Monday, February 22, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Welcome to another installment of my Oscar Films Journal, here at!

Today we jump into the early 1950s for a film whose source material I studied in high school.  And like so many literary works you study in high school, I never fully appreciated or cared about Tennessee Williams' magnum opus, A Streetcar Named Desire.  When you're 16 years old the last thing you wanna read is a play manuscript with a bunch of people sitting around and talking.  Oh, if only I could go back and have a conversation with teenage Justin; there are so many things about which I'd set him straight.  Also, dammit brain, stop singing tunes from that Simpsons episode where Marge plays Blanche in a musical version of Streetcar.....

Anyway, I finally sat down and watched the legendary 1951 film adaptation, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, and man is that a fuckin' movie.  The story is by now the stuff of theater legend; faded southern belle visits her sister in New Orleans, clashes with the sister's abusive husband, ends up going insane.  It's a very simple narrative, but written so sharply by Williams and adapted for the screen with such dramatic intensity and visual acuity that it becomes something resembling an oppressive film noir.

The original stage production starred three of the four principles in this adaptation as a matter of fact, with only Jessica Tandy being replaced as Blanche Dubois with British actress Vivien Leigh (who starred in the West End production after being catapulted to fame for Gone With the Wind).  Leigh gives a multi-layered performance, her delicate, subtly condescending southern flower act driving her interactions with the other characters for most of the film, until her past transgressions come to light.  Once her love interest Mitch (a socially awkward, vulnerable Karl Malden) confronts her about the rumors, Blanche's entire demeanor transforms into that of a damaged, resentful woman who explains defiantly what she's been through.  This scene is the apex of Leigh's performance.  
But not to be outdone, Marlon Brando's career-kickstarting turn as the wantonly cruel Stanley Kowalski is terrifyingly real, casting a pall over the entire film.  Initially when we meet him, he is foul and uncouth, engaging in friendly shouting matches with his drunken friends and seeming to relish his boorishness, but once tensions begin to build with Blanche, Stanley becomes a lit stick of dynamite.  Verbally and at times physically abusive with his wife Stella, he seems to seek out reasons to cross the line, throwing dishes, tangibly intimidating both women, and finally resorting to the implied rape of his sister-in-law (to drive her away more than for any other reason).  Brando's Stanley is one of the earliest cinematic examples of a truly irredeemable character; he was fearless in exploring the depraved corners of this monster's psyche.  I imagine this was a difficult character to turn off when the cameras stopped rolling. 

Serving as a fifth major character is the film's visual aesthetic.  The dilapidated two-room apartment in which most of the action takes place is claustrophobic, uninviting, and palpably unclean.  Elia Kazan's direction and Harry Stradling's cinematography create an offputting, stifling atmosphere; with high-contrast noir-esque lighting and imagery but without the bright whites of your garden-variety film noir.  Instead the film is bathed in grays and silvers, creating a drab visual sameness that feels like a colorless nightmare you can't wake from.  Blanche and Stella have no escape from their impoverished dead-end existence, and we the audience can't break out of the film's pallid monochromy.  There are intense darks but no intense lights to balance them out.  It's a stroke of genius really; this material wouldn't be quite as oppressive in bright whites or in color.        

Streetcar was nominated for a record (at the time) 12 Oscars, winning three for acting alone (also unparalleled until 1976's Network).  Amazingly Brando was the lone principle NOT to win the award, and I wonder if his performance was just so real and unrelenting it turned off some of the Academy's voters.  After all, method acting wasn't really a thing yet in Hollywood; his performance must have seemed pretty shocking and hard to take in 1951.

Regardless though, A Streetcar Named Desire is a major accomplishment on all fronts.  Tennessee Williams' play dealt with ideas and themes many in the puritanical 1950s weren't yet ready for; the original cut of this film omitted even the subtle reference to Blanche's husband having an affair with a man, along with sparse moments of implied sexuality.  That it even made it to the screen at all given its thematic heaviness is pretty remarkable.  The performances by all four main actors were pure and profound in ways that were uncommon at the time.  The direction and visuals create a harrowing sense of unease you don't necessarily even register until the third act.  This is a great and upsetting film.

I give it **** out of ****.

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