A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, 1954
Directed by Elia Kazan
At her sister’s home in New Orleans a faded Southern belle tries to make a fresh start. When her brutish, brother-in-law feels threatened, he digs up sordid details about her past. She must defeat him before he destroys her.
Before ‘The Godfather’ rejuvenated Marlon Brando’s career in 1972 he was already a stage and screen legend. His break came on Broadway in 1947 as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William’s masterpiece: ‘Streetcar’. Brando, before any other actor, became synonymous with ‘The Method’ – a revolution in acting training originating with the Russian coach: Stanislavski. Elia Kazan directed the stage version. When it came time to make the movie there was little doubt about who should play Stanley. Much of the films cast is straight from the NY stage. The notable exception is the lead: Blanche Dubois, played by Leigh. She had played Blanche in the London stage version. In effect all of the principals had lived with this script for years before bringing it to film – and it shows.
The story follows Blanche as she makes a last desperate stand at Stella’s home in New Orleans. It is a far cry from Belle Reeve – the ancestral home of the Dubois sisters. Blanche is a frail melancholy flower of a woman – the city is loud and crude and course. She shields herself from daylight, from a naked light bulb, from the truth of her situation. Stella is her lifeline, her last and only hope. Stella also happens to be married to Stanley and there’s the rub. Stanley is a bull, a goatish philistine of a man with a wicked grin and a propensity to smash up things. Brando is magnificent. Nothing in movie acting prepared anyone for this. It remains a monument to the legend and what great screen acting is all about: the moment and making it real.
Blanche tells Stella: ‘he’s an animal, has an animal’s habits… don’t hang back with the brutes!’ Yet Stella (Kim Hunter) is pregnant, and as much as she may agree with her sister she is also crazy about Stanley. At a poker night with Stanley’s pals Blanche meets Mitch (Karl Malden), a gentleman, rarity in this crowd -- he takes a shine to her. They go out on a few dates and everything is above board. Blanche tells Mitch her husband committed suicide and that her spirit has been in twilight ever since. Mitch’s mother is dying – they grow closer. It seems for a brief moment that Blanche has found her happy ending. But then Stanley goes digging into her past and discovers that she led a sordid, scandalous life in her former town – that despite her ladylike airs she was virtually driven from the place.
Stanley informs Mitch and Blanche’s dreams begin to die. – first with Mitch’s drunken pass – he doesn’t want to marry her anymore – he wants what the others had. She drives him from the house – her mind is teetering on the brink. Stella and Stanley fight and she goes into labour. While Stella is at the hospital giving birth Stanley rapes Blanche and she slides into madness. Stella can’t or won’t believe the truth – Blanche is committed.
You will never hear what a marvelous director Elia Kazan was – strong, bold, precise, amazing – because in the McCarthy, Commie -Hunting Fifties Kazan named names. His name is on the blacklist now – whereas before, out of fear or greed, he put others on the list and out of work. Some were driven to suicide. The D.P. Harry Stradling Sr. was nominated for an Oscar and rightfully so.
‘Streetcar’ was nominated for 12 Oscars and won 4. Malden and Hunter keep up with the stars, don’t ask me how – they both took home the statue. The play by Williams is one of a handful that will survive the twentieth century – the film does it full justice. Brando went on to fame and fortune.
As for ‘The Method’? It had little to teach Leigh: she was beyond it. She was Blanche -- with an astonishing technique that the method school could only dream of. She suffered the same demons as Blanche did. In later years she confused herself with Blanche. She won the Oscar -- her second (her first was for Scarlet in ‘Gone With The Wind’). It was her last great role before life began to unravel. Her performance strikes me as the greatest on the silver screen – bar none.
Return from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE to home page