We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.
AFInity: A Streetcar Named Desire
By Kim Hollis
July 17, 2009
Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.
In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.
#47: A Streetcar Named Desire
On July 1, 2009, Karl Malden passed away at the age of 97. Though I had primarily recognized him during my childhood as the guy in the American Express commercials ("Don't leave home without it!"), he was a prolific actor, appearing in such movies as On the Waterfront, How the West Was Won and Patton, as well as the television series The Streets of San Francisco. Perhaps his most acclaimed role, though, was in a Streetcar Named Desire. Malden would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film, which he was able to leverage into a continued series of roles in the years to follow. Although Malden's passing was overshadowed some in the days to come by the circus surrounding Michael Jackson's death, his contribution to motion picture arts was substantial. With that in mind, it seems the perfect time for AFInity to look at A Streetcar Named Desire.
I've been a voracious reader from the time I was able to pick up a book and read it to myself, leading me to eventually choose to major in English. It seemed ludicrous to me that I should be able to read books, plays and stories and then comment on them via class discussion and research papers for a grade. I was thrilled to discover new authors I'd never experienced previously, but also enjoyed new ways of looking at the works of writers I'd read in high school and before. One such writer was Tennessee Williams, whose plays gained a deeper and richer impact the older I got. The man worked within what is now one of my favorite genres – Southern Gothic – and along with Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, instilled in me a real appreciation for the deconstruction of social mores in the Southern U.S. of the 20th century.
So while it's true that I had read such Williams plays as The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, I'd never taken the time to watch them played out on the big screen or in the theater. I was curious and intrigued to see if the characters in Elia Kazan's classic 1951 film would interpret Streetcar as it existed in my head, and more importantly for purposes of the AFInity project, whether it was deserving of its place on the 100 Years... 100 Movies list.
From the movie's opening credits, it's clear to see that Kazan has a grip on the themes and moods Williams was hoping to invoke. The accompanying music is smoky and charged with sensuality. Also worthy of appreciation are some of the exteriors in the opening scene, which have the look and feel of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and were in fact filmed on location. The first character we meet is Blanche Dubois, and our initial image of her comes as she emerges from some fog on a train platform. Immediately prior to this shot, we see some giggling debutantes as they joyously celebrate some event together. From the movie's outset, Kazan is showing the audience's Blanche's faded innocence and beauty.
It is this dynamic that provides the backbone for A Streetcar Named Desire. Although Blanche presents herself as a woman of society and virtue, the audience infers immediately that she has dark and shameful secrets. The story is not overly complex. Blanche, claiming to have been allowed to take time off from her teaching position due to exhausted nerves, comes from her antebellum hometown of Auriol, Mississippi to visit her sister, Stella, in New Orleans. Stella is pregnant and married to the rough-cut, violent-tempered Stanley Kowalski, and he seems to take an instant dislike to his sister-in-law to the point that he sets out to uncover what he believes are a series of lies that she has told to explain her situation. He even sabotages her budding relationship with a friend of his, though that isn't even close to being the worst thing he'll do to her in the course of the film.
It doesn't sound like such a plot would provide much heft, yet the film works well on a number of levels. Key amongst these is the fact that A Streetcar Named Desire is a dynamic character study focusing on two individuals who exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. Blanche, with all her glittery refinement, fading beauty and recent fall from high society to madness and disgrace, mirrors the decline and change that was occurring in the deep South during Williams' lifetime. Stanley, who is deeply sexual, unrefined, brutish and dominating, can be seen as the new immigrant class that was coming to dominate America. Whereas Blanche prefers illusion and idealism (she even covers the lamp in the living room so as to disguise her appearance), Stanley is all truth and realism, even though that truth might be something ugly and difficult to face.
The reason these themes come through so clearly is due to the vibrant performances. Marlon Brando (Stanley), Kim Hunter (Stella) and Karl Malden (Mitch) had all starred in the original Broadway production, while Vivien Leigh (Blanche) was featured in the London West End production. Thus, each of the actors was intimately familiar with their respective characters. Leigh, Hunter and Malden would go on to win Academy Awards (Brando would be nominated, but lose to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, a movie we'll talk about on a future date). The accolades are deserved, too, because each of the performers embodies his or her role in an impressive fashion.
Looking at the supporting actors first, Hunter has a really tough task in making Stella sympathetic, but pulls it off. Stella is really quite ordinary, and her relationship with Stanley is explosive and turbulent. They damage each other constantly, but the viewer gets the sense that this is a cycle they choose to continue because they feed on the passion it somehow creates. It's disturbing to watch Stella go back to a man willing to commit violence (particularly as she's pregnant and vulnerable), yet her comments and glances make it clear that she's drawn to his rawness and coarse nature. Early in the movie, she comments proudly that he's "making all the rhubarb" as he fights in a bowling alley. With no real indication other than Hunter's performance, we get the feeling that Stella was fed up with the dandies who inhabited the area of her family's plantation, and that she almost can't believe that a man like Stanley could fall for someone like her.
Malden has a smaller role to play as Harold "Mitch" Mitchell, Stanley's friend and Blanche's sort-of love interest. In many movies, Mitch would be the chivalrous character who would come to sweep Blanche off her feet and take her away from all her trouble and pain. Though he does try to woo her, her inability to accept reality makes any relationship between them impracticable. Mitch is an impossibly nice man with very little courage or confidence, and both Stanley and Blanche exploit him to their advantage. It's easy for the audience to like Mitch for his affable nature, but we also feel a little repelled by him for his weaknesses. This is a tough type of role to pull off, but Malden is more than up to the task.
The film absolutely hinges on the performances of Brando and Leigh, though, and both are tours de force. Only 24 when he originated the role of Stanley Kowalski in the theater, Brando is a smoldering presence in A Streetcar Named Desire. His handsome appearance and devil-may-care attitude draw the viewer in, but we're soon repelled by his crudeness and violence. In this sense, we're mirroring Stella's reaction to him: Although he's crass and cruel, there's a quality about Stanley that fascinates us. As Stella says about his bad behavior, "I was sort of thrilled by it."
Vivan Leigh was chosen to portray Blanche in the film rather than Jessica Tandy, who had the role in the Broadway production, at the behest of the producers. They felt that Leigh brought more cachet to the role thanks to the widely popular Gone With the Wind. It's fascinating to watch her portrayal of Blanche in light of the fact that she had previously played the Southern belle Scarlet O'Hara, as we once again have that juxtaposition of the old-time, genteel South versus that loss of innocence and prominence that Blanche represents. I don't mean to say that she plays her like Scarlet at all, but it's almost impossible to watch the Blanche performance without referring back to Gone With the Wind. She walks a very fine line, as she has to show us who Blanche is without having a great deal of dialogue to reveal the woman's true nature. It's all in the undertone, and we can sense that Blanche has dark secrets that she wishes to keep hidden, and that madness is simmering somewhere underneath. It's somewhat painful to watch, given the knowledge that Leigh truly did suffer from bipolar disorder and was affected deeply by her work on this film.
Because Blanche must be so dramatic, there are some who might complain that A Streetcar Named Desire is overwrought. It is, but like with Douglas Sirk's films, there's a point to the melodrama, as there is much more bubbling under the surface than meets the eye. In fact, I'm a little surprised that Streetcar was so well received when Sirk's pictures were critically reviled in the same era. Perhaps there was just a presumption that a movie based on a Tennessee Williams play would have deeper, more significant themes.
It's this depiction of an evolving South (and America) that makes A Streetcar Named Desire such an important film historically. It unabashedly takes on issues like abuse, rape, sexuality and madness head on, which is fairly shocking considering it was released in 1951. For anyone who believes that those were simpler and sunnier times, it only takes a couple of hours watching this film to realize that more than half a century later, we aren't that enlightened. It still feels timely more than 50 years after its release, and clearly has a justifiable place on the AFI list. It's not necessarily one of those movies you may want to watch over and over again – it's just too painful – but the questions and ideas it presents are worthy of consideration.
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