Anna Magnani was playwright Tennessee Williams’ muse for many years, they were long time friends and he wrote at least three roles for her. He wrote The Rose Tattoo expressly for her, and though she didn’t star in it on Broadway, she stepped in for the film role, which won her an Oscar. However, hindsight has not been kind to it.
Falling between the works that put Williams on the map, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Glass Menagerie (1950), and before film versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959), The Rose Tattoo offers shrill variations on their themes of familial oppression, forbidden love, mourning, alcoholism, and madness.
Consideration of Williams’ relationship with his Italian muse must begin with his homosexuality and her magnificent excess: she’s quite drag-impersonation friendly. The Rose Tattoo backs this up, as her character is granted almost no sex appeal in favor of a sort of raging diva quality reminiscent of another gay artist’s muse, John Waters’ Divine.
Serafina (Magnani) is a morbidly emotional Sicilian widow living in the Florida Keys (the locale’s steamy, overgrown ambiance is well rendered by black and white maestro James Wong Howe). She’s so devoted to her late husband that she hasn’t changed out of her pajamas since he died, and protests when the local priest tries to assure her that three years of nonstop grief is more than enough. Her young daughter Rosa (Marisa Pavan), meanwhile, wants to dress up, go to the dance, and meet boys, much against Serafina’s will. Once at the dance, Rosa quickly falls in love with a callow sailor (Ben Cooper), again eliciting her mother’s protest.
Director Daniel Mann seems in no hurry to advance the story if it means reducing any of Serafina’s Oscar-caliber tantrums. Eventually, she learns from some gossips that her husband is having an affair with local floozy Estelle (Virginia Grey). Now she smashes porcelain and pulls her hair. As if things couldn’t get any worse, her effort to whine at the priest again at a local street fair brings her into contact with a grinning local idiot named Alvaro (Burt Lancaster with a truly awful haircut).
Just like her dead husband, Alvaro drives a fruit truck, and in order to impress her on their first date, he runs out and spends $2.50 on a rose tattoo just like her dead husband had. He also drinks too much and has a terrible fake laugh. Lancaster’s broad performance here would make Roberto Benigni blush. Serafina acts as if she’s trying to ignore a dog that’s humping her leg.
All this overacting hardly dampens the film’s efforts to grant weighty meaning to the rose tattoo. It opens as Estelle gets a rose tattoo. Later, Alvaro gets one before the first date with Serafina, thinking it will impress her. It only horrifies her, providing a mirror of her obsession with her husband – he’s trying to hard! She realizes that the only way to her heart apparently is to impersonate a dead man, and that makes her realize how morbid she’s become.
But Serafina is too self-righteous and savage to be the usual tortured Tennessee heroine. His female protagonists read best as stand-ins for Williams himself, a sensitive homosexual alcoholic artist stuck in the unforgiving climate of the 1940s-50s American South. His mother works best when played as cold and menacing, à la Hepburn’s brittle matriarch in Suddenly Last Summer, tapping into a sort of praying mantis chthonic force, or else wandering around in a haze of alcoholic oblivion like Liz Taylor in Boom. In The Rose Tattoo, Serafina merely wallows in a shallow pool of mannerisms. Williams famously shows compassion for even his most vile characters, but here he seems so taken with Magnani that he is blind to the character’s sheer tedium.
Like Williams’ other grieving characters, she is obsessed with the beauty of her suffering, her dead lover idolized from all perspectives. This dead lover is always looming around Williams’ fringes – dead Fred in Night of the Iguana, Brick’s college chum Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer. Serafina is doomed to mourn for the lost boy of Williams’ artistic psyche in the form of her husband. In her mind, he’s frozen at some high point of virile youth.
What stops this film from resonating, though, is how out of his element Williams seems when dealing with Italian culture – resorting here to broad stereotypes. Everything from the Catholic Church and the Virgin Mary, to the screaming and tearing of dresses: it’s all there. “Write about what you know,” is always the advice given out in writing classes. Here it seems as if Williams forgot about that and instead wrote about what he thought he should know about Italian immigrants, but it plays as if he got most of his info from radio sitcoms of the time such as “Life with Luigi”. The Godfather or The Sopranos may draw fire from Italian Americans for portraying a “culture” as gangster-affiliated, but at least both these examples include some reverent mystery and respect, even if there is a lot of pasta, praying, yelling, and screaming. Serafina remains stuck on her surface.