Movie review roulette #2: A Streetcar Named Desire
Hey all! After playing this game a while ago- with 5 Centimeters Per Second getting the call– I’m rolling out this little game as a full-time feature on my blog.
Here’s how it goes:
I have a running list of 15 of my favorite films.
I run the list through a list randomizer, and write a piece on the film that comes out on top.
I add a new film to the list of 15, and do another one every week. Since it’s Sunday early, early morning where I am, I think this can be a weekend feature, something to keep my movie writing gears from getting rusty.
Anyway, the last time I did one of these, the next selected film was A Streetcar Named Desire.
So, if you’re still reading this wall of text after all this time, here are some thoughts on that brilliant film.
Marlon Brando’s scream of “HEY STELLA!” is one of the most iconic moments of his career. But it’s Kim Hunter’s wordless acting in the scene that drives it home, and sets the tone for film that made it through the Hays Code censors with much of its power intact. Stella’s face is the essence of carnality. Her gaze, seen at an extreme dutch angle as she descends a staircase and knocks him to his knees from afar, fill the screen with the sort of electricity that you can’t predict or force out of a performer. Stella and Stanley have little in common, but their mutual lust for one another is overpowering.
Getting that across without drawing the wrath of the Hays Code censors (who enforced the guidelines for content in movies, set in 1930) and the Legion of Decency (who rated movies on their morality, and could submarine a movie if they declared it indecent) was a herculean struggle in 1951. But telling a story dripping with sweat, lust, and sexual mind games was essential in adapting Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1947 play. And the best way around those ready to chop scenes and words they deemed offensive was to let expressions, faces, and atmosphere do the talking. And lord, did Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando, and Vivien Leigh deliver.
The lack of staginess to this production of one of the greatest American plays is perhaps a bit ironic. The director, Elia Kazan, directed the play’s original Broadway run. Virtually the entire cast, save Vivien Leigh, were in his original Broadway cast. Leigh was no stranger to the role of Blanche DuBois, having played the part in London’s West End production of the play.
Then again, perhaps the seeming ease with which these actors disappear into their roles makes perfect sense. As Leigh herself put it, “I had nine months in the theatre of Blanche DuBois. Now she’s in command of me.”
Much (too much) is made of the contrast in the acting styles of Brando and Leigh. Brando, of course, was at the forefront of bringing naturalistic, “method” style acting to Hollywood. Leigh’s more melodramatic style felt like a holdover from the 1930s golden age of Hollywood when she rose to stardom.
Far more important than their stylistic differences is how their particular styles perfectly fit their characters, and how those differences both feel organic to this film’s world. Brando was, indeed, ahead of his time. He was part of a burgeoning revolution among leading men, with Montgomery Clift rising to stardom that same year and James Dean soon after. These young actors delivered coiled, inward performances that were almost unbearably raw for audiences at the time. Brando’s Stanley Kowalski was as frightening and primal as he was believable. Hollywood simply hadn’t seen anything quite like this performance before. It was just Brando’s second film, but it was a role he had been perfecting for years on the stage.
Blanche is a perfect contrast to Stanley. She carries herself as an old-fashioned Southern Lady, and it’s impossible not to see Leigh channeling her most famous character, Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. But Scarlett too stands in contrast with Blanche. Scarlett had little use for the society’s mores and expectations of her. She placed survival first and didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. Blanche desperately hides her past, tries to be liked, as a means of survival. But she is an outcast, and if not fragile, then trembling towards fragility. She lost her job as a high school teacher after having sex with a 17-year old student. She was widowed when she caught her husband having sex with another man, and he committed suicide. Society is quick to ignore any feelings of empathy for a person so lost, so close to breaking down, so trapped in her past. Such a performance demands a ghostly quality that Leigh brings, with a performance that never dials down the internal volume and never ought to.
From a creative standpoint, perhaps the most limiting form of censorship of the Hays Code days had nothing to do with sex, violence or language. The rule that carried the most weight stipulated that “heroes” and “villains” had to be clearly delineated, and the villains had to lose at the end of the film. In addition to helping shape the structure of films in ways that sustain to this day, filmmakers had a hell of a time coming up with ways to tell stories that didn’t lend themselves well to dichotomies.
A Streetcar Named Desire was just that type of story. This isn’t a story of good vs. evil, but of one person on the edge of a breakdown and another who doesn’t give a damn if she breaks or not, so long as he always gets his way. Brando plays plays Stanley with such assured and naturalistic authority that he becomes disarmingly human. His performance demonstrates the difference between coiled aggression and bombast in a performance.
Like so many great plays, A Streetcar Named Desire derives much of its power from characters playing off of each other in real time. Blanche, Stanley and Stella are dry flint nestled on a bed of hay. Replicating that energy is the single biggest challenge that film adaptation of a stage production faces. Stage-to-screen productions seem like they ought to succeed with relative ease, but so often they fall flat. You can’t just film a performance for the stage and expect it to work as a movie, in the same sense that outside of a concert setting, a live performance of a song is typically less riveting a listen than the recorded version. We’re not watching Brando, Leigh, Hunter and Malden live. Kazan needed to replicate the power of their stage performances cinematically.
Scenes like the one I mentioned at the beginning, tracking Hunter’s face as descends a staircase to her husband, radiating lust the whole time, is the sort of scene that shows the advantages movies have over the stage. We can see Stella in isolation, and Kim Hunter was able to find a moment of acting to the camera , one that would likely have been lost on a live audience, that is astonishing in its resonance.
Kazan also rarely uses stagey cinematography. A play creates its own world before our eyes. Take away the stage, and the director needs to make the world anew. As a lover of theatre, I do wonder sometimes what it would have been like to see A Streetcar Named Desire on stage, with this remarkable cast. In making the play into a film, Kazan made no attempt to make it feel like a play. And because of that, I get a sense that the film retains far more of the original play’s impact.