A Streetcar Named Desire-1951
Starring-Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh
Scott’s Review #872
Reviewed March 2, 2019
An adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s dark and dreary Broadway play, the stellar cast features three of the four original members of the stage version who bring the film to the big screen. Tremendous acting and a southern, morbid setting will leave the viewer transfixed and wondering what chaos and drama will next unfold. The story is sad and pitiful and quite the heavy as each character suffers from guilt, resentment, rage, or regret, but the elements make the film a pure classic.
Aging southern belle Blanche DuBois has lost her valuable southern plantation and flees her aristocratic livelihood to New Orleans to live with her working-class sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Unhappy, Blanche immediately begins acting snobbish which is in stark contrast to regular folks and offends many with her prim and proper ways. Stanley feels slighted by Blanche also convinced that she is keeping inheritance from Stella resulting in conflict. She meets Mitch (Karl Malden) and it appears she may have a shot at happiness after all.
The most painful and well-dissected character is Blanche. A fun fact is that Leigh is the only actor among the principle four to not appear in the original stage version, the role played by Jessica Tandy. Leigh, undoubtedly cast because of her star power at that time dives full-steam ahead into the role and gives the perfect blend of pathos and courage adding the most complexity. Reduced to a life among the poor and struggling, reality is tough for the once wealthy heiress who has lost all her money through no fault of her own, her estate taken by creditors after her husband’s tragic death assumed to be suicide.
Almost as complex is Stanley, played stunningly by Brando, an actor who with this film was just beginning to embark on Hollywood success that would surround him throughout most of the 1950’s. The most prominent film cover art features a tee-shirt clad Brando, his muscular arms and torso on display and his smoldering bad-boy pose. The sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche is undeniable as their love/hate relationship is filled with unbridled passion. Their carnal attraction is largely due to the brutish masculinity that Brando exudes on-camera.
The combined supporting performances by both Kim Hunter and Malden almost match with the leads as far as complexity and are just as important to recognize. In the former’s case, Hunter plays Stella as wounded and put-upon, but not weak. She has strength but is unsure who to trust or whether to leave her husband. Malden plays Mitch as benevolent and trusting, enamored with Blanche until her secrets are finally revealed. Heartbroken, even he, the kindest character in the group is left unhappy. Malden is great at adding an every-man and graceful quality to Mitch.
Who can ever forget the poignant and melancholy wails of “Stella! Stella! Stella!” emitted by the tragic Stanley a moment forever remembered in cinematic history? He longingly begs for Stella’s forgiveness as he looks towards the sky in desperation. The suggested rape, although not shown, is a powerful and brazen tidbit and controversial in film for 1951. The audience not seeing the act is arguably as intense as having seen it as imaginations can oftentimes be more prominent.
The black and white cinematography adds emotional treasures as the bleak New Orleans life is captured and the struggle and hardship of the characters wonderfully portrayed. The run-down tenement that most of the film takes place in is dour, suffocating, and dingy, perfectly enveloping the character’s lives. Hopelessness and depression are commonalities as director Elia Kazan creates a film that grasps his audience and never let’s go.
A Streetcar Named Desire is about conflict, pain, and the human desire for love and feeling thwarted by realism and dire circumstances. Each of the four characters is capable of being dissected and sympathized with as well as worthy of discussion. This only proves the complexities of each. I challenge a good comparison to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and A Streetcar Named Desire as both have similar qualities.
The film set an Oscar record when it became the first film to win in three acting categories (a feat only since matched by Network in 1976). The awards it won were for Actress in a Leading Role (Leigh), Actor in a Supporting Role (Malden), Actress in a Supporting Role (Hunter), and Art Direction. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is not an easy watch but assuredly is a feast in excellent acting and a bevy of heartbreaking and wounded characters.