EVER since I first read ``The Glass Menagerie'' as a high school student years ago, I've had mixed feelings about the idea of filming Tennessee Williams's first important play. On the plus side of the argument, there's no reason why its poetic language shouldn't transfer smoothly to film, or why movie performers shouldn't have a field day with its brilliantly written roles.
Yet there's something risky about taking this delicate ``memory play'' and magnifying its fragile images via the impatient gaze of a camera. ``The Glass Menagerie'' is a drama of emotions long past and half forgotten, after all, and movies naturally confer a present-tense immediacy on the events they depict.
It's worth noting that Mr. Williams suspected even the proscenium stage might be too literal a milieu for this particular play. To help ensure an impressionistic mood, he originally wrote ``The Glass Menagerie'' with mixed-media elements - words and images (the ``blue roses'' motif, for instance) projected onto the backdrop during the action. Although he soon dropped this Brechtian device, it points up Williams's eagerness to discourage anything like a naturalistic treatment of the drama. By contrast, conventional movies have a built-in bias toward literalism, and only the most artful filmmakers have the skill and sensitivity to dodge it.
The new version of ``The Glass Menagerie'' has found such a filmmaker in actor Paul Newman, and with this movie he steps into the league of American directors to be reckoned with.
There's nothing revolutionary or even very innovative about his approach. He has made one key decision, however, that flies in the face of contemporary Hollywood practice: He does not try to disguise the movie's origin as a one-set theater piece.
At the same time, Mr. Newman and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus have so skillfully employed the resources of film - camera positions and movements, details of color and texture - that their ``Glass Menagerie'' emerges not as a recorded theatrical performance but as a full-blown cinematic work.
I don't mean to suggest that Newman and Mr. Ballhaus break any new ground. Their strategies are familiar ones, aimed mostly at enhancing the four superb performances that are the pillars of the movie. It's a pleasure, though, to see filmmaking that's so quietly effective at capturing subtleties of language, gesture, and ambiance. ``The Glass Menagerie'' is one of the infrequent pictures that manage to be both ``director's movies'' and ``actors' movies.''
And what actors. Chief among them is Newman's gifted wife and collaborator, Joanne Woodward, giving what may be the performance of her career as Amanda Wingfield, the one-time Southern belle living a disappointed life of wistful memories and doubtful hopes. Miss Woodward sweeps through her role with an assurance that commands the screen, yet never seems more domineering or mannered than the regally eccentric Amanda herself.
At her side are three wonderfully capable colleagues. John Malkovich brings no new revelations to the key role of Tom, the narrator and would-be hero of the play, but his mingled vulnerability and toughness are just right for the character. James Naughton seems uninspired in his first moments as Jim, the long-awaited ``gentleman caller,'' and this turns out to be exactly the point: He uses a just-plain-folks demeanor to explore nuances of personality that run deep.
As Laura, the most breakable member of Williams's menagerie, Karen Allen is close to ideal with her carefully worked-out projection of wistfulness, dreaminess, desire, and anguish. Of all the players, she moves us most with the least apparent effort, digging far beneath the surface of her frail yet enduring character.
In assembling this ``Glass Menagerie,'' the clear intention of Newman and company has been to preserve the intimacy and intensity of Williams's play as a theatrical work.
This isn't the only productive way to approach a Williams drama: Of all the movies based on his work, the playwright's own favorite was ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'' which took all kinds of liberties with the original play, yet managed to preserve a surprising amount of its passionate, desperate poetry.
Newman's conservative treatment has surely given us the definitive screen translation of Williams's exquisite drama. It's one of the year's most resonant accomplishments.