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#9: a streetcar named desire (elia kazan, 1951)

(This is the 42nd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

Marlon Brando at his best is the greatest film actor I know. And his best acting is in A Streetcar Named Desire. It was only his second movie, and he was the only one of the four main actors in the film not to win an Oscar (he lost to Bogart in The African Queen). All four are excellent, especially Kim Hunter, and more especially Vivien Leigh. But Brando … well, this is where he set the template for generations of future actors. As Scorsese said, there’s Before Brando and After Brando. As good as the others are in Streetcar, it is Brando who is historic.

A Streetcar Named Desire is probably my favorite play. The filmed version is faithful enough to the original, especially since a few minutes were restored in the early 90s. Most writers would be proud to create one character over the course of their career that resonated with audiences beyond the moment. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams gave us two: Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. They play off of each other perfectly, one saying “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” while the other made his wife, Blanche’s sister Stella, happy when he “pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it.” Stella did love it, but all Stanley’s behavior does to Blanche is send her over the edge into madness.

Leigh’s flighty performance nails what we would now call the bipolar nature of Blanche. Coquettish as a means of protecting herself, Leigh gives us the frailty of the character, and allows us to understand her life so that when she is brutalized by Stanley, we feel how it crushes her. Leigh’s performance is crucial, because Brando has such magnetism that he threatens to take over the entire film, taking a play that centers on Blanche and making Stanley our primary object of focus. Leigh’s acting style is so different from Brando’s, and the effect so perfect, that she manages at times to wrest the film away from Brando via deflection and flirting and mystery.

A Streetcar Named Desire tells us things about ourselves we might not want to know. Stanley is a brute, but he also loves his wife. Stella sees what Stanley is, but she also loves him, perhaps in part because of what he is. Blanche’s tenuous connection to reality leads not just to an attempt to create magic, but also to her ability to destroy the lives of people like her late husband. Despite the fact that each character seems simple enough to fit into a stereotype (the brutish animal vs. the delicate gentle lady), they are all more complex than the surface suggests. It is hard to get comfortable with Streetcar, because our feel for the characters slips so easily between liking them and hating them.

 

Only a couple of comments for this one, from people who also liked the movie.

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