Saturday, April 24, 2010
A Streetcar Named Desire
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 47
Writer: Tennessee Williams & Oscar Saul
Director: Elia Kazan
Star: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter
How easily and how willing we are to embrace the fucked-up world of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from almost the first frame. Perhaps only New Orleans could be the place that harbors such a complex southern belle, such a animalistic brute and such a torn pushover all under the same roof. Early in the movie, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) looks at her new surroundings and says that “Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do (them) justice.” I doubt even Poe could have created this world and these characters so successfully.
The film opens with Blanche arriving in New Orleans (of course we hear the famous dialogue about Elysian Fields and taking the title streetcar to get to her destination), a seemingly prim and proper southern belle adrift in a city that seems to have stopped caring about its southern belles a decade ago. She has come to live with her pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). Over the next four months Blanche will lose every bit of her connection to reality.
The play was assigned reading in my Catholic high school. I find that a little shocking considering the play’s abuse, sexual speak, thinly-veiled dialogue discussing a woman driving her closeted gay husband to suicide and, of course, the climactic rape scene. Then again, we also read “The Color Purple.” For the film version playwright Tennessee Williams and collaborator Oscar Saul had to revise and rewrite some of the play to meet the standards and practices of the time, but the odd thing is that many of the changes, with their newfound subtlety, only add to the film’s impact, making this (dare I say) one of the only instances where a masterpiece of theatre has been translated more successfully to screen (sorry, “Doubt”).
Brando’s performance, of course, has gone down in history as one of the best male performances in the history of film, often uttered in the same breath as Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” Bogart in “Casablanca” and Nicholson in “The Shining.” And looking at the film today, it’s easy to see why. The magic in Brando’s interpretation of Stanley is his brute simplicity. He hisses like a cat at Blanche playfully, continues chewing on chicken as he gleefully destroys her life and unconsciously pulls lint from his shirt during a hugely important conversation that defines several of the other characters. In “Streetcar,” he’s the bomb under the chair that Hitchcock famously spoke about: We know he’s going to explode, probably sooner rather than later, and are screaming at the screen for the other characters to escape before it’s too late.
Perhaps another reason for the timelessness of his performance is the universality (did I just create a word there?) of it. Everyone knows a Stanley, don’t we? A handsome guy who is sweaty almost all the time, doesn’t smell very nice and speaks with his fists as often as he does with his mouth. We understand why Stella is ultimately attracted to him despite being so odious, which adds another dimension to the proceedings.
As much as Brando has gotten all of the press through the years, the performance that really fascinates me is Leigh’s Blanche. While the other three leads originated their roles on Broadway, Leigh was chosen over Jessica Tandy, who was the first Blanche on the Great White Way. Leigh portrayed the role on the West End, but even if she hadn’t, it’s easy to see why the producers jumped at the chance to have Leigh in the role. In addition to her box office clout (if she still had some, which I’m guessing she did), the producers probably loved the comparisons to Scarlett O’Hara that critics and audiences would draw.
What a tightrope Leigh had to walk for the role, and what a revelation she is. At times disgusting, at times sympathetic, at times surprisingly erotic and always complex, Leigh never makes you question who Blanche is, and you go along for the ride even when her motivations and actions don’t quite make sense in the moment. Look at the scene where Blanche greats a young man selling subscriptions and seduces him into kissing her. Now compare it to a date she goes on with her suitor Mitch (Karl Malden). Her methods of seduction are wholly different with either man, and yet the character remains consistent throughout. Here is a woman who has defined herself by her ability to seduce, and when she questions her own ability, she masks it with makeup and lowered lights.
There are many other small moments I could point out, from the subtle sickness in her face upon that thought that Stanley might want her sexually to her drunken battle at the film’s climax. It’s an actress’ tour de force that, for me, easily rivals her work in “Gone With the Wind” and it saddens me that it isn’t often compared.
Of course in a film filled with beautifully subtle writing, it would be the blunt moments that have become famous. Many people who aren’t familiar with the film still know of Brando’s “Stella!” rant. The moment is filled with raw emotional power, and to have a pregnant Stella walk down the stairs and erotically embrace her dripping wet husband moments after he beat her is one of the most stomach churning in film history. But I love how Williams and Saul created a new ending that is significantly different from the play by mirroring the scene in the final seconds of the film. Stella (apparently) realizes what Stanley did to Blanche and flees with her baby to the upstairs apartment, promising never to return again despite Stanley’s rants. The moment ensured that the film would pass the ethics code and get the film released, but in reality all it does is reinforce the circle of violence between these two characters, and instead of promising freedom for Stella promises that she’ll come down those stairs moments after the film fades to black and embrace her rapist.
The apartment Blanche, Stanley and Stella share is a marvel of set design. It’s at once gigantic and ominous and yet also shockingly cramped and claustrophobic. This is underlined in an early scene where Stella shows Blanche her “room,” which is basically a corner with a makeshift bed that has a curtain as a door. But even with the curtain pulled there are still two windows that lead to the living room that have no locks. There is no refuge anywhere in the apartment—even the bathroom is small and too cramped to escape for any length of time without going crazy from the claustrophobia. Director Elia Kazan knew exactly where to shoot the apartment to maximum effect, and it’s amazing to see the apartment morph over the course of the film. At the end it might as well be an insane asylum, and thanks to lighting and shadows it looks just like one.
In fact, the only time the movie falters a bit dramatically is when it leaves the walls of the apartment. No, not Blanche’s date with Mitch, but an early scene where Blanche arrives at the apartment then leaves immediately to go to a bowling alley where she meets her sister. It’s the only moment in the film where you can tell the director and writers stretching to make the movie not seem like a filmed stage play, and the only time it strikes a false note.
There’s more to talk about, so many memorable moments, like when Karl Malden is trying to prove his masculinity to Vivien Leigh by asking her to punch him in his stomach. Or when the flower woman directly out of a Val Lewton movie wanders onto Blanche’s doorstep. Or…or…but I should stop before the gushing begins.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” uses its equal parts subtlety and bluntness to maximum effect, and as a result hasn’t aged at all since its release. It looks at desires, actions and people I would be terrified to be any part of in a way that makes me unable to look away and then want to watch immediately again.
My Score: ***** (out of 5)