Historical Circuit: A Streetcar Named Desire (****)

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streetcarThe 1950s was a decade filled with amazing movies, so suffice it to say it was a challenge to pick my first film from the decade to review.  Ultimately, I went with a complex, riveting, and searing sexual drama (for 1950) that is one of my favorite films: A Streetcar Named Desire.  Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, the script caused quite a stir in Hollywood and the film’s true motifs are hard to suss out, squashed under the Production Code that censored Hollywood at the time and forcing the story to take on an added air of complexity.  It’s a film where you’re never spoon-fed all the problems inherent in the characters.  Let’s explore the movie and a few of its themes (and then afterwards, go watch the Simpsons episode “A Streetcar Named Marge”).

The plot of Streetcar revolves around aging Southern belle, Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh).  After losing her family’s estate, Belle Reve, she’s forced to move into the tenement house of her sister, Stella (Kim Stanley) and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando).  Stanley and Blanche continually butt heads due to her cool Southern gentility and his gruff working-class machismo.  As Blanche tries to stop time, while simultaneously moving on, she takes up with the kind-hearted Mitch (Karl Malden), a friend of Stanley’s which only adds more to the powder keg brewing within the house.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a blistering drama where the heat within the tenement is a constant reminder of the tensions bubbling through the Kowalski household.  Sweat figures prominently into the movie, from Marlon Brando’s soaked t-shirt upon first meeting Blanche to the heat that steams from Blanche’s chronic baths.  There’s an undercurrent of competing wills and tensions that continues throughout the movie, helped by expert acting and character dynamics.  I couldn’t envision a more perfect cast than the quartet of Leigh, Brando, Stanley, and Malden.  Personally, I don’t find Vivien Leigh anything to write home about (she’s played too many off-shoots of Scarlett O’Hara), but here she takes a tired Antebellum cliché and uses it to explore the fading bloom of femininity.  Kim Stanley and Karl Malden play the loveable saps of the film, albeit with more pathos.  The standout who would come to define a generation is Marlon Brando as Stanley.  I remember watching Streetcar for the first time in a college class and my jaw hit the floor upon seeing Brando.  The man stalks through his scenes, dripping sexuality, and his introduction to Blanche is equal parts uncomfortable and highly sensual.  Brando was the king of stage business, and his little tics (scratching predominately) emphasize who his character is, but also add a veneer of unease.

Much was excised in the transition to the screen, forcing the script to insert the necessary subtext in subtle ways.  Blanche’s streetcarstanleybackstory is easily to figure out, specifically her torrid past living in a hotel called The Flamingo.  What’s harder to grasp is her relationship with her husband, the “young boy” whose name is always accompanied by the sound of a roaring train.  In the original play, Blanche’s husband was a homosexual whose suicide compels Blanche to seek sexual validation wherever she can get it.  Here, aside from the “boy” dying, there’s no explanation why; having read the play ahead of time I wasn’t confused, but it could create a plot hole for those who haven’t read it.  The dropping of the husband’s homosexuality also puts the blame on Blanche for her promiscuity.

Feminine sexuality is a prominent theme in the works of Williams, and A Streetcar Named Desire is no different.  Blanche is resistant to old age in all its forms, and refuses to live in the light (literally, through the use of Japanese lanterns to soften the lighting in her house).  She understands that a woman’s worth is through her youth, and she simply wishes to remain a slip of a girl; again, there are heavy parallels with the outcome of Vivien Leigh’s life.  When Mitch breaks up with Blanche, all her neuroses are brought to the forefront.  He understands her lying about her age – “I knew you weren’t sixteen anymore” – but can’t be with a woman whose past includes promiscuous sex; he ultimately decides she’s not “clean” enough to be with him.  It’s a heart wrenching moment that emphasizes that even the nicest men have misguided notions about women and sex.  They can understand a woman’s desire to remain youthful in order to entice a guy, but God forbid she hasn’t remained pure.

For all her Southern gentility, Blanche is riddled with vice for men and drinking – leading to questions of whether one inspired the other.  Stanley, for all his lumbering brutality and lack of intelligence, deciphers the true Blanche; one of my favorite lines of the film is in Stanley’s response to Blanche refusing alcohol (“I never touch it.”)  Stanley: “Well, there’s some people that rarely touch it, but it touches them often.”  There’s so much hostility, antagonism, and sexuality between Blanche and Stanley that you can’t stand it.  As the film progresses, you start to wonder how much of Stanley’s aggression towards Blanche stems from jealousy.  She’s a woman who would have never given him the time of day had she been younger and wealthier; now, she’s laid low and brought down to his level.  The script plays with sexual and gender dynamics in a way that’s rather shocking for the 1950s, making this one Williams film that’s helped by censorship.

The final sequence could be decried as a tacked on Hollywood ending, and it is.  The climax involves Blanche being attacked – with rape implied – by Stanley; Stella comes out find out what Stanley has done, and leaves him after Blanche has been committed to an insane asylum.  In the original play, Stella stays with Stanley and never learns about what has happened to her sister.  It’s apparent why the studio had to change the ending, as the Production Code dictated that crime couldn’t go unpunished.  The ending as it stands in the film, with Stella asserting herself and leaving Stanley, does feel a bit rushed considering we’ve seen Stella waffle to Stanley throughout the film; but it does assert a view of justice winning in its own way.

Overall, A Streetcar Named Desire is a sweat-soaked sexual drama that’s consistently entertaining and dominated by a series of performances that’s unparalleled.  This is the best Marlon Brando movie, in my opinion, filled with various motifs and themes worth exploring.