The billboard for the 1956 movie Baby Doll was the world’s biggest sign, covering an improbable 15,000 square metres high above Broadway in New York. It showed a thumbing-sucking Carroll Baker in the titular role, with limbs 24 metres long and three-metre eyebrows above her sultry stare. The film needed this scale of commercial push because, in a zealously puritanical US, the Catholic Church decreed seeing it a sin, while Time magazine called it “possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited”. And this was despite the fact it contained no nudity, no sex and only one kiss!
At the urging of director Elia Kazan, and on the back of the success of film versions of such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams concocted the script from a couple of his one-act plays. Apparently Marilyn Monroe was considered for the lead, before Kazan settled on the sensational Baker.
Now Ensemble Theatre is presenting a 2015 stage adaptation penned by Emily Mann and Pierre Laville that stays faithful to the source material and 1950s Mississippi setting. It strips the cast to four characters: Baby Doll (Kate Cheel), the 19-year-old virgin bride of much older, hard-drinking, down-at-heel Archie (Jamie Oxenbould), the seductive Italian cotton tycoon Silva (Socratis Otto) and Baby Doll’s dilapidated Aunt Rose Comfort (Maggie Dence).
Director Shaun Rennie says his production focuses on proprietorial male attitudes towards women who find themselves obliged to perform for “the male gaze”. “There is certainly a contemporary lens,” he says, “and Katie and I have been very cautious of making sure that Baby Doll isn’t seen as dim; that she is actually playing the game by the rules that she has to play. And so even the baby-like aspect of her is, conscious or unconscious, a choice; a performance that she has to do in order to keep Archie off her.”
The film did not depict the implied dalliance between Baby Doll and Silva as a conquest for the latter, but rather a sexual awakening for the former. “This is why I think it was so controversial at the time,” says Rennie. “It was about a woman’s pleasure that wasn’t attached necessarily to love or romantic love. It was about a woman experiencing pleasure, as opposed to giving pleasure… Silva blows her mind with the potential of the world outside this trap that she has found herself in. And that in itself is actually just as potent, if not more potent, than experiencing pleasure for the first time… I think it’s important that it’s not that she finds a saviour in another man. I think it’s that he opens her mind to the world and her own sense of agency and pleasure in it, and her right to that.”
To divert the censors’ attention away from the non-stop sexual tension, Kazan exaggerated the script’s comedic aspects and obfuscated or removed overtly sex-charged behaviour. As Rennie observes, he then could say to the censors: “‘Look, you don’t see anything. Your mind is making that up.’ And that’s certainly true of the play as well,” Rennie continues. “It’s psychological eroticism that we’re playing with… For a play that is probably the most erotic thing I’ve worked on, there’s very little physical connection.”
Williams also eschewed taking sides, making the play morally ambiguous. “That’s why I think it sometimes feels a bit dangerous to be presenting these really difficult but innately human questions and complexities,” says Rennie.
Baby Doll: Ensemble Theatre, October 18-November 16.