SUMMARY: Brando’s volcanic energy gives Vivien the needed momentum to deliver one of the finest and most iconic performances in screen history as Blanche DuBois
We witness Blanch Dubois burn in the flames ignited by Stanley Kowalski, thereby obliterating the destitute woman’s small hopes of redeeming herself and starting life afresh. The other way to look at the situation would be: Stanley’s force compels Blanch to face her crimes and gives her an opportunity to live a normal life sometime in the future. ‘A Streetcar named Desire‘ veers between Blanch’s attempts at ridding herself of guilt through ignorance and delusion and Stanley’s will to expose Blanch’s past and force her to admit and punish herself for her sins. Its playwright Tennessee Williams gives us a harrowing example of the difficulties faced by women who have stained their characters, and the cruelty with which men chastise them while they themselves take little notice of the sins they commit every day.
Elia Kazan brings the play to screen experimenting little with editing and instead allows his actors to take charge, and boy do they bring tragedy to life! It is Marlon Brando‘s intense heat that allows Vivien Leigh‘s character to have a terrifying meltdown and the actress delivers one of the finest and most iconic performances in film history by nailing a highly complex and extremely interesting character. She may not have done it so well without Brando and we should give credit to Brando for helping her, but if you ask me who performed better, I’d unhesitatingly choose Leigh.
A Streetcar Named Desire gained popularity on stage because of the quality of the story itself and Brando’s acclaimed performance. When it was reproduced on screen, director Kazan roped in method-maharaja Marlon Brando and classical-chanteuse Vivien Leigh for the roles of Stanley and Blanche respectively. The rest of the cast were filled by talented actors like Kim Hunter for the role of Stella Kowalski and Karl Malden for Mitch. The controversial nature of the play made it difficult for bringing it on screen without certain cuts, but the restoration version released years later fortunately retains the deleted scenes.
The story begins with Blanche Dubois‘ character arriving from Auriol to New Orleans by train, and taking the streetcar named Desire to Cemeteries and finally Elysian fields where her sister Stella lives with her husband Stanley. Blanche is extremely secretive about her past and only discloses to Stella that she had lost possession to their old home in Belle-Reve and was asked by the higher authority, in the school where Blanche taught English, to ‘take some rest’. Blanche moves in temporarily with her sister and quickly shows displeasure at Stella’s bourgeois existence and her attraction towards a violent man like Stanley. Blanche’s prime desire is to begin a new life using an idealistic approach where ‘magic and art’ play a preeminent role and she pursues this by charming her brother-in-law’s close friend and co-worker Mitch; her main obstacle comes in the form of Stanley, who does not entertain her whims, and finding loopholes in her claims, begins digging her past to break the spell Blanche wants to put everyone under. While he is instrumental in ripping her past apart, it seems like Blanche herself gives everyone an opportunity to scrutinize her past; it is as though she planted the seeds of her own destruction which were nurtured by Stanley.
William’s astonishing work should have been adapted to screen without altering anything because it is perfectly penned. Unfortunately, the film version alters the ending which makes Stanley looks like a complete jerk who is not only crass with Blanch but also not empathetic towards his own wife’s grief. It goes against Stanley’s motive of living happily with his wife and child without any de trop to disturb the ‘wild peace’ at home. Barring that scene, every other moment is brilliantly told and played on screen. Kazan hardly tries experimenting with the camera and in the process creates a work that is sharp and subtle. The most effective moments are when the camera abruptly cuts to or zooms into Blanche’s face whenever anyone broaches the subject of her husband.
Most of the effort is left to the actors who have terrific chemistry with each other, mainly because a majority of them have reprised the roles from stage. Hunter looks a lot like Debra Winger and the manner in which she spoke reminded me of young Debra from the movie ‘Terms of Endearment’ (of course, Debra came years later). While Debra Winger played a rich young rebellious girl who marries a simpleton, Hunter’s Stella marries a commoner like Stanley because she is partly fascinated by his often violent and callous bravado. The actress convincingly plays Stella in a manner that makes us understand the character’s choice, in a difficult role where she not only has to show love towards a violent man like Stanley, but also concern for her sister Blanch and slight contempt and reproach towards her husband for his treatment of Blanch. The other supporting role of Stan’s friend Mitch is taken up by Malden; his character reminded me of J. Edgar Hoover who too lived alone with his sick mother and was very much concerned about her. Malden does his job well, especially in the confrontation scene between Mitch and Blanch where Mitch begins kissing her only because he then considers her a use-and-throw woman.
However it is Brando and Leigh that make the day. I’ve now seen Brando in five different films in completely different characters and he fits each one like a glove. His realism or super-realism brings the movie alive with kinetic energy, and I realized a something watching him and Leigh – the classical Hollywood, with its stylized scripts veering towards melodramas and actors trying to bring the energies of their characters’ psyche on screen, looked far more alluring a field to enter than today’s Hollywood, which focuses heavily on slightly banal realism, with juiceless scripts without quote-worthy dialogs.
Only one thing I shall say about Leigh: she gives us another iconic and unforgettable screen persona.