23 March 2013

"A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951): Brando Breaks Out

Tennessee Williams

Marlon Brando, 1947

I just finished rewatching director Elia Kazan's 1951 film of Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire, the breakout film role for Marlon Brando combining his raw talent and "method" acting style in creating his character Stanley Kowalski. While the story clearly revolves around Vivien Leigh's character Blanche, one can't help but notice Brando's dominating presence.

As for Blanche, she gets to go first. flustered upon arrival, the last leg of the trip done by steetcar -- Blanche notes, "Daylight never exposed so total a ruin." She is clearly in a mental state or ruin.

The Wikipedia contributors, discussing Tennessee Williams' 1947 Pulitzer prize winning play and it's acclaimed screen adaptation discussed here, put it this way:
Tennessee Williams plotted out a narrative of powerful allegory. The story line unfolds as the drama of life primed by two divergent forces on an unavoidable collision course. It is the dreamscape world of culture and refinement represented by Blanche DuBois in conflict with harsh, unadorned reality epitomized by the character of Stanley Kowalski.
When all the money was gone, when Belle Reeve, the family mansion in Auriol, Mississippi, has been recklessly mortgaged into oblivion, sisters Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter) were faced with a dilemma. Blanche, failing to save either Belle Reeve, or her virtue, comes to"visit" Stella and Stanley living in the back end of the New Orleans French Quarter. Blanche is in very fragile condition. Stanley, on the other hand, is as a raw force of nature, contemptible of the airs of wealth and refinement Blanche displays.

Stanley is also suspicious of why Blanche left her family home in Mississippi, which in turn is breaking up his sensual paradise with Stella. Stella is forced to choose her allegiance -- no simple matter. But as the play evolves, Stella stays neurtral but sympathic to Blanche's situation.

The longer Blanche stays, the bolder Stella becomes, leading to dangerous arguments, the result of Stanley's growing frustration. After one violent fight between Stella and Stanley, Brando enters American film culture histroy with this passion-driven scene.

It's a credit to Williams and Kazan that, once the forces of the Production Code got through toning down the film, the carnal lust between Stella and Stanley remains apparent. Moreover, the conflict Blanche's presence brings to the small Kowalski apartment, and Stanley's disdain for all Blanche represents, remain forcefully intact.

Marlon Brando, building on his starring role in the original Broadway production of the play, began changing screen acting permanently, bringing his own style of method acting, 'whereby actors create in themselves the thoughts and feelings of their characters, developing lifelike performances.' (For more, see Method Acting.)

Brando, here and in subsequent roles such as Terry Malloy in Kazan's 1953 On the Waterfront, paves the way for such talents as Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, Al Pachino, and this year's Academy award winner for best actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. But in Streetcar, as Stanley Kowalski, Brando is himself an emerging talent, bringing a raw, brooding, lustful intensity to his performance that made Stanley the perfect foil to Blanche's delicate, fragile and fading refinement.

When these forces collide, Tennessee Williams' and Elia Kazan's solid craftsmanship shape a successful powerhouse drama starring the multi-talented combination of Vivien Leigh, Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, giving us a rarely equaled work of art on film.

All I will say beyond that is see the Kazan film. If I haven't convinced you, the trailer below just might.


Patti said...

Great review, Jim! This one is definitely on my "want to watch" list and, in fact, has been in my DVR for about a month.

I've put off watching it for years, because I'm not a Tennessee Williams fan...HATED him in high school, when a mandatory reading and in-depth analysis of "The Glass Menagerie" was required...don't like "Suddenly, Last Summer" either.

I also don't care for Brando, so I've put "Streetcar" off. However, I do love Vivien Leigh, and I really loved her in Williams' "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," so I've decided to give "Streetcar" a go. Your wonderful review has confirmed that I must see this.

And, in answer to your GAOH question about John Garfield and the Stanley Kowalski role, yes, it is the absolute truth. His bio says that he sought the advice of everyone whose opinion he respected, and although everyone advised him to take the part, he turned it down...because of money, he said. "About Streetcar, the reason I didn't do it was just money. I think it's a great play. I just wanted what I thought I was entitled to get. It was a commercial venture being put on for profit, and I wanted the same consideration as an Ingrid Bergman or a Spencer Tracy. I deserve that."

Garfield eventually came to realize that he "had made a grave mistake" for rejecting the role.

Anyhow, job well done on this post!!

Paco Malo said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for fact checking something I left out of the post, judiciously I see now.
I thought you would know.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Jim. Now, as we discussed, I would love to read your analysis of Vivien Leigh and her body of work, focusing not on GWTW, but on works such as Waterloo Bridge - and what she could have been had her illness not dominated her life. Her fragile beauty, her amazing talent, all her great qualities, were pressed under glass by that illness, and only rarely did she escape to produce some very fine work.

A well done analsis, Jim. Thank you. Jane Peters