written by Tennessee Williams; director of photography, Giles Nuttgens; edited by Susan E. Morse; music by Mark Orton; production designer, Richard Hoover; produced by Brad Michael Gilbert; released by Paladin. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.
WITH: Bryce Dallas Howard (Fisher Willow), Chris Evans (Jimmy Dobyne), Ellen Burstyn (Miss Addie), Mamie Gummer (Julie), Ann-Margret (Cornelia), Will Patton (Old Man Dobyne) and Jessica Collins (Vinnie).