Wednesday, August 6, 2014

#1,451. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Directed By: Elia Kazan

Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter

Tag line: "THE PULITZER PRIZE PLAY of New Orleans' Latin Quarter...of a Lonely Girl...of Emotions Gone Savage!"

Trivia: Vivien Leigh, who was only 36 at the time of filming, had to be made up to look older

Marlon Brando is, hands down, my favorite actor, and the fact that he occasionally “phoned in” his performances (a la 1978's Superman) makes me cherish the great ones even more.

And there have been some truly great performances, from On the Waterfront to The Godfather and everywhere in-between. Yet his crowning achievement came in 1951, when he played Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s screen version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The scene where Brando is standing at the bottom of a staircase, dripping wet and screaming “Hey Stella!” at the top of his lungs, is one of the cinema’s most iconic moments. It’s the intensity that Brando brings to this sequence - and many others - that makes this particular performance among the greatest in motion picture history.

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), a schoolteacher and former Southern Belle who has fallen on hard times, travels to New Orleans to live with her estranged sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stella’s working class husband, Stanley Kowalski (Brando). From the moment they meet, Stanley and Blanche do not get along. Blanche objects to Stanley’s “rough” ways, while Stanley wonders aloud if Blanche is truly as bad off as she claims. During her extended stay, Blanche tries to convince Stella that Stanley is the wrong man for her, while at the same time engaging in a relationship with Mitch (Karl Malden), the friendliest of Stanley’s poker buddies.

As time passes, it becomes increasingly obvious that Blanche is losing her grip on reality, and the ghosts of her past are draining what little life she has left. As for Stanley, he's only too happy to see his sister-in-law squirm, and does what he can to make her time with them a living hell.

Aside from the opening sequence, when Blanche arrives at the train station, then meets Stella at a bowling alley, A Streetcar Named Desire plays out on a single set: the tenement that Blanche and Stanley call home. Under normal circumstances, such a limited setting might result in a film that was too “stagy”. What saves this particular movie from such a fate are the performances of its two stars.

Often overshadowed by all the Brando hype is the tremendous work of Vivien Leigh as Blanche, the emotionally shattered diva whose life of privilege has, over time, been stripped away. It’s clear from the outset that Blanche is a wounded soul, a woman clinging to a past that, even by her own admission, was never as happy as she remembers. Still, despite the fact she now depends on Stanley and Stella for her very survival, Blanche can’t help but judge the two of them, telling Stella that Stanley is “common”, and she should never have married him. Even in these scenes, where Blanche could have easily come across as snobbish and aloof, Vivien Leigh allows a little humanity to slip through.

The moment she utters her first line, we know that Blanche is a complex individual, and Leigh perfectly conveys every nuance of her persona, bringing life to a proud individual who, because of her trials and tribulations, can also be as meek as a lamb.

On the other side of the coin is Stanley Kowalski, a handsome yet brutish man who is none too happy to be playing host to his wife’s difficult sister. Unlike the multi-layered Stella, Stanley is an open book, revealing every aspect of his personality in the movie’s first twenty minutes; his abrasive nature; his sharp, sometimes violent temper; his love for Stella (superbly played by Hunter); and his mistrust of Blanche (when he hears the DuBois family estate has been “lost”, he immediately thinks Blanche sold it, and is keeping the money for herself). Every second he is on-screen, Stanley is simultaneously the film’s most repulsive and most engaging character, and it's because of Brando's magnetism that we ignore our natural instinct to look away whenever he is breaking windows or smashing dinner plates. In the hands of a lesser actor, Stanley might have seemed one-dimensional. With Brando at the helm, he is positively electrifying!

It's as if the phrase “searing drama” was coined for this film. An emotional rollercoaster set in a dingy district of New Orleans, where the heat and humidity is so palpable that it bleeds off the screen, A Streetcar Named Desire has taken what was an award-winning Broadway play and transformed it into one of greatest movies ever made, a film that features not one, but two performers at their absolute zenith.

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