Toronto Film Society presented Period of Adjustment (1962) on Monday, March 30, 1981 in a double bill with Suddenly, Last Summer as part of the Season 33 Monday Evening Film Buff Series, Programme 8.
Tennessee Williams frequently wrote his plays for particular actresses, for instance, following his experience with Katherine Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer he shaped the lead role in Night of the Iguana for her though when it was originally produced on Broadway, she had to honour previous commitments and never go to appear in the play. In much the same way, he frequently wrote with a particular director in mind. Period of Adjustment was originally to have been staged by Elia Kazan. Had he not been compelled to withdraw from the project, Kazan probably would have gone on to direct the screen version as he had directed other plays by Williams. (Not only have Kazan and Williams done some of their best work together, but Kazan is the only director for whom Williams ever wrote directly for the screen, namely, Baby Doll (1956).)
Unfortunately, on the strength of having directed a less than prominent Broadway musical entitled “Greenwillow”, George Roy Hill was invited to direct the play and then the film Period of Adjustment. Later he was to manifest considerable subtlety in the kind of “buddy” theme which was his forte, e.g., Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973).
With the screenplay “opened up” by Isabel Lennart, Hill’s Period of Adjustment emerges as the only one of Williams’ plays ever to opt for broad comedy. The hearse in which Jane Fonda and Jim Hutton go on their honeymoon is so openly an object of comic derision that Williams’ original metaphoric comment on the state of marriage is easily overlooked. While it is true that the pervasive gender insecurity which provided the dominant thrust of the play is retained in the film, Hill directs his cast as if they were all unaware of its significance as a symptom of a sick society. Not onlyd oes Hutton go to visit his “best buddy” Anthony Franciosa on the first day of his honeymoon but Franciosa’s wife, Lois Nettleton, has recently walked out, his house is leterally sinking and he is concerned that his son is being raised to be a sissy.
Williams gave his play a subtitle of “High Point Over a Cavern” which reflects the major metaphor which reverberates throughout the play, i.e., the home is sinking. Events happen against the recurrent background of this sinking home. In the film, the sinking of the home is minimized. Were the film to have been given a subtitle, it would more appropriately have been “Laughter above an Abyss Unseen.”
While William’s play has many serious aspects to it, it is still a comedy. Apparently neither Hill nor Lennart have a taste for black comedy, because they have gone out of their way to discard or minimize any suggestion of significance. Despite the systematic move away from the resonance of Williams’ original comic vision, the film frequently manages to be very funny.
References: The Films of Katherine Hepburn by Homer Dickens, 1971. The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, 1979. Monthly Film Bulletin, March, 1963. Tennessee Williams and Film by Maurice Yacowar, 1977.
Research by Helen Arthurs
Notes written and prepared by Marcia Gillespie and Lloyd Gordon Ward