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