A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – Stage to screen adaptations can be tricky. Enough of them are great that there’s no cause to automatically be skeptical going into one, but there are also more than a few that hit the mark. When you factor in the fact that Tennessee Williams often wrote about homosexuality and rape and neither were considered acceptable subjects for films under the Hays Code, it’s a wonder that some of his plays turned into classic movies. Enter everyone’s favorite HUAC-cooperating film-maker, Elia Kazan. Kazan was an actor’s director and is the main reason Marlon Brando became a star (having directed both this film and On the Waterfront). So does the raw power of Tennessee Williams’s play make it to the big screen, even within the parameters of self-censorship the studios imposed upon themselves in the 1950s?

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) is a Southern belle who has fallen on hard times. Her husband committed suicide some years past (in the play due to her discovery of his homosexuality… such revelations are left out of the film) and she has recently lost the family estate of Belle Rive. She goes to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans. She frequently runs afoul of Stella’s brutish husband Stanley (Brando). He berates her for her self-proclaimed sophistication. He is verbally abusive to her and it isn’t long before the film shows that not all his abuse is confined to the verbal. Blanche does meet one nice man, Stanley’s Army buddy and co-worker Mitch (Karl Malden). Stanley does not approve. Given Tennesse Williams reputation, you can image that a happy ending does not follow…

So Marlon Brando used to be handsome? I mean I knew he wasn’t always fat, but I never knew he was outright handsome. That just makes the whole beached whale thing he had going on in later years all the sadder. Oh well. Brando is just sort of unbridled testosterone in this film. He’s a horrible person but he has a kind of animal magnetism. This is one of only two films (the other being Network, one of my all-time favorites) that one three out of four of the acting Oscars (for Leigh, Hunter, and Malden). Oddly Brando, the most iconic of the four, lost… but he lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen who was pretty damn great himself. Kazan made a film that is intense, even within the content limitations. How I would have killed to have been able to see the Broadway production that featured most of the same cast as the film (only with Jessica Tandy as Blanche), but until they invent a theatre nerd time machine I’m out of luck on that front. In the meantime, this good movie will have to do.

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