A supreme master class in acting, writing, and filmmaking
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a monumental film based on Tennessee Williams' profound Pulitzer Prize winning play, and brought to life onscreen by director Elia Kazan, who also directed the original Broadway version. Like ripples in a pond, unaware of the stone that created them, this film's landmark performances revolutionized acting so completely, its influence is still felt today. In addition, the set, lighting, cinematography, and sizzling score create a world so alive, you can feel the heat, sweat, and smell of the New Orleans’ French Quarter from your seat. This masterpiece was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
From the start, when “Blanche” says, “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields”, we know we are in for a dark ride. Controversial in its day, “A Streetcar Named Desire” is considered one of the twentieth century's most significant and influential plays. It is also one of the most performed plays in history, and in addition to this film, has been adapted for television, ballet, and even opera. Poetically insightful, it was a revelation when premiered, and was one in a succession of earth-shattering dramas by the matchless playwright Tennessee Williams, which included "The Glass Menagerie", "The Rose Tattoo”, "Camino Real”, “Night of the Iguana”, and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof “. His intense work often centered on relationships, human weakness, and the price of secrets or sins - all of which are in top form here. At least fifteen of Williams’ plays have been adapted into films, and he sometimes wrote the screenplays, as he did with “A Streetcar Named Desire” (for which he earned one of his two Best Screenplay Oscar nominations). This film is almost identical to the play, yet due to the Motion Picture Production Code (explained in the “Red Dust” post), some particulars had to be modified (as did all of William’s adapted films). Two major plot points were altered, and I will talk about them in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING SECTION. I highly recommend reading that section AFTER you watch the film, as it will contain spoilers.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” follows the sensitive “Blanche DuBois” (one of literature’s leading tragic figures), as she looks for shelter from the brutal world, hoping to find it when she goes to live with her sister “Stella” and brother-in-law “Stanley”. Her journey is hypnotically harrowing, as we are shown the consequences of desire, and the costs of human frailty. Even with the changes from the play, this film is deeply rousing, not losing its insight into the dark edges of humanity. I’ve seen this film countless times, and am equally bewitched and moved every single time.
Three of the four leading actors in the film (Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden) reprise their original roles from the Broadway production, and the fourth (Vivien Leigh, who plays “Blanche”) appeared in the original London stage production. “Blanche” was played on Broadway by Jessica Tandy who won a Tony Award for her performance. Tandy had appeared in a few films but was by no means a film star, and the film’s producers needed a star (no one else from the film was known to audiences before this film), so Leigh was cast. Tandy would become a star much later in her life, at the height of which was her Oscar winning role in “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is directed by the ingenious Elia Kazan, who I wrote about in the “A Face in the Crowd” post. Under his expert direction, all the film elements come together so impeccably, one is utterly immersed into this barbaric, unsafe world. Its precise rhythm and pace make this film entirely compelling from start to finish, and the imagination he brings is spectacular. Take for instance how he introduces "Blanche". She emerges from the smoke, like stepping out of a dreamworld. Interestingly, Kazan did not want to direct the film version, feeling he had already done "A Streetcar Named Desire" with the Broadway production. But because of his friendship and admiration for Williams (who wanted him to do it), he relented, and ended up receiving one of his five Best Director Academy Award nominations. The film's somewhat theatrical look (with its Oscar winning Art Direction-Set Design by Richard Day and George James Hopkins) heightens its world and emotions. Kazan knows exactly when to show a close-up, and when to stand back and let us observe. He is known for extracting top work from actors, and this film has a collection of more astonishing performances than perhaps any other. It's about as perfect a cast as you can get, exemplifying Kazan's expertise at choosing and directing actors. This is definitely one of Kazan’s masterpieces.
Vivien Leigh stars as “Blanche DuBois”, and adds another legendary performance to cinema history. She's mesmerizing, bringing a fragility and bruised hopefulness to “Blanche” in such a way that we empathize and feel for her no matter what. And Leigh more than holds her own opposite Brando’s loud and audacious “Stanley”. When she makes her dreamlike entrance, we already sense "Blanche" is out of place in the harsh world into which she just stepped, with one foot in fantasy. As she tells “Stanley” in one of the film’s many famous lines, "I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman's charm is fifty percent illusion”. Traumatized by her past, we watch "Blanche" unravel slowly into delusion, and Leigh's spellbinding and nuanced performance doesn’t carry a false note. Notice how she physically clings to things, especially her sister “Stella”, as if trying to hold on to something to stay afloat. Or how she can change her approach with “Stanley” on a dime. Leigh is simply incredible. If you are watching the movies on this blog, you previously saw Leigh in “Gone with the Wind” , and I wrote more about her in that film’s post. As I mentioned in that entry, Leigh battled mental illness, and playing “Blanche” was a bit too close to home. Regarding "Blanche", Leigh was quoted as saying, "She is a tragic figure, and I understand her. But playing her tipped me into madness”. On a subsequent film set, Leigh once refused to come out of her dressing room and began shouting some of “Blanche’s” lines, after which she was taken to a psychiatric hospital. A sad price to pay for such a powerhouse performance. Leigh won her second Best Actress Academy Award for this film, her first being twelve years earlier for “Gone with the Wind”.
The person most associated with “A Streetcar Named Desire” is easily Marlon Brando, who stars as “Stanley Kowalski”. Because of this role, Brando is without a doubt the most influential figure in the field of acting. His watershed performances in both this film and the play were game changers, as he fearlessly brought a realism and emotional depth to acting never before seen. It is hard to grasp just how earth-shattering his performance was at the time, but it’s because of this performance we are now accustomed to seeing raw honesty and heightened realism onscreen. There is the world before “Stanley Kowalski” and the world after. “Stanley” could easily be portrayed as one note - loud, brutal and unrefined. Yet in a completely organic way, Brando infuses him with humor, vulnerability, turmoil, and desire, making him entirely three dimensional. He is alluring at one moment and terrifying in the next. “Stanley” is so real you feel you could have an unscripted conversation with him anywhere. Brando oozes a sexually charged, animal magnetism - so much so, that it is understandable how “Stella” could leave her prim and proper ways to satisfy her desire for him. This was Brando’s second film, and he was virtually unknown when it came out. He became the face of method acting, which I wrote a bit more about in the “A Place in the Sun” and “A Face in the Crowd” posts. While Brando wasn’t the first of the wondrous method actors (Montgomery Clift preceded him), he was the boldest. He hated being called a method actor as he felt it associated him with teacher Lee Strasberg, from whom he said he learned nothing. Brando credits teacher Stella Adler as well as Kazan with teaching him about acting. “A Streetcar Named Desire” made Brando an icon and one of the most influential, revered, and imitated actors of all time. He was voted #4 of the men on AFI’s list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”, and was known for his rare combination of masculinity and sensitivity, his raw depth, and his somewhat mumbling speech. Marlon Brando had a troubled childhood with an alcoholic mother, and a father that kept telling him he would never amount to anything. He soon realized he loved acting and went to New York with his sisters to study. He made it to Broadway in 1944 in the original production of "I Remember Mama”. After appearing in other shows to mixed reviews, in 1947 he appeared in the Broadway version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” which made him a Broadway success. His first film was “The Men” in 1950. Brando received his first of eight Best Actor Academy Award nominations for “A Streetcar Named Desire”, which was only his second film. He would win two Oscars, funny enough not for his iconic performance as “Stanley Kowalski” (he would win for “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather”). He was the only actor out of the four leads from the cast not to win. A top star in the 1950s, losing some popularity in the 1960s, Brando had a sort of second coming in the 1970s, where he appeared in several notable films such as “The Godfather”, "Last Tango in Paris", "Apocalypse Now", and “Superman”. Brando made just shy of 40 films, and his last film appearance came in 2001 in the film "The Score". He appeared in many classics, others of which include "The Wild One", "Julius Caesar", "Viva Zapata!", "Sayonara", "Reflections in a Golden Eye", "Guys and Dolls", "Désirée", and the television mini-series "Roots: The Next Generations". Known as a “bad boy”, Brando had a reputation for being difficult and a bit eccentric. People often compared him with actor and rebel James Dean (who I wrote about in the “Rebel without a Cause” post). Kazan, who worked with both of them, was quoted as saying “People compared them, but there was no similarity. He (Dean) was a far, far sicker kid, and Brando's not sick, he's just troubled”. Brando’s turbulent personal life was well known, as was his long list of affairs and sexual conquests, reportedly with both women and men. He was married three times, all to actresses: Anna Kashfi, Movita Castaneda, and Tarita Teriipaia (his costar in "Mutiny on the Bounty"). Depending on which biography you believe, he had between 11 and 17 children (no one seems to know for sure) most of which were not from his wives. He was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement, and the American Indian Movement. He made headlines when he sent American Indian Sacheen Littlefeather to the Academy Awards ceremony in his place, refusing his Oscar for “The Godfather” due to the “poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry”. Being a recluse, he purchased a 99-year lease from the Tahitian government for a private island not far from Tahiti called Tetiaroa, to which he would often retreat. He leased it from 1966 until his death. Marlon Brando died in 2004 at the age of 80. As I type this entry I can see Marlon Brando’s face in a large lithograph on the wall behind my computer, constantly inspiring and reminding me about the joys and artistry of acting.
Kim Hunter is exceedingly convincing as the strong “Stella Kowalski”, sister to “Blanche” and wife of “Stanley”. You wholeheartedly believe she came from the same proper background as “Blanche”, and gave it up for a fiery life of passion and hot sex. Watch how natural she is as “Blanche’s” barbs roll off her back as if she’s been hearing them her whole life. And the way she succumbs to “Stanley's” sexual energy is like metal in a magnet's grip. It's clear he awakened "Stella's" sexuality in a way that "Blanche"never experienced, which creates a stirring undercurrent of tension between the three. Hunter is reprising her role from the original Broadway production, and won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for this film (her only win or nomination). Kim Hunter began to act as a way of overcoming shyness. Along with Brando and Karl Malden, she was one of the first members of the Actors Studio. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was her Broadway debut. She started appearing in films in 1943, most notably in the 1946 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger classic film "A Matter of Life and Death”. Unfortunately, because of being a liberal political activist and sponsoring a Wold Peace Conference in 1940, she was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era (which I talk about in the “High Noon” post), preventing her from appearing in films in much of the 1950s. In 1962, she would testify to the Supreme Court regarding the unjust publication that falsely listed her as a communist threat, and by doing this she helped clear others also unjustly accused of being communists. As a result, most of her credits (well over 100) are in television. She is remembered for a second film role - the chimpanzee “Zira” in the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes” , and would reprise that role in the first two sequels, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes", and "Escape from the Planet of the Apes". She appeared in countless TV shows, including as a regular on the soap opera "The Edge of Night", for which she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award. She was married twice. Kim Hunter died in 2002 at the age of 79.
Karl Malden is dazzling and completely effective as “Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell” in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, a role he reprised from the original Broadway production. In playing the lonely, big, and awkward “Mitch”, Malden emits a quirky hopefulness and sincerity in perfect contrast to his co-stars. He won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for this role, and would receive one additional Oscar nomination for the classic “On the Waterfront”, also starring Brando and directed by Kazan. Malden was a brilliant character actor known for his commanding presence while playing everyday type guys, and for his large and unusually shaped nose. He is an actor I love, who is consistently interesting to watch - even when playing villains. Karl Malden began acting in theater from a very young age. He moved to New York and made his first Broadway appearance in 1937, eventually studying at the Group Theater where he met Kazan. He took a brief break from acting to serve in WWII, and upon his return Kazan cast him in the Broadway production of “All My Sons” in 1947. Malden first appeared in films in 1940, working more steadily after the war. His big break came with “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and great films and parts followed, including Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess", "Ruby Gentry", "One-Eyed Jacks", "The Cincinnati Kid", "Cheyenne Autumn", “Gypsy", “Patton", "How the West Was Won", "Birdman of Alcatraz", "Baby Doll" (also written by Williams and directed by Kazan), and his final film in 1987, playing Barbra Streisand’s stepfather in “Nuts”. He would continue to appear on television until 2000. Malden was lifelong friends with Brando and the two made three films together. Perhaps Malden's most beloved role was as the star of the very popular 1970s TV show, "The Streets of San Francisco” for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award (he did win an Emmy for the mini-series “Fatal Vision”). He was also the face of American Express in their TV commercials for 21 years. When I went to a memorial for producer Stanley Kramer, I almost literally bumped into Karl Malden. He was very tall. I was sort of in shock being face to face with an actor I so admire, and that moment has stuck with me to this day. I still can’t believe I was face to face with Karl Malden! He was married once, from 1939 until his death. Karl Malden died in 2009 at the age of 97.
The black and white cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr., is simply stunning. The lighting and framing intensely capture the oppression of the New Orleans heat and characters in the film. Stradling was a top Hollywood cinematographer, working on nearly 150 films. He received an Academy Award nomination for his work in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, which was one of 14 career nominations, winning two (for “My Fair Lady” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray”). Harry Stradling Sr. began his film career in 1920, and worked in Europe as well as Hollywood. He shot several of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films, and worked often with Barbra Streisand, including on “Funny Girl”. Just some other classics he photographed include "Jamaica Inn", "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", "Suspicion", "Pygmalion", "Till the Clouds Roll By", "Easter Parade", "Johnny Guitar", "Auntie Mame", "Gypsy", "Hello, Dolly!", "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever", and his final film "The Owl and the Pussycat", in which he died during filming. He was married once and had two children, one of whom is Harry Stradling Jr., also a cinematographer. Harry Stradling Sr. died in 1970 at the age of 68.
Last but certainly not least, I feel I must mention the Oscar nominated score of “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Alex North. It is one of my favorite film scores and is a prime example of the weight music can add to a film. This score, which is a kind of symphonic jazz, catapults us into the sexy, worn down, smoldering intensity of these people’s lives. The music appears and vanishes at the perfect times, adding punctuation to this gut-wrenching world. It was one of cinema’s earliest jazz scores. North’s nomination was his first of fifteen Academy Award nominations. He never won a competitive Oscar, but was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1985 for his body of work as a film composer. He composed music for over 80 films and TV shows, including such classics as “Spartacus”, “Cleopatra", "Death of a Salesman", "Viva Zapata!", "The Rose Tattoo", "The Rainmaker", "The Misfits", "Cheyenne Autumn", "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", "Prizzi's Honor", and the TV miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man". Alex North died in 1991 at the age of 80.
In addition to the above mentioned ten Academy Award wins and nominations, “A Streetcar Named Desire” was also nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Sound Recording.
Whether you’ve never seen it, or seen it many times, this is a hauntingly vivid film with power and impact, and one I’m sure you will never forget. Enjoy “A Streetcar Named Desire”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As I briefly mentioned above, the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” was controversial and had to be altered according to the Motion Picture Production Code for the film version. As a result, words and music thought to be too lewd were changed, facial expressions were cut, and the story was slightly altered. “Blanche’s” prostitution is only alluded to, whereas in the play it was clear. Unbeknownst to Kazan (and against his wishes) about five minutes were removed from his original finished film. Luckily, that footage was found in 1993, and Kazan’s original cut is usually the one streamed, bought or rented today.
There were two major plot modifications made for the film. One was regarding “Blanche’s” young husband. In the film version he killed himself because he was a jobless poet for which she humiliated him. In the play she discovers he was a homosexual while finding him having sex with an older man, and he kills himself when she tells him he disgusts her. The play’s version makes much more sense as a cause for “Blanche’s” overwhelming guilt and mental breakdown. The Production Code forbid any reference or depiction of homosexuality, thus Kazan and Williams changed the text so the film could be made. In an interview at the Television Academy Foundation, Kim Hunter stated that none of the cast were happy with this change, and upon reading the rewrite Vivien Leigh exclaimed, “You mean I have to say you disgust me because you’re a poet?!”.
A second major change in the film version was “Stanley’s” rape of “Blanche”. Rape was another Production Code no-no, and Kazan fought to keep it in the film as it demonstrates what the play is about - the “rape” of the delicate by the brutal. He was eventually allowed to keep it, but had to tone it down. Thus, in the film it is not 100% clear if she was raped or possibly imagined it. In the play he clearly, purposefully rapes her. Because the rape is in the film (even if muddled), as per The Code “Stanley” had to be punished for his actions, so the ending of the film was changed to having “Stella” leave him. In the play she stays, which makes for a totally different commentary on life.
One of the most iconic scenes and lines in film history is when “Stanley” yells “Stella! Hey, Stella!”. Occurring just after he has beaten the pregnant “Stella”, he stands there with his muscles exposed in his ripped shirt, which “Stella” can’t resist. It underscores the desire in the film, as she slinks down the staircase into his arms. That line was ranked #45 on “AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes” list.
Another classic line from “A Streetcar Named Desire”, is “Blanche’s” final line in the film, "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers”. That line of dialogue also made it onto “AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes” list, ranked at #75.