I confess that most of my knowledge about A Streetcar Named Desire came from a classic Simpsons episode. But now I finally unwrapped the 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ stage play, after the DVD sat on my shelves for years.
From the moment she disembarks at the busy train station, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), a fading and impoverished southern belle, seems like a woman one step away from a nervous breakdown. Brittle and highly-strung, she comes to seek a safe heaven with her married sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans, after leaving her job as an English teacher in their home town for reasons disclosed much later in the film. The person not thrilled with Blanche’s arrival is Stanley (Marlon Brando), Stella’s rough-hewn husband who resents Blanche’s barely disguised snobbery and is suspicious of her story as well as her nice dresses and jewels. This already tense triangle becomes a quartet when one of Stanley’s poker-and-drink buddies, Mitch (Karl Malden), develops an interest in Blanche, who sees him as her last chance of happiness and stability.
Considered controversial and hailed as realistic back in 1951, Elia Kazan’s film feels inevitably tame by today’s standards, but remains a thrilling viewing thanks to its decidedly adult themes, powerful filmmaking, complex dynamics between its well-rounded characters and intense acting. I generally love movies with a theatrical bent, shot within small confines such as an apartment and concentrating on the relationships between a small group of characters.
Almost every scene in the film brims with tension, especially when Blanche and Stanley share the screen and their strange toxic chemistry, a mix of sex and deep class resentment and contempt, feels almost tangible. To be honest it took me some time to get used to Leigh’s outrageously mannered performance as Blanche, but this operatic style seems appropriate for a character whose whole being is artifice and putting on a performance. Brando meanwhile is simply electrifying as Stanley, a creation at once boyish and animalistic, swaggering around the place (at times sans a shirt) like a pure carnal force of nature, in a star-making performance that deserves its iconic status. The famous “Stellaaa! Stellaaa!” scene, with drunk and anguished Stanley screaming his wife’s name in the street after she leaves him, might have been referenced and parodied countless amount of times. But when seen in its proper context, it’s such a powerful moment that it’s impossible to view with any kind of ironic detachment.
Though Hunter and Malden are perhaps overshadowed by the emotional fireworks of the two other leads, their characters are indispensable and help ground the film. I was not surprised to learn that the lust-charged nature of Stella and Stanley’s marriage was apparently too much for the censors, who at the time insisted on a few small but crucial cuts.
In short… I really shouldn’t have let this movie gather dust for as long as I have.
P.S. It was interesting to see Kazan’s film so close after my re-watch of Blue Jasmine with Cate Blanchett, which bears strong similarities to A Streetcar Named Desire and also bagged its leading lady an Oscar.