Cara Williams in THE DEFIANT ONES (1958) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Cara Williams has her work cut out for her in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones. She's the only woman billed in the opening credits (indeed, she's one of only 2 women with speaking roles) and she doesn't even show up on screen until the climactic convolutions of the movie's final act.

The movie itself is a complicated grab-bag of genres. Having never seen the film from front to back, StinkyLulu expected The Defiant Ones to track the way it is conventionally remembered. References to The Defiant Ones tend to emphasize the chemistry/relationship of leading men Sidney Poitier & Tony Curtis, considering the film an cinematic exercise in racial tolerance with the chains linking them as a device/metaphor to describe the intransigent mutual tethers uniting-not-dividing white and black America at midcentury. Fair enough. (Poitier/Curtis relationship also -- o'course -- also informs queerer readings of the film as the prototype for the homosocial supermasculine buddy/romance movies of the 1970s & 1980s.)

Such conventional ways of remembering The Defiant Ones neglect the two other main story arcs in the film. The first -- the finely calibrated parallel narrative of the manhunt -- actually provides the structure of the film. See, structurally, the film's mostly an "escape caper" (esCaper?) where a good deal of the narrative pleasure derives from the anti-heroes narrowly escaping from scrape after scrape as they somehow elude capture. (This genre becomes all the more formalized in the 1970s & 1980s as well -- The Warriors is perhaps Lulu's favorite of this genre -- until things get to TV's Alias in the '00s and then, well, anyway....) But there's a third genre structuring The Defiant Ones as well (& this is where Cara Williams finally gets in the mix): the cracker comedy of manners.

For reasons that are too wierd & complicated to go into here, the "cracker comedy of manners" was all the rage in the later 1950s. Suffice it, "The South" (as an idea, not a historical or geographical place) provides a kind of erotic license to Hollywood, permitting white people to get all filthy in all kinds of ways. Even in 1958, some cracker comedies of manners are silly, sometimes serious, but always they let the sex hang in the air. In The Defiant Ones, o'course, the "cracker comedy" is not too too funny and the sexual vibe in the air (Curtis/Poitier) is more "latent than blatant." But generic convention of the "cracker comedy" routes the diversions along the way for this escaper, first to the work camp where Curtis/Poitier are nearly lynched by a mob led by uber-cracker Claude Akins, and then to the remote farm house where "The Woman" (Cara Williams) lives alone with her son (sorta like a a hillbilly version Timmy & his mom, minus Lassie).

As the "The Woman," Cara Williams is Southern sexpot in dungarees. And though she ain't quite a Griselda, Williams' Woman is definitely "enflamed" the second she sees Tony Curtis. With every aching turn of her neck, Williams ebodies both the libidinal license and racist banalities of Hollywood's vision of the South. It's an expertly efficient performance. Williams creates with glares and glances a simple woman who "likes pretty things" (like Tony Curtis), who wants more than anything to go to Mardi Gras, and who is more than willing to send Poitier to his death in order to secure her own escape. It's a pivotal performance, pungent and memorable. And while Williams' work is a bit "conspicuous" for StinkyLulu's taste, it's no surprise that Williams snagged the nomination with this work. What's sad is that, in discussion of The Defiant Ones Cara Williams' work -- the highpoint of her strangely scanty career -- has been nearly forgotten.
Another example of the potential cruelty of of a kiss from Oscar.

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