Speaking of William Inge

Poor William Inge, Hollywood got a hold of him and chewed up both him and his legacy. A year ago I saw an excellent production of his under-rated play A Loss of Roses by the Peccadillo Theater Company here in New York, then either read the rest of his major plays, or watched the films based on them.

Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs: I admit that each of his stories gets blurred in my memory. All have a small town setting, a forbidden romance between a down-and-out drifter and a kid from one of the best families in town, a conniving matriarch, and the threat of ostracism. It’s a disservice to read Inge’s sexuality into all of his conflicts, but sixty years later they certainly feel like the work of an extremely ashamed gay guy. I get that some premarital unions were taboo in the 1950s, fraught with guilt and kept in secret, but in William Inge’s world sex can literally make a girl go insane.

William Holden and Kim Novak in "Picnic."

William Holden and Kim Novak in “Picnic.”

He might always be remembered as the Midwestern Tennessee Williams, the gay writer who understood the social codes of his region. Williams got lucky, I suppose, because Elia Kazan championed him. Kazan had the clout to take the Broadway lead of his breakthrough play, Streetcar, and cast him in the film version. You never tire of watching Brando in Streetcar. You do tire of watching William Holden mugging in Picnic.

I love Holden in lots of other roles, but he and Kim Novak make Picnic boring. I wanted Holden to get it on with Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard – the allegedly more deviant union – much more than I wanted him and Novak to “know” each another.

Holden died from a drinking accident in his own home in 1981, eight years after Inge committed suicide. Picnic and Bus Stop still get produced a lot, so there’s no reason to pity Inge. It is, however, conceivable that, had the stars (in more than one sense of the word) lined up differently, we would remember Tennessee Williams as the South’s answer to William Inge.