This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
There is not a single emotionally healthy adult to be found in Elia Kazan’s steamy 1951 hothouse drama A Streetcar Named Desire. Every player in this story is broken and damaged. If situation comedy is humor created by trapping particularly wacky individuals in a particularly wacky situation, Kazan’s film is the perfect situation tragedy. Broken people trapped in a broiling apartment in a beatdown neighborhood, waiting for the catalyst that will make the entire thing melt down.
The story, based upon the stage play written by Tennessee Williams (and directed on Broadway by Kazan himself), is set in a seedy corner of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Stanley and Stella Kowalski (Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter, respectively) are a young married couple. Stella’s older sister Blanche Du Bois (Vivien Leigh) comes to visit – to stay, actually – after she is left penniless and widowed, having had to sell the family’s ancestral home to pay off debts. Blanche is refined, educated, spoiled, and condescending, but she gets along swimmingly with her sister, Stella. Stanley senses something is off with Blanche, and sets about tormenting the truth out of her. He alternately shocks, flirts, and rages at her, switching pressures until she cracks. Throughout the film she is courted by Stanley’s best friend, Harold “Mitch” Mitchell (Karl Malden), a man Blanche senses is more sophisticated than his life would otherwise attest to. Stanley finds out Blanche has made ends meet through prostitution, and tells Mitch, who quickly backs off from her. The conflict between Stanley and Blanche culminates in an off-screen scene in which he sexually assaults her. In the end, she has a psychotic break and is taken away to a mental hospital. Stella finds out what Stanley did and leaves him. Everyone ends this movie devastated, in a worse state than they began. Except perhaps Stella, who has finally left the monster she’s been living with, though she now finds herself the destitute single mother of a newborn.
Untangling all the threads of this story, all the knotted fibers of these broken characters, and giving all of them their due attention could fill a book. There is so much going on, so many layers. Kazan was one of the first Hollywood directors to center the personal, emotional, and psychological realities of his characters, and his films during the 1950s and early 1960s were hugely influential on the movies that followed, particularly modern independent cinema. That this movie could be made in 1951, that it could get past the Production Code office (though changes did have to be made from Williams’s original play), is remarkable. Let’s take a look at some of what’s going on in this picture, though we will be leaving much uncovered.
Before we talk about any of these characters, we need to take a moment to look at Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley. This is in my top five acting performances of all time, and that it happened when it did is even more amazing. In the late 1940s method acting was still an underground technique, the domain of independent theater groups and experimental acting classes. Screen acting was still dominated by the more classical, affected techniques of cinema’s original stage roots. Method acting, especially as utilized by the young Marlon Brando, was electric, provocative, and occasionally disturbing. When the great critic Pauline Kael first saw Brando on stage in 1946, she thought the actor was actually having a seizure during one scene of grief. Movies were never the same again after Brando, Montgomery Clift, and others came on the scene and largely swept away the old school of staid acting. His performance as Stanley Kowalski sparks and sizzles. You can practically smell him on screen. That his opposite number is played by such a bastion of that old school of acting, Vivien Leigh, is no accident of casting. Leigh had played Blanche in the London production of Streetcar, and was the only major cast member in the film who wasn’t brought directly from the Broadway production. Leigh, the classic actress of Gone with the Wind fame, married to the regal Shakespearean thespian Laurence Olivier, could not be a more sharp contrast to Brando’s visceral style. Her affectations and melodramatic stylizing could almost be mistaken for bad acting here, but nothing could be further from the truth. Her choices here were intentional, and were guided no doubt by Kazan, perhaps the greatest actor’s director in the history of film. The contrast between Blanche’s playacting and Stanley’s gutteral vibrancy is absolutely pitch perfect.
Blanche would like to think of herself as everything Stanley is not. She’s a school teacher, a woman of taste and style and genteel Southern manners, none of which is any use to her in her new setting. She’s a nervous wreck, and we come to find out her former husband was a closeted gay man (we have to read between the tight lines of the Hays Code to understand this, though the original play made it more plain) who committed suicide. Blanche suffers from some sort of substantial anxiety disorder, something she admits to in her final shaming before Mitch, for which she receives no sympathy whatsoever. This could be PTSD from her husband’s suicide, or something she has long dealt with, but there couldn’t be a worse place for her to find herself in such a state than in the home of Stanley Kowalski. After he sexually assaults her in the penultimate scene, she has a psychotic break and must be taken to an institution.
And let’s talk about Stella, Stanley’s wife. She’s a victim of Stanley’s of another sort, a victim of his “love” rather than his direct ire. Everything about Stanley is intense. He loves hard, drinks hard, laughs hard, cries hard, and, unfortunately, hits hard. We don’t know if he’s hit Stella before he does so in the movie, but it’s irrelevant. He doesn’t have to. He controls her with fear, and the most dangerous kind – fear that is manipulated to feel like devotion. Kim Hunter’s face when she hears Stanley calling her name from the bottom of the stairs after he’s hit her is absolutely devastating. It’s a mix of resignation to her fate, relief that she’ll have him back and on his best behavior for a while, shock at what’s happened to her, fear of what’s next, and a dozen other things all played out so, so subtly upon her barely moving face. It’s a master class in understated emotion. In the film she leaves her husband after discovering he’s raped her sister, a punishment for Stanley dictated by the Hays office, but the stage ending feels more true – she returns to him, as victims so often do, because where else could she go? The screenplay grants her an escape, but it’s unlikely happiness awaits her outside the courtyard of her apartment building.
Finally, there’s Mitch, played by the great character actor Karl Malden. Mitch is better than his surroundings, but not stronger than them. He’s not stronger than Stanley, and he’s not stronger than his mother whom we never meet, a woman he wishes overmuch to please. He would treat Blanche well, but he can’t bring himself to accept her past, and he abandons her when she most needs his stability and support. I imagine life is largely downhill for Mitch after the credits roll. He’s betrayed his own goodness in betraying Blanche.
A Streetcar Named Desire is an electric film that glistens in the sweat and steam of one little apartment full of desperate individuals. It’s a rich film for discussion, and an arresting watch. Be sure to join us when GPL’s Third Floor Film Series screens this classic on Thursday, April 16, at 7:00 pm at the Greenville Public Library. Snacks and soft drinks will be provided, and I will be leading a discussion following the film for anyone who wishes to stick around. I look forward to seeing you there.