Monday, 7 May 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden

Vivien Leigh won her first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1939’s Gone With the Wind playing Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled Southern belle who, through tragedy, discovers her own inner steel. She won her second Academy Award for Best Actress for 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire playing another Southern belle, but this time one whose emotional core is much more fragile.

Leigh’s Blanche DuBois alights nervously in New Orleans. She finds her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) living in a run-down apartment in the seedy French Quarter. He home was a once-grand mansion, now compartmentalised into separate small units, through the walls of which every argument, every smash and every gurgling laugh can be heard. Like the house itself Blanche is a stately reminder of long-gone glory. Her childhood home has been “lost” under generations of debts. Her looks too are slipping away. Whereas once she was admired and courted she now has nothing but a trunk full of fine dresses and a pile of yellowed love letters. Yet despite her straightened circumstances she attempts to keep up the illusion that she is still young, genteel and desirable. She is like her rhinestone tiara – looks like diamonds, but in reality is “next door to glass”. In this charade her doting sister Stella connives.

The one variable is Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski. Stanley is the most alpha of alpha males – he’s played by a young actor by the name of Marlon Brando, all bulging biceps and skin-tight t-shirts. Blanche cannot pretend that she is still living in some courtly romance with Stanley filling up the space. He swaggers, he drinks, he goes bowling and plays poker with his buddies, and he holds an irresistible sexual power over Stella. He is wild and animalistic – Stella giggles as she tells Blanche that Stanley’s always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night, as soon as we came in here, he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it… I was sort of thrilled by it.” For her his earthy – “common” as Blanche has it – machismo is a potent turn on. In turn he sees things very simply; those things that annoy his he lashes out at, be it the light bulbs (smashed), the radio (thrown out the window) or people he disagrees with (with whom he brawls). Blanche is the latest annoyance, but he has to tread more warily than he is used to, because she is his wife’s sister. He handles people by cowing them into submission, but Blanche refuses to be cowed. Blanche handles people by casting a spell over them, but Stanley refuses to be seduced. Events head towards another smash.

Guess who's coming to dinner?
Stanley and Blanche head towards a smash

 This is a powerful, intense, visceral drama. Stanley, mumbling around a mouthful of cold salami, filling the doorways of his tiny two-room apartment, is King Kong in his jungle. Blanche, wafting around in her taffeta and lace and spraying on the last of her perfume, is Faye Wray. There is a web of interdependencies. Blanche needs Stella to wait upon her and protect her from reality; it is when Stella vacates the house to give birth that things really start to go wrong. Despite their ups and downs Stanley and Stella need each other. Whenever she leaves him he bellows her name like a wounded bull: “Stella! Hey, Stella!” She cannot break free from his orbit. Blanche classifies the pull between them as ”just brutal desire”. Blanche hesitantly starts to develop a relationship with Stanley’s pal Mitch (Karl Malden). She needs to escape from her past, he needs to escape from his dying mother. They say that they need somebody. Not necessarily the other person, just somebody. Mitch is the best Blanche can get in the Quarter and she needs someone to worship her; Blanche is fascinating to Mitch precisely because she is like nothing he has ever met before. She has created “enchantment”. Enchantment that Stanley is only too happy to dispel. More than anything, in the film’s most famous quote, Blanche has “always depended on the kindness of strangers”.

The passing of former glories is a major theme here; a passing of glories and death. Stella refuses to talk to Blanche when she is being “morbid”. But death plays a central role. Blanche talks about being trapped in Belle Rive, the DuBois’s ancestral Mississippi home, with an entire family of people dying. The cost of the funerals contributed to the losing of the house. She is more haunted though by the suicide of her husband. She mocked him at a dance and he went out and shot himself. She still hears the polka and the gunshot in her head, no matter how much she tries to pretend the event never happened (she largely convinces herself that “deliberate cruelty… is the one unforgivable thing, in my opinion, and the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty”). Mitch has to escape from his house where his mother, too, is dying. And Blanche’s increasing hysteria is reflected in the old Spanish lady in the fogbound night-time streets selling flowers for the dead. In contrast New Orleans is fecund and fertile. It is hot and steamy, choked with sailors and drunks, a bar on every corner. Its inhabitants fight and make up. Stella herself is blooming with new life. To reach safety with Stella, bedazzled by the city, Blanche has to “take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery”. Passion and death are all around.

The film comes across maybe a bit too stagey at times. There are occasionally phrases used that could only be a playwright’s words, phrases that would never be used in real life, not even by someone like Blanche DuBois. The lighting could have been better; shadows fall across faces. But it is stagey. It is an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, and the actors are drawn from the casts of the stage productions. Elia Kazan (who later directed Splendor in the Grass) directed the play on Broadway. Its cast included Brando, Hunter and Malden. None of these were Hollywood stars; that is why the British Leigh, star of the West End production, was brought in to provide a marquee name. Leigh’s experience as an outsider, dropped into a cast that had already gelled, must have reflected those of Blanche. But how often does a stage smash transfer to the cinema these days? I can only think of War Horse as a modern-day comparison. But even then War Horse was recast. Streetcar sees the stage production largely transferred wholesale to a larger set. The belief that there is a difference between stage acting and film acting is exploded. Of the stage stars Leigh, Hunter and Malden won their respective Oscars; Brando was nominated by lost out to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Director Elias Kazan was also nominated for his work here but missed out.

What have I learnt about Louisiana?
Now they got there in the state of Louisiana what’s known as the Napoleonic Code. Now according to that, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband, and vice versa… This partly explains Stanley’s antipathy towards Blanche. If Belle Rive has, as he initially suspects, been sold, half of the proceeds should come to Stella, and through her to him. He looks at Blanche’s “solid gold” dresses and ropes of pearls and asks himself where Stella’s dresses and pearls are. And swindle perpetrated against Stella is a swindle against him too.

Stanley has no unctuous cringe towards the landed gentry. That might be the case in other parts of the Old South, but not in Louisiana. He quotes approvingly the former state governor, Huey Long: “every man’s a king”. He may be working class but he is the king of his own little domain. It would be interesting to see further if this attitude is unique to Louisiana.

But mostly, from this film we see New Orleans, not Louisiana. Nawlins is its own unique location, full of decayed and crumbling mansions, drunken sailors stumbling out of bars, crowds and taxis and bright lights. The city has a seedy, tawdry glamour where couples quarrel openly, where people sit out in the open on sofas on hot muggy nights, and where old ladies sell flowers for the dead. This noise and urgency and life must be quite an assault on the senses of a delicate woman down from the decaying plantations of old Mississippi.

Can we go there?
A Streetcar Named Desire is set in the decaying French Quarter of New Orleans, on Elysian Fields Avenue. Only initial establishing shots of Blanche’s arrival were actually filmed there, however; the remainder of the movie was shot on set in Hollywood.

You will no longer arrive at the same station as Blanche DuBois. Union Station was demolished in 1954 and replaced by Union Passenger Terminal. In New Orleans, the famous streetcars only run on a couple of lines these days. The St Charles line from the French Quarter is composed of historic Perley Thomas rolling stock like that shown in the film. In particular car #922 runs on this route, and is the one seen in the movie. The Canal Street and Riverfront lines use newer cars modelled on the Perley Thomases. No lines run to Elysian Fields these days (in fact the Desire line converted from streetcars to buses in 1948, prior to the film being released, and only a year after Tennessee Williams’ original play opened).

Overall Rating: 4/5

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