Tennessee Williams is arguably one of the greatest American playwrights, and the film adaptations of his plays have become classics in their own right: The Glass Menagerie, Baby Doll, The Rose Tattoo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and of course, A Streetcar Named Desire. The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is one of the few, if only, plays Williams wrote specifically for film. Williams discussed the project in an interview with the New York Times in 1957, and Elia Kazan, the director of Baby Doll and A Streetcar Named Desire, was supposedly attached to direct. It's unclear now if Kazan was ever officially involved; the director instead went on to film Wild River and Diamond has gathered dust until now.
Bryce Dallas Howard stars as the eccentric Fisher Willow, a gorgeous young woman who chafes under the strict rules of her aunt Cornelia (Ann-Margaret) but also wants to make sure she gets her fair share of Cornelia's wealth when the time comes. The Depression is coming, and finances are getting tight, so Fisher is forced to abandon her studies in Europe to return home to Memphis. We're made sure to understand that she's a wild child in the opening scenes where she's the only white woman drinking and dancing at a blues club.
Further, since she's forced to go to social events by Aunt Cornelia, she decides that her escort to the parties will be the handsome but poor Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), a man who works on her father's plantation; she has him fitted for formal wear and buys him the clothes. Jimmy is sketched in broad strokes; he's mostly quiet and hard working, with a drunk father to take care of and a catatonic mother in an asylum to visit regularly. Between Fisher's antics and her father's reputation - he blew up a levee that flooded farms downstream and killed several farmers - she's definitely not the belle of the ball. The drama comes to a head at her old friend Julie's party, where she loses one of her aunt's teardrop diamond earrings and accuses Jimmy of taking it. (Julie is played by Mamie Gummer, whose spends far too short a time onscreen.)
While the story so far lacks the urgency of other Williams works, it unravels at the party. Fisher makes scenes, lingers on the periphery sadly, plays the piano in a mad frenzy, and generally acts like a pain in the ass; it's not heartbreaking or intriguing, it's exhausting to watch because Fisher and almost all of the other characters aren't fully fleshed out enough for us to really care about the diamond earring and all its implications. While Fisher's rebelliousness was established early on, it's never clear if she's merely thumbing her nose at the other debutantes or if she actually does want to fit in but just can't. In one particularly painful scene, she gets the band at a social event to play one of her jazz favorites and dances by herself, trying to get others on the floor with her as they whisper and stare. Jimmy is flat and unaffecting; it's unclear why Fisher cares about him at all, other than as arm candy.
All the hallmarks of Tennessee Williams' greatest works are in the screenplay: tormented outsiders of society, the decaying South, artists, and madness. However, it's this kitchen sink mentality that makes me think that the reason Diamond never before saw the light of day is because it needed more work. The best example of this is a random subplot with Julie's dying Aunt Addie, played by Ellen Burstyn. Confined to a bed after a series of strokes, she asks Fisher for a rather serious favor; apparently, the world-traveling Addie, who ended up with a bit of an opium addiction after spending time in China, sees herself in Fisher - unconfined by society or its conventional morals, a free spirit, someone who does what she wants, even though it can and does cause her pain. But Fisher isn't written to be that complex, although she goes through the motions.
Actress and short-film director Jodie Markell makes her feature-length debut with The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, and fought for many years for the rights to the screenplay. Unfortunately, it's the screenplay that's the weakest link in the movie. The shortcomings of the final product have little to do with her direction or most of the cast, especially Dallas Howard and Gummer, and mostly to do with Williams' writing, which lacks the ache and the poetry of his other work and instead pours on the Southern Gothic syrup.