One year ago, Ulster and Dutchess were added to the list of upstate New York counties providing 40 percent tax exemptions for film projects. Thanks to the change in the tax law, the Hudson Valley is becoming an ever-more-appealing locale for movie shoots, and our towns are scrambling to make production companies welcome.
But the history of filmmaking in this neck of the woods goes back a long way. If visiting locations where a movie or TV show was shot is your idea of a fun way to spend a day, you might want to add the Hudson River hamlet of Milton to your exploration bucket list. Named for the English poet John Milton and founded in 1712 by William Bond, a sea captain given a patent by Queen Anne to supply timber for masts to the British Navy, it’s part of the Town of Marlborough in the southeast corner of Ulster County. IN 1960, Milton’s tiny “downtown” was chosen by Sidney Lumet to represent a sleepy town in the Mississippi Delta: the setting for The Fugitive Kind, his screen version of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending.
Widely regarded today as the “quintessential New York director,” Lumet, at that early point in his big-screen career, was keen to work with Williams – but to shoot in the American South at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, not so much. In a New Yorker interview not long before Lumet’s death in 2011, he related an account of being ogled in the shower by fellow soldiers from Mississippi during his military service in World War II; they were convinced that Jews were supposed to have tails. Other versions of the story simply postulate that Lumet wanted to work within reasonable commuting distance of his Manhattan base of operations.
Whatever his true motivation, the direction decided that Milton’s quaint Main Street, with its general store and not even a traffic light to betray any pretense of modernity, could pass for some backwater burg in the Deep South. Some temporary modifications were made for the film sets, but if you watch the movie and then prowl downtown Milton, you can figure out where some of the exterior shots were set up.
The Fugitive Kind was not a rip-roaring success in the cinemas, despite the massive popularity of Tennessee Williams vehicles in the early ’60s. Some critics thought that Lumet, with his New York sensibilities, just didn’t grok Williams’ Southern Gothic milieu. The director also might have bitten off more than he could chew in hiring the two stars the playwright had in mind when writing the lead roles of Val Xavier and Lady Torrance: Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani. While Lumet managed to coax some fine acting out of both of them, there was reportedly nonstop hostility on-set.
The older Italian actress had apparently set her cap to seduce the young American icon, and her co-star wasn’t having any of it. It is said that Brando only accepted the gig because he badly needed the money after a costly divorce, demanding and getting a cool million – the first time any Hollywood actor had been paid that much for a single movie. He also insisted on top billing, despite it becoming increasingly clear that Lady was the story’s strongest character (naturally, this being based on a Tennessee Williams play). Her pride wounded, Magnani refused to rehearse, insisted on only being shot from her “good” angle and threw tantrums on location. And Brando deliberately mumbled his lines in order to make the non-English-fluent actress miss her cues. The temperatures in Milton, New York might not have approximated Delta sultriness, but it seems likely that steam was coming out of the ears of more than one person on that job, if only from exasperation.
Luckily for movie audiences, Sidney Lumet didn’t throw in the towel then and there, but went on to make quite a few films that qualify as modern classics (Fail-Safe, Network, Running on Empty, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express and Dog Day Afternoon). Meanwhile, a bit of hoary Hollywood gossip should provide the fuel for an entertaining ramble around a charming little corner of the Hudson Valley.