Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind) is Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle who moves in with her kid sister, Stella (Kim Hunter, The Planet of the Apes) and her brutish husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando, The Godfather), in their rundown New Orleans apartment with devastating consequences.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“I don’t want realism, I want magic.”
Tennessee Williams’s 1947 landmark — and Pulitzer Prize-winning — play A Streetcar Named Desire, about a deadly match between fantasy and reality, is transformed into a pretty powerful movie. Neither my favorite Williams play nor my favorite movie based on his work, A Streetcar Named Desire is an impressive achievement nevertheless. Although a bit stagy and talky, the film is elevated to the realm of high art by brilliant dialogue and a quartet of truly unforgettable performances.
Directed by Elia Kazan (East of Eden) from a screenplay penned by Williams himself (well, most of the actual work was done by Kazan), A Streetcar Named Desire was filmed almost entirely in Hollywood studios. Kazan’s intention was to recreate one of New Orleans’ seediest areas, and the deliberately dilapidated sets and Harry Stradling’s (The Picture of Dorian Gray) squalid-looking cinematography accentuate the documentary-like atmosphere — the people and their habitat seem potently real.
And there’s the fantastic performances in the movie. Film acting is usually divided into two phases: Before and after Marlon Brando. A Streetcar Named Desire debuted in movie theaters more than sixty years ago, and the film introduced, among other things, Brando’s benevolent force to moviegoers. While this is technically Brando’s second movie (he had made his film debut in Fred Zimmerman’s 1950 drama The Men), the actor’s legend really begins here — Brando’s performance as the crude and heartless Stanley Kowalski established him as a force to be reckoned with.
Brando’s work in A Streetcar Named Desire shattered the expectations of what acting was supposed to be like. He revitalized and revolutionized the medium like no one ever had before, and he initialized a new era of raw performances. Brando removed the artificiality and technicality from film acting and paved the way for actors like James Dean, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Edward Norton, among others. A Streetcar Named Desire provides the perfect outlet for Brando’s unflinching persona. He certainly generated a force that Hollywood simply couldn’t ignore.
If Brando’s acting in this film is like a hurricane, Vivien Leigh’s performance must be the eye of that hurricane. After a decade of battling mental illnesses and professional failures, Leigh managed to accomplish what in theory seemed almost impossible — to surpass her own acclaimed performance in Gone with the Wind. She fully captures the pathos and ironies of her character — a faded Southern belle whose fragile world is bound to crumble under the pressure of the realities of the real world. It’s one of cinema’s greatest performances, and Leigh was rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar.
Brando and Leigh get great support from Karl Malden (On the Waterfront) and Kim Hunter, who play Mitch and Stella respectively. Both actors won Oscars for their excellent work. I particularly liked how Hunter suggests her burning carnal desire for Brando’s Stanley — remember, this the 1950s and Hollywood was still operating under a strict moral code. Hunter is forced to be subtle and sneaky, but she gets the job done. All four actors form a superb four-piece ensemble.
As expected with any of Williams’s stories, this is a dialogue driven story and the eloquent and literate dialogue is presented here in a crisp and well-balanced manner. The parades of soliloquies are delivered in a natural and clear fashion. Alex North’s (To Kill a Mockingbird and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) great jazz-based score is also handled well — it is unobtrusive, and complements the dialogue quite competently.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
A Streetcar Named Desire itself has enough raw power and great dramatic scope to galvanize the audience. By the way, I watched the uncut version. Three minutes of never-before-seen footage (material that director Elia Kazan was forced to remove to appease the censors) have been incorporated back into the film. As it turns out, these minutes enhance the impact of many key scenes. While it’s still a watered-down version of the racy Broadway play, those three minutes are a welcome addition to an already burly movie. Highly recommended! B&W, 125 minutes, Not Rated.