AFInity: A Streetcar Named Desire
By Kim Hollis
July 17, 2009
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.