A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Director: Elia Kazan
Writer: Tennessee Williams
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden.

I read Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, ages ago. I can’t even say exactly when, but it was either in high school or early on in my college days, so either way it’s been well over a decade. I had, however, never seen the film adaptation, the script of which Williams also wrote, from 1951. This past semester my boyfriend, as part of his graduate coursework, had to watch the film and we decided to watch it together. This was also my first Elia Kazan film – even though he has directed some classics. I have seen a number of older films, and I am not someone who is scared off by black and white films, but I haven’t seen as many as I should have. Little by little I am trying to make those lacks up, and here I was given the opportunity to do that.

The film did quite well at the box office and is one of those few movies that managed to get Oscar nominations in all of the major categories: best picture, director, screenplay, actor, actress, supporting actor, and supporting actress. It even won Oscars for Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter.

Elia Kazan’s direction is not excellent, but there are some moments of genius. The trick with adapting a stage play is to try to make the film breathe a bit and not feel constrained or claustrophobic. It’s the difference between ending up with something as amazing as Moonlight, or a dud, even if by an auteur of the caliber of Roman Polanski, like Carnage. It also must feel a little more loose than play dialogue. The way beats, pauses, and line delivery work on stage – sometimes with a meter, and even a pattern to speech – must appear more natural on screen. A Streetcar Named Desire succeeds in some respects, while failing in others. While the entirety of the film does take place in a small apartment, the claustrophobic nature of the filmmaking is actually quite brilliant. In fact, the more the main character begins to lose touch with reality and with truth, the more claustrophobic things feel. The play between light and darkness and the use of shadows are representative of the lies, emotions, and murky morals of the characters in the play. Truth and light are rare, darkness and falsehood run supreme. This is where Kazan succeeds best. Williams, on the other hand, suffered in transporting his work from stage to screen. Sometimes the original writer is not the best choice to adapt their own work. They are too enamored with the piece to suffer the compromises and adaptation must demand. Too much of the play is on screen – it’s too wordy, too complex, and the actors are unnatural when delivering lines awkwardly in scenes that would require much less words. On stage the audience cannot always see the minute and subtle mannerisms and expressions of the actors, the characters must then say how they feel instead of showing their emotions. The cast is quite amazing, so much more could have been done with a look, a glance, an action – as opposed to a monologue or overwrought conversation.

Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind), playing Blanche DuBois, is the character that most suffers from Williams’ script, in spite of being an incredible actress. Her expressive nature and ability to sell moments is masterful. If only she had been allowed to do more of that rather than speak so much. There are times when Stella’s word vomit is necessary, it betrays the air of confidence she wishes to impress upon others. Other times silence would have been a better stylistic and narrative choice. On the other hand, Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski finally had me understand what the big deal is about him as an actor. I never bought The Godfather as the example of his acting talents – transformative ability, sure, but not that great of a performance. It didn’t help that the only other movies I’d seen him in were from his Jabba the Hutt era. Here we get a sexy, deranged, animalistic, dangerous, violent, abusive, grotesque, earthy performance of a Polish man whose sense of authority is paramount. Stanley comes alive in a way he doesn’t just by reading the play. The whine in his voice, the ticks that show impeding loss of control, all of it adds to a sense of tension I hadn’t noticed in the play before. The rest of the cast is fine, even though I didn’t really care for Kim Hunter’s take on Stella Kowalski – too meek, too boring, too blah. In a cast of superstars she is the weakest link.

The movie is definitely a classic for a reason, and the acting is definitely superb. These are the movies that make me wish that Hollywood would take note of the talent running through its veins and realize that the audience is starving for better content. Sure, people go see the crap because crap is all that there seems to be. But if we tried to go back to giving opportunities to auteurs and superstars to do what they are best at, then maybe we’d watch less remakes, sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and superhero movies and better stuff. That’s why I have sworn those things off. I will continue to do my small part to support movies like these, even if they aren’t always great or successful, in an effort to hold Hollywood accountable not just to the bottom line, but to a sense of taste as well.

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