A Streetcar Named Desire
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
The film was the first in Academy Award history to be nominated in three different categories and launched Marlon Brando from promising Broadway actor to Hollywood superstardom. Of course, if you’ve ever heard “STELLA!” referenced anywhere…
I didn’t finish it, okay? I’m sweating profusely as I type this section, but I feel that I must be honest with my readers. I’ll explain further below, but this movie was insufferable!
One of the unexpected pleasures of HBOMax (Update 9/20/23: Just Max now) is that subscribers have access to Turner Classic Movies. There, one can watch dozens of essential films without sifting through the bizarre, “classic” deep-cuts that clutter the ACTUAL cable channel. Since the Oscars ceremony is in a week, I figured I’d get the context behind the “Stella” scene.
Blanche DuBois is on hard times: her ancestral slave plantation has been seized by creditors, her workplace fired her for sleeping with one of her underage students, and her husband committed suicide after she bullied him for being gay.
Having simply no other option and refusing to face the consequences of her actions, Blanche moves in with her sister, Stella, and Stella’s husband, Stan. Blanche immediately berates Stella for having such a shabby apartment, and constantly calls Stan a brute while simultaneously making flirty eyes at him. She also flirts with one of Stan’s friends and a delivery boy.
As Blanche’s stay continues, she develops a relationship with Stan’s friend Mitch, but her chronic lying and sordid past continually sabotage her efforts to better herself. Decaying from Blanche’s radioactively toxic personality, Stella and Stan become the worst versions of themselves, capable of doing previously unthinkable things.
Vivien Leigh’s performance as Blanche DuBois is the only reason. Can one bad element ruin an entire film? Well, can substituting licorice-flavored jelly beans ruin a chocolate-chip cookie? While the answer to both questions is yes, one may be confused by my bizarre comparison. That’s because Leigh’s performance in A Streetcar Named Desire is so hysterical and removed from any reality that it sticks out like a sore thumb on a shark.
Leigh’s performance is the result of two cultural trends. The first is that Leigh appeared in the film directly after acting in the stage version. Some actors can have trouble toning down their actions and voices when that happens—even if they’ve been on camera before. Leigh was playing to the back-row seats, but a movie theater’s sound system does that job for the actor—hence the histrionic choices for Leigh’s character.
The second trend is “self-gratification.” A significant portion of creatives and audience members in the 1950s believed that scenery-chewing equaled a good performance. The cult of celebrity persona was becoming fully entrenched in American culture at the time, which contributed to “Look at me!” performances becoming popular and acclaimed. Of course, this trend occasionally pops up today, fueling ill-placed praise for Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, and Paul Dano in The Batman. While these performances are good, the reason is not because they screamed, cried, or awkwardly danced. It’s because they tried to show the audience why a character is the way he is.
Viven Leigh never gives her character the option to plug into those watching. I believe this is because, historically, she was part of the London production of the Streetcar play while Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter, both excellent, were in the New York production. The movie version of Streetcar was helmed by the New York director, so Leigh was a new addition. I imagine that she was used to her version of the character and, when given new instructions by the director, pulled the “I was the star of Gone with the Wind” card.
Of course, much of this is supposition, but after an hour of listening to this character, I was filling my mind with anything to keep her out. Naturally, she won the 1952 Oscar for Best Actress by a landslide.
Since writing this review, I’ve happened upon other perspectives and historical information regarding Vivian Leigh’s performance. Apparently, Leigh knew her acting style didn’t match the American production, so she worked diligently to mesh with the cast and director. She was supposedly kind and grateful for the opportunity. Director Kasan later even stated that Leigh would’ve “crawled across broken glass for this part.” Additionally, Kazan used Leigh’s old-fashioned acting style to heighten her “othered” status, especially because Blanche DuBois is prone to flights of fancy and delusions.
I’m still not a fan of this movie, and I won’t be attempting a rewatch anytime soon, but my original review was clearly too harsh on Vivian Leigh as a person.
The movie? No, though I’d actually be curious to see a revival theatre production of this play if it came to town. I’m not the biggest fan of Tennessee Williams plays, but I enjoyed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and respected The Glass Menagerie. If the cast for this hypothetical version of A Streetcar Named Desire didn’t use Vivien Leigh as a reference, the result might be compelling.
Another reason I caution against the film is that Blanche is a flawed home wrecker who can’t help but destroy everything she touches. The play also implies that she has untreated mental illness and a personality disorder. It takes a delicate, complex touch to get viewers to understand her. Instead, Leigh’s performance had me empathizing with Brando’s character even though he physically abuses his wife and sexually assaults Blanche! When a film’s message becomes “root for the abuser because the woman is so obnoxious,” I have trouble recommending it to anyone, much less letting it waste another second of my time.
No one. On top of all the other problems with the film, the viewer never even finds out WHY the streetcar is named Desire!