This one is definitely an actor’s showcase. Director Elia Kazan gathered mostly Broadway stars to repopulate their roles in Tennessee Williams’ intense play, including Marlon Brando and Karl Marlden, the two male leads. Vivien Leigh was cast as Blanche DuBois mostly for the name recognition, but after watching her in the part it’s really hard to imagine anyone doing a better job. She inhabits the role so completely and naturally. I’m a big fan of her in Gone With The Wind, and it’s easy to see this as Scarlett O’Hara’s fall from grace.
Scarlett would have never lead the life that Blanche did, however. DuBois arrives in New Orleans after leaving her teaching position at a nearby school in Mississippi. She says that she was asked to take a leave of absence to calm her frayed nerves, and it’s plain to see that she’s not well when she meets her sister Stella (Hunter). According to her, it’s losing the family’s home to creditors that’s caused her so much pain.
Stella’s husband Stanley (Brando) quickly butts head with Blanche, though. He doesn’t believe her story, and he’s put off by her Southern belle affectation. That mistrust grows when Blanche courts his best friend Max (Marlden), a honorable, gullible man. As Blanche’s facade is forcibly stripped from her, she crumbles more and more to reveal the truth of what’s happened. And that truth is incredible, given the time she lives in and the facade she works with. That’s what ultimately makes the story so shocking — the way Blanche presents herself is at such odds with the way she truly is.
Leigh is simply amazing in this role. You quickly get the impression that all is not well with Blanche, but you’re constantly surprised by just how bad things are. Each new revelation digs a deeper hole, and our understanding of her situation changes. The facade that she builds becomes more pathetic as a result, and it becomes easier to see through it. Even still, it’s quite impressive how she uses her fantasy as both a shield and a weapon, deflecting people away from the subjects she finds too messy and painful and driving them towards her strong points, her feminine wiles.
Only Stanley isn’t buying any of it. He’s crude but uncanny, and he really only has eyes for one person — his wife, Stella. They share an explosive relationship; he’s got a temper but an obvious love for his wife, while Stella’s both attracted to and exasperated by his wild demeanor. They’re well-matched, and you feel sorry for Stella as she’s forced to choose between her husband and her sister. Despite how terrible Stanley seems, you end up rooting for the relationship simply because Blanche is this bucket of crazy that throws cold water on something that’s clearly unorthodox but working.
It’s like being pulled into the destructive orbit of a dying star. Ultimately you’re watching an apocalyptic ending, but it’s far too pretty and engrossing to turn away from. You’re mesmerized through the wreck of it. And that’s entirely Leigh. A lot of people frame the movie as a battle of wits between Stanley and Blanche, or a passing of the torch from the theatricality of Leigh to the primal naturalism of Brando, but I don’t see it that way. I think this is really Leigh’s movie, completely and totally, and while the other three principal actors definitely hold their own she’s still head and shoulders above anything else.
The set is theatrical in its simplicity, but Kazan takes advantage of the medium of film by adding wonderfully subtle sound and lighting cues to illustrate Blanche’s mental state and how it differs from the way the world looks to everyone else. Stella’s apartment is wonderfully transformative for a place so small; it can look bright and airy, drab and crumbling, or dark and menacing depending on whose perspective we’re following. The movie has a wonderful, varied atmosphere considering that it all takes place in one location.
But the lighting and cinematography only serves the incredible performances that are being given here. A Streetcar Named Desire won three out of four acting Oscars for its year, and the only reason Brando lost out on Best Actor was because Bogart was in The African Queen that year. But still, the many nominations it garnered (including Best Screenplay for Tennessee Williams) are much deserved. The writing is incredibly crisp and layered, elevated by the instinctive performances by its crew, kept there by the atmosphere generated from the wonderful sets, lighting and music. Though A Streetcar Named Desire is pretty much the stage play on film, the performances and enhancements make that exactly what you need to put the material across. It’s a wonderful snapshot of theatrical acting of its day, and timeless due to the quality of the craft.