Monday, November 14, 2011

A Streetcar Named Desire

By s. Monday, November 14, 2011 , , , , , ,
90/100 (1951, 122 min)
Plot: Disturbed Blanche DuBois moves in with her sister in New Orleans and is tormented by her brutish brother-in-law while her reality crumbles around her.
Director: Elia Kazan
Writers: Tennessee Williams (original play "A Streetcar Named Desire"), Oscar Saul (adaptation)
Stars: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter

The breaking of Blanche

"Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness – an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble."
- Laurence Olivier, talking about his marriage to Vivien Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" is a dream material for any actress - the role of Blanche Dubois was played among others by Jessica Lange, Cate Blanchett and in the most famous rendition - Vivien Leigh. But the movie is known the most perhaps not because of the rain of awards it got and the fact that to this day along with "Network" remains the only movie to win three Academy Awards for its actors, but because of Marlon Brando's performance as Stanley Kowalski, brutal and simple man who collides with highly disturbed and fragile Blanche Dubois, his wife's sister.

The story is set in New Orleans and it begins as Blanche exits the streetcar with the name "desire". Blanche seems very off, detached from reality, speaking in beautiful words, talking almost as if she was reciting poems, opening her eyes wide and appearing very fragile from the first seconds of the film - she looks like a fairytale princess that was punished to descent into horrible and dirty reality. From the very first moments delicate and sophisticated Blanche and Stanley collide - upon meeting her he unceremoniously takes off his shirt and parades around apartment to Blanche's shock and amazement. When one of Stanley's friends, Mitch, starts falling for Blanche and her sister takes her side and begins to push Stanley away, the things between troubled Blanche and Stanley will take turn for the worse.
Vivien Leigh plays Blanche in a wonderful way, which brought her Academy Award. It is reported that initially she felt completely at sea when she joined the tight New York cast in rehearsals. Director Elia Kazan was able to exploit her feelings of alienation and disorientation to enrich her performance.She plays Blanche as a person who creates imaginary world for herself, world where only good things exist. Her reality is built only of good, kind and sweet things, she behaves like a lady, dignified princess. It is her escape from her past and violent world that surrounds her. Curiously, Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder in real life, later had difficulties in distinguishing her real life from that of Blanche DuBois.

The movie is insanely loud - it boils with emotions and yelling of characters. The most effective scene are those where brute force of Stanley meet Blanche's delicacy - those two are bound to have differences. Blanche sees Stanley as a primitive and horrible man, He sees her as a spoiled, crazy girl.  As the events progress, Stanley just wants her out of his life because she annoys him and says horrible things about him to his wife, whom despite his nature, he loves deeply. Blanche just wants to stay in her imaginary world and forget about her dark and painful past. But when what she did will be revealed by Stanley to others, Blanche's world will start to collapse.

As the film progresses, the set of the Kowalski apartment actually gets smaller to heighten the suggestion of Blanche's increasing claustrophobia.By the film's end she will be entirely consumed by her madness, much like Carol from "Repulsion" or Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations", living in her fantasy, locked in her room. Two other actors who received highest honors for their performances here - Kim Hunter as Blanche's sister Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch also deserve praised - every character and every performance in this movie is complex and passionate.
It's amusing that the only performance not awarded by Academy ended up being the most famous one - Brando is a revelation as Stanley Kowalski - when doing my research I encounter one interesting opinion about the movie that nobody can blame Stella for staying in such a toxic relationship. As hard as it is to understand there is a strong truth to it - Stanley represent the archetype of brutal man who deep, deep inside is longing for love. Stanley is not above hitting his pregnant wife, only to feel horrible few seconds later and falling into despair and shame about what he did. He does before he thinks and later on he is horrified by his own actions.

The movie's finale is uncompromising and complex - Stanley manages to break Blanche, but because of what he did he drives Stella away and she no longer wants to stay with him. The novel's ending was much darker - Stella stayed with Stanley. But because the movie was made 60 years ago, the studio required that Stanley will be punished. Even so, the movie still mesmerizes with its performances and the boldness - some of the subject matter are actually controversial even in today's movies.


  1. This is a brilliant film. I haven't seen it for so long, but I plan to rewatch it again soon. It's a horrible film to watch. It's really good, though.

    Vivien Leigh was amazing in this film, too. This role was one that essentially ruined her, as she played the role on stage in Britain for a few years before she got the part in the film, just as she was starting to suffer from manic depression. Her dedication to this role kinda made it worse, and by the end of the shoot she reached breaking point.

    I know too much about Leigh. I had this obsession with her when I was 13 and read like five biographies on her, and then wrote my own. She was a fascinating woman!

  2. Yes, indeed and she was such a great actress. It's both fascinating and scary how she played that role, considering what she was going through in her private life. Those movie stars back in the fifties were so much more interesting than the ones we have now.