A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)

  • Director: Elia Kazan
  • Writers: Screenplay by Tennessee Williams and Oscar Saul, based on the stage play by Tennessee Williams
  • Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, and Peg Hillias
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#47), 1951 Venice International Film Festival – Special Jury Prize, 4 Oscars (Best Actress – Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actor – Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actress – Kim Hunter, Best Art Direction – B&W), 8 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Elia Kazan, Best Actor – Marlon Brando, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography – B&W, Best Costumes – B&W, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, is widely considered among the greatest American plays of the 20th century, but I’ve never quite found it to be my cup of tea. It feels like the stagiest of stage plays, somehow even more artificial than Shakespeare. Shakespeare today happens at a remove, but A Streetcar Named Desire is supposed to take place in a real, modern world, or at least the real modern world from when the original play came out in 1947. One reason for this is simply that the main character, Blanche DuBois (played here by Scarlett O’Hara herself, Vivien Leigh, in probably her second-best-known role today), is putting on her own show through every second of the thing. Even when she’s not out-and-out lying, she’s doing this very exaggerated “proper Southern Belle” shtick. It is one of the showiest roles a female actress can get, one of those things where directors will never tell you to underplay it. What I’m saying is, I understand that it’s supposed to be like this, but that doesn’t make me enjoy it more.

One of the major legacies of the original Broadway production of the play, as well as the movie, is as the breakthrough role for Marlon Brando. This is his first role in a movie, and he is already fully Brando. Whether people have seen this movie or not, they likely recall Brando, wearing a sweaty, greasy wife beater, screaming “STELLA!” from the street towards an upstairs apartment window. He’s fun to watch today, but one gets the sense that in 1951 he would have been a revelation. There’s one scene where he loses his temper at the dinner table (he loses his temper a lot in this movie), and he keeps chewing even while yelling at his wife Stella (Kim Hunter). There’s a naturalism to most of the performances here that was not common in Hollywood movies before this. In addition to Brando, many of the other actors, including Hunter, reprised their roles from the original Broadway cast, with Leigh (who had played the part on the London stage) replacing the original Broadway actress playing Blanche, Jessica Tandy, because she was thought to be a bigger star. Elia Kazan, who had directed the original Broadway production, also directed the movie.

The original play took place entirely in and around the dingy, sweaty New Orleans apartment that Stanley Kowalski (Brando) shares with his wife, Stella. The movie opens things up slightly (there’s a scene at a train station that includes an actual streetcar, something that usually only gets mentioned on stage), but only slightly. The story is precipitated by the arrival of Stella’s sister, Blanche, who comes to stay with them after the “sudden loss” of the family plantation in Mississippi. Blanche is far more prim-and-proper than either Stanley or Stella, but also seems profoundly damaged in ways that the story takes a couple hours to unravel. 

A Streetcar Named Desire deals with a variety of themes that would normally not have been allowed under the Production Code at the time, seemingly because the play had already won the Pulitzer Prize, so it had to be high culture, right? It’s sort of the same loophole that let them keep doing very violent Shakespeare plays during this time. There were still some changes made for the movie from the version that played on stage at the time, and the version you will still see on stage today. For one, the play makes explicit that Blanche’s husband killed himself because she caught him with having sex with another man, but here she gives a somewhat vague speech about blaming herself for his suicide because she berated him for being “too weak.” Also cut down drastically is the scene late in the play where Stanley rapes Blanche while Stella is in the hospital in the middle of labor. It is still clear (especially for those with a cursory knowledge of the play) what’s happening, but Kazan chooses to end the scene almost as soon as it begins, on a very stereotypically-artistic shot of a broken mirror.

The Production Code actually led to a different end to the play, as well. In the original, despite any suspicions that she may have that Stanley “did something” to Blanche, Stella stays with him, sitting on his lap as her sister is carted away to the mental hospital. But the Production Code mandated that, if Stanley’s actions went this far, he be punished for his actions, so at the end of the movie Stella, unable to look the other way, takes the baby and leaves him. These changes aside, Stanley and Stella do have a really interesting dynamic. After Blanche watches Stanley hit her, she assumes Stella will have to leave, that this is completely unacceptable, but is flabbergasted when Stella goes back to him as if nothing has happened. Of course, there are many real-life relationships like this, but it is difficult to depict them in a way that makes psychological sense to me. This is at least one way in which Williams’ play really does work for me.

The casting of Leigh as Blanche did lend a lot of notes to the character that she doesn’t have otherwise. Viewers could sort of pretend that she was just playing an older Scarlett O’Hara, still hanging on to her faded glory, years after Rhett Butler left. While she was over 30 years old here, the filmmakers still had to “age up” Leigh for the part with some makeup, such as in the scene were her potential beau Mitch (Karl Malden) puts her under a harsh light that reveals just how old she actually is. It gives a different feel to the part than when an older actress plays the role. Blanche is someone who is so worried about seeming young that she asks her sister if “the coast is clear” before leaving the bathroom without makeup. The idea that she’s much older than she wants anyone to know plays as a reveal in the movie, whereas with a somewhat older-looking actress it plays as clear from the start. I watched a recent version of the play, posted online for free during the COVID-19 pandemic by Britain’s National Theatre, which starred Gillian Anderson as Blanche and Ben Foster as Stanley. Gillian Anderson is clearly beautiful, but about 50 years old at the time she played the role. Thus the result is something a lot closer to Sunset Boulevard, where the character is clearly deluding herself into believing that anyone thinks she’s still young.

A Streetcar Named Desire is clearly a great work of art with a major pop culture impact. If I don’t have much of a desire to revisit it further, it’s because I have a limited interest in the Southern Gothic in general. Hopefully this article will give you more of a sense of whether you’d be interested in watching it yourself. Even if it’s not, Tennessee Williams is on the short list of the greatest American playwrights, and this is probably the best-known version of his best-known play, so if you’re somebody who wants to be well-versed in American literature it’s kind of essential.

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