Weekly Classics: A Streetcar Named Desire
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name. The film was directed by Elia Kazan, co-written by Williams and featured most of the original cast – including Marlon Brando, who made his cinematic debut with the film.
Brando consequently began a career that saw him firmly placed among one of the most celebrated actors of the Twentieth century. For those of us who have only seen him in his later years (most likely in the Godfather films) this younger image of the man is an enlightening experience. His charisma, presence and good-looks are matched only by his phenomenal acting talent.
“Suddenly a man came on the stage whom I had never seen or heard of. Before he even spoke, it was as if a leopard had entered the room.” Writes Dick Cavett about Brando, and this is the aura that he brings onto the screen as well. This short, “rare” clip of his screen-test for Rebel without a Cause is inexplicably full of that same presence.
Brando was very influenced by the Stanislavski system of acting, which he was taught by Stella Adler. The system prescribes an immersive and detailed method of getting into character through a process of emotional, experiential and physical practice. Acting in this way extends well beyond the stage and outside the studio. His acting has consequently inspired many other Hollywood greats across the decades in various capacities, with stars such as Martin Scorsese and Johnny Depp quoting him as a major influence in their careers.
The film A Streetcar Named Desire, is about a working-class couple in New Orleans; Stella and Stanley Kowalski (played by Kim Hunter and Brando), whose small home and tumultuous relationship are effected further by a new houseguest named Blanche DuBois.
Blanche is Stella’s sister from Mississippi. She is no longer young and no longer rich, but constantly tries to hide these facts with dramatic attempts at displaying her beauty and her affluent background. She arrives at their neighborhood in the French Quarter through a streetcar route named “Desire”, and is immediately uncomfortable in the gritty environment. The role of Blanche is played brilliantly by Vivien Leigh (also famed for her role in Gone With the Wind). Both Leigh and Hunter earned Oscars for best and supporting actress respectively for their performances.
Blanche’s personality soon begins to get on Stanley’s nerves. She is everything he is not, and cannot stand. Stanley is a straightforward, brutish man who keeps little hidden in his mind and expresses himself freely and sometimes violently. Blanche’s repressed and neurotic personality and her pretentions combine with her sultriness to make him seethe with anger and irritation. His dislike for her only grows when one of his friends, Mitch (another Oscar winning role by Karl Madden) begins to pursue her romantically.
Blanche says she has left her hometown because her wealth has been squandered by her other family members. She says she was a high-school teacher and has been asked to take a vacation on account of her disturbed emotional state. However, her past is much darker than she initially reveals: She is a closeted alcoholic and is haunted by a tainted reputation of being a loose woman. These circumstances have led her to become almost completely delusional, and over the course of the film, her weak stories begin to fall apart and the ruin that she has tried to flee begins to catch up with her.
Stella had left the wealth and prosperity of their family for the fiery allure of Stanley Kowalski, but their relationship is stormy and fuelled by a passion that cannot accommodate their new and frail visitor.
Blanche’s neediness combined with her disdain for Stanley and Stella’s lifestyle, begins to clash with the volatile atmosphere in their small, claustrophobic apartment. We watch this furious environment swallow the last of Blanche’s spirit and plunge her down from the precipice of sanity.
The term “Desire” in the film (and play) is a reference to the force behind the characters’ decisions in the movie. Much like the streetcar that brings Blanche to the tumultuous home of the Kowalskis, it is her constant desires that led her from disaster to disaster and dictated her poor decisions back home. Now that her life has been ruined by her attempts to gain physical and emotional gratification, she is being dominated by her desire to return to the long-lost purity and grandeur of youth.
Though Stella is more emotionally stable, she too has been brought to this place by her own desire. Her attraction to Stanley’s powerful masculinity has led her to leave her riches and live a life of poverty, with a man who is emotionally and physically abusive, and almost equally as destructive as he is attractive.
The film does not portray these women in a judgmental light however; instead it takes us right to the heart of their daily interactions to see their circumstances for ourselves. Their complete domination by the male sex is always apparent, and their helplessness in a male world is their prison. Both the sisters are constantly attracted to and burned by this flame in their own way. It is desire too, that burns most violently in Stanley himself, except that his masculinity enables him free reign to exercise his passions destructively, and at times without any sense of empathy.
This film is a masterpiece of acting, and writing and contains many memorable and celebrated sequences (such as the one above). Aside from Brando himself, Vivien Leigh also brought something very powerful to the role of Blanche. This was perhaps because in real life, she really did suffer from bipolar-disorder – and in a strange twist of fate – was sometimes unable to distinguish herself from Blanche DuBois after she did this role.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.
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