Sam Waterston: What Is Possible, What Is Denied

Tenn in Conversation
Regarding Tom in The Glass Menagerie
New Orleans

Tom is, I suppose you could say, the young Thomas Lanier Williams. Yours truly. But Tom is so many young people--young men--who are burgeoning in a way that is unacceptable to their surroundings, and to the morals, the prejudices, of the arena into which they have been born and to which they are now brutally subjected. If I had to append any particular word of action on or about Tom, it would be 'escape.' Whatever else you may feel about Tom, he is a survivor, and his departure from that apartment and that city and that beautiful but suffocating triangle of people is his announcement to the world and to himself that he will live and be as true to himself as he can possibly be.

Tom escapes because he cannot safely accept his homosexuality and his artistic impulses, which are not one and the same, but given his background and the prejudices surrounding him, he feels they must both be powerful forms of perversion. Tom escapes in the movie palaces of St. Louis--beautiful, ornate, and dark. Tom not only finds films there, and all the glamour and all the images shot through with silver and black, but he also finds other escapees, who cluster in the balconies and the smoking lobbies and find that they are not alone. Tom escapes in works of literary art that allow him to learn that there are others like him in the world--writers and dreamers. Tom escapes--while living, while walking, while working--by imagining where he can go, where he can escape, where he can avoid becoming crippled by reality, which is what has happened to his sister, Laura. Laura, I might add, is crippled by both her inability to leave--to escape, to fly, walk, or run--but also by the the intense love she has for her brother. Laura will never love anyone the way she loves Tom, a magician of words and moods.

I found a Tom that fit my literary desires: Sam Waterston. I did not care at all for the production of Menagerie in which he appeared, one that was crafted for the whims of Katharine Hepburn and the greed of a few executives at ABC. No one was evil or greedy on the set--simply misguided or miscast.

Let's not dwell on it.

But Sam Waterston was a revelation to me. Beautiful of face and voice and soul, but not burdened by his beauty or his talent. He walks easily with his gifts, so he can convey the artistic and erotic skills of Tom while also displaying the awkwardness and fear that Tom carries like dirty laundry. He made me think of another beautiful, honorable man: François Truffaut.

There must be goodness in Tom--he is not merely a dishonest invert, as he is so often portrayed. He is a talented, sweet, confused young man--your brother or your best friend or yourself--but he is lost, dumb to any idea of how he can prevent his self-destruction.

Tom does not wish to become a victim of magic--of drinking or drugs or continued clandestine encounters in those balconies and tea rooms and bathrooms. Tom has enough self-respect to realize that the magic he most needs is, of course, escape, so he leaves, finds a place where he can flourish as himself, as Tom.

I have a belief that one's thoughts and dreams and gifts appear on one's face and body, so that, no matter one's lineage, an artistic soul imprints upon the features. Sam Waterston's background is unknown to me--is, in fact, of no interest to me--but as Tom you could believe that he was a working stiff and unhappy, but his eyes were so full of beautiful lines of prose, and they were so sad in acknowledgment of what is possible and what is denied. Sam's Tom led me to believe that once he got away from that oilcloth tenement, pressed his clothes, and could walk as himself, he would be greeted as an honorable, decent, desirable man.

Which is what he wants. Which is what I want.

Sam Waterston acts with his soul, which is rare. He is generous with his gifts, which is rarer. He did not lavish only my Tom with these gifts. He has kept numerous things afloat since. Did you see The Great Gatsby? That it his film, because only he seems to understand what matters and what has been lost.

If I dream hard enough, I can imagine writing for him again. Of mattering again. Of coming in contact, once again, with his soul.


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