Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Sex, sin and Southern Belles collide in New Orleans as Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando clash in a twisted tale based on a Tennessee Williams' play.

Vivian Leigh plays Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern Belle who has moved to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her brutish husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). Unfortunately for Blanche, she's a little bit off-kilter and the film basically chronicles her her tragic downward spiral, which includes her new beau Mitch (Karl Malden).

The film itself is light on plot, but that's only because it serves as an amazing showcase for some absolutely fantastic performances from all 4 main actors.

Let's start with Vivian Leigh who delivers one of my absolute favorite performances ever (And it won her a second Oscar). Blanche is almost like a fallen Scarlett O'Hara, only crazier. She makes a big show of being a "lady" and being better than the squalor that her sister and brother-in-law live in, when in fact she has far worse demons in her past, but she makes you feel so sorry for her character, watching the world she has constructed for herself tumbling around her. It's almost like a performance in a performance, with the "Well, I do declare" Blanche taking control most of the time, only for cracks to appear and widen, exposing the troubled and unstable woman beneath.

Marlon Brando plays Stanley almost as if he were a cross between a child and an animal. The famous "Stella!" scene almost feels like a child calling for its mother, and he's filled with childish spite towards Blanche, always getting angry with her for appearing to think she's better than he is. The rest of the time, he's almost like a gorilla, skulking around the house and oozing animal sexuality that Stella almost seems addicted to. It's a shockingly natural performance in a time where acting was still theatrical and mannered.

And with that, it's a good time to point out how interesting it his that Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando were paired in this film, since they are obviously from two different schools of acting, but it works brilliantly as both character represent two different eras. Blanche calls up the old fashioned gentility of the South whereas Stanley is the new-found worker of the era, a man who comes home and demands beer and sex from his wife. Both characters seem to be from completely different worlds, so their fireworks together spark and crackle.

Poor Kim Hunter has to serve as the mediator between the two (though she did win an Oscar so she's not that deserving of pity). It's a role that is much less showy than the two leads, but Hunter makes Stella an interesting character. She is torn between her crazed sister and her abusive husband who she seems to crave sexually, it's a dynamic that is not obvious, because Kim Hunter keeps it on the back burner, allowing the heavy flames to exist between Brando and Leigh.

Karl Malden (Who also won an Oscar) plays Mitch, the single, loser-ish friend of Stanely who becomes infatuated with Blanche, seeing her as a "real lady". His mother, who always hoped to see him settle down, is dying, and he sees Blanche as someone who could grant his mother's wish. Unfortunately for him, their romance is doomed from the start as Blanche begins to lose her grip on reality. Malden makes Mitch pitiable, and you ache for him when he discovers the kind of woman Blanche really is.

I know I haven't spokem much of the writing, plot of direction (though, I usually don't comment on those very much anyway), but in this film, there is a particular reason, it's almost an actor's showcase. It's 4 insanely talented individuals playing fully developed, well-written characters, and from someone who loves intimate films with a small number of characters, you can't get any better than that.

1 comment:

  1. Another great one from Elia Kazan, Brando is a force of nature in this. "Streetcar" is a true milestone in film history.