From Stage to Page
John DiLeo ’82 switched from acting to writing about it.
By Barbara Adams
Last March 26, New Orleans and the 25th annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of the playwright’s birth. So did acting alumnus John DiLeo, who arrived by train — “just like Vivien Leigh did in the opening of the film A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“I can’t imagine a more exciting, appropriate place to be at this time,” he said from the festival, where he served on a panel of film critics and scholars and also spoke on his newest book, Tennessee Williams and Company: His Essential Screen Actors.
John’s book is his fourth on film; the previous three emerged from his love of underappreciated classic films. (A favorite director is Anthony Mann; favorite actor Joel McCrea.) “The first books are my trilogy, in my mind, on the great overlooked movies of the golden age,” he says. “I found three different ways to write about them — via quizzes, performances, and genres.”
John’s newest work, the first time he’s specialized, was written expressly to be in print before the Williams centennial. Seeking a fresh spin on movies based on Williams’s plays, he focused on 11 actors who appeared in them more than once. This “unofficial stock company of repeat players” included Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Geraldine Page, Karl Malden, and of course, Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh.
The book’s cover — an intimate, engaging photo of Williams and Anna Magnani — hints at the richness inside. Each actor’s work is given a separate chapter, accompanied by a filmography and awards list — a mix of critical analysis, history, and insider lore.
One featured actress, Elizabeth Taylor, died the week before the centennial. John notes that she’s the only one he discussed who starred in three Williams films. Not a theater person, she came to the work as a “full-fledged movie star,” he says. “Williams gave her legitimacy as an actress; she gave him box office.”
Each book has posed a new challenge, John says, but “this is the first that has combined the two halves of my professional lives — the actor and the writer. Analyzing the performances and characters and Williams’s intentions was like playing all these roles; my other hat was the film critic’s.”
Like most cinephiles, John was hooked on films from an early age. He blushingly admits that his first love, at age three, was Mary Poppins, which he saw multiple times. “It knocked me out — that mix of fantasy and music and color.” He recalls thinking, “I don’t know what this is, but I want more of it.”
As a theater major at IC, John was “in Dillingham from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. for four years” and has “wonderful memories of classes and productions and rehearsals.” But he still found time to pursue his passion for movies, taking a history of American film class, frequenting Cornell Cinema, and viewing classics at the State Theatre’s Saturday matinees.
After graduating, John did “the aspiring-actor-in-New-York thing” — tours, summer stock, off off Broadway — for 14 years. When he felt it wasn’t working out and he needed a change, he decided to utilize his knowledge of film. As a writer, he had all the luck he’d never had as an actor: he got an agent right away, and she sold his book immediately. A positive quote from reviewer Pauline Kael was another boost. John remembers thinking, “This is the universe telling me the way I should go.”
Though he’d never dreamed he’d be writing for a living, John found the transition to author an easy one. “I had things to say, so I turned myself into a writer so I could say them. And I am still communicating, making public appearances, trying to make people laugh when I want to. This is just a different face of what I was trained to do.”