Directed by Elia Kazan
A Streetcar Named Desire is the first collaboration between director Elia Kazan and star Marlon Brandon, a pairing which would prove fruitful and serve as a precursor to the collaboration between Kazan and James Dean.
Marlon Brando made this film revolutionary. It’s a melodrama to which he adds real weight and real depth to the character. Brando makes Stanley Kowalski a memorable, tortured, animalistic character. As Roger Ebert noted:
Before this role, there was usually a certain restraint in American movie performances. Actors would portray violent emotions, but you could always sense to some degree a certain modesty that prevented them from displaying their feelings in raw nakedness.
Brando held nothing back, and within a few years his was the style that dominated Hollywood movie acting. This movie led directly to work by Brando’s heirs such as Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn.
The closest example to a performer demonstrating such volatility at this time I can think of is Kirk Douglas, but even his characters seem to be limited by an unseen box. In many of the films at this time the characters only ever move in carefully choreographed fashion. They hit their marks, stand in the light, move as the camera moves and deliver their lines with the needed tone.
But with Brando, he dominates the small New Orleans apartment in which the majority of the film is set, and you get the sense that the frame can barely contain him. He’s not just filling out a written role, he’s creating it right there in front of us. The most famous moment, halfway through the film, comes when Brando screams “STELLA!” over and over again. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve certainly heard that line. It’s a scripted moment that hardly stands out, but the raw emotion Brando demonstrates is what makes it so memorable. It’s even brought up multiple times in 2017’s The Disaster Artist. Similarly, Kazan’s and Brandon’s On the Waterfront (1954) is famous for one of Brando’s tortured moments (“I could’ve been a contender”).
The Brando character is not unlike the one he plays in On the Waterfront or the James Dean character in East of Eden. On the surface they are very different people, but each of these films works to dig deep into the character, exposing them at their core. In each case they might as well be the same character, each with a moment to shine, so to speak, in which they suffer a loud, vocal breakdown.
Kazan’s characters, then, are tortured and barely able to hold it all together. They’re adults but barely so because there’s always something holding them back. If Kazan’s movies (or just the four that I have seen) show anything, it’s that getting older doesn’t mean you can adapt to every problem life throws at you. In many instances these characters are held back by something deep in their past.
Kazan himself was kind of a tortured guy. He received a lot of hate (and it seems like he deserved it) for selling out colleagues as communists to the HUAC, and On the Waterfront is a thinly veiled response to his critics for what he did. The character of Terry Malloy is Elia Kazan, but it’s fascinating to see just how familiar Malloy is to Stanley Kowalski and, later, Cal (James Dean in East of Eden). Kazan had a darkness that was ever present in his movies and his characters, and I suppose the only way to really show that onscreen is to unleash a performer like Marlon Brando.
This all being said, Brando is only the co-lead of the film, alongside Vivian Leigh as Kowalski’s sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois. Blanche is a southern belle, her high-class manners coming into immediate contrast with Stanley’s blunt machismo. It’s Blanche’s arrival, to live with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley, that uproots their lives. She’s leaving behind a mysterious, haunted past, and Stanley views her as the same threat she sees in him.
Early on it feels like Stanley and Blanche are battling for Stella’s soul. They constantly fight, and there are separate moments in which we’re convinced that Stella has sided with one or the other, at least until the end in which she seems to shun them both.
A Streetcar Named Desire doesn’t glorify either of the two leads. Brando dominates the film just by his sheer presence (and those skintight shirts, damn), but Blanche has an almost slimy cadence to everything she says, stepped in an accent we later learn is a put on. She’s something like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but she’s not quite the sinister wolf you might picture.
Blanche is some kind of danger, though mostly to herself. She’s like Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, a character slowly coming undone and a type of character that, at least in Woody Allen’s films, is a bit overused and pretty reductive.
Anyways, here it’s something else. I think we’re meant to Blanche at her word when we first meet her, if only because she’s Stanley’s polar opposite, and the film is all about that divide between them. So of course she must be who she says, but pretty soon that veneer falls away, and we’re left with a few juicy but haunting monologues in which Blanche confesses what society has deemed sinful about her.
In the end Blanche descends into a type of madness we’re led to believe has always had some kind of grip on her and which is brought upon by the stress of Stanley (who assaults her) and her sister not believing her about the assault. Stella reluctantly has her committed to an insane asylum, and in the arms of the people who take her away, Blanche says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Once gone, Stanley expects things to move on as ordinary, but Stella, with a newborn son, mutters that she will never go back inside to be with him.
This film really isn’t much more than any other melodrama, right? It’s a story that only works if you care about these three characters who are never all that likable in the first place. It’s only in Brando’s and Leigh’s tortured performances that we understand the depth of their pain. Their various monologues feel like the type of thing an actor would enjoy sinking their teeth into, but these moments don’t inspire our empathy as much as they trigger a certain amount of fear.
All I could think while watching this movie was how much I never wanted to be stuck in a situation like the one these characters find themselves in. There is something appealing about Brando’s raw masculinity, but he’s hardly put together. He’s a guy who lives to be young, and his life is effectively over once he turns a certain age and his looks start to go.
Blanche, of course, is barely holding it together, and her sister, Stella, is stuck in an abusive relationship with no clear way out. Beyond that, the film is set almost entirely inside the second floor apartment they share, and they might as well be living inside a space shuttle free floating around the earth. Their entire world exists in that apartment, and from the moment we see the place it’s clear there is not enough room for all three of them, barely enough for two.
Up Next: Sabrina (1954), The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), Punch-Drunk Love (2002)