December 21, 2010

#47: A Streetcar Named Desire

Elia Kazan's triumphant film version of Tennessee William's Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire begins with that haunting jazz theme that has been in my head for years since I've seen it and only now do I realize that I didn't make it up like I'd thought. Turns out it's been there, accompanying my thoughts like Blanche DuBois in New Orleans after she leaves Belle Reve. That's a comfort.

Company: alone. Somehow it felt right to see this one alone. I've said that a lot lately, mostly because I haven't cajoled other viewers into joining me in my blogventures, but that wasn't really the whole point of the blog, and as 2010 draws to a close I'm glad it's enriched my life.

Cuisine: red wine.

Blanche DuBois (Oscar winner Vivien Leigh) appears out of smoke and boards the titular streetcar, unknowingly on a journey towards her own personal purgatory. She shows up at the doorstep of her "little sister," who is in fact older than her by less than a year. Stella (Oscar winner Kim Hunter) and her working class husband Stanley (Marlon Brando, the only major cast member not to win an Oscar) offer to put Blanche up for a while, after hearing her story that the family farm has been "lost" and that she's been given leave from her teaching position to come visit.

But all is not well in the state of Louisiana. It'd be one thing if she was just coming to visit, but Blanche is in no hurry to leave. She hurls quick insults at her sister and brother-in-law disguised as charm, her patter like a nervous songbird. Stella is used to this business, but she's a stranger to Stanley, who immediately distrusts her and digs into her past to find some answers.

We continually see our (anti-?) heroine in mirrors, as if to say there really are two Blanche DuBoises: the Southern belle leading an inexplicably glamorous lifestyle and the injured woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I don't know if it's dictated in the original play that she should sing "Paper Moon" as she gets ready one evening, but that song is perfect for Blanche: a dreamer's ode to love that's made of cardboard and muslin. As her visit to her sister's grows longer and longer, her facade begins to crack, much to the chagrin of Stella and the delight of Stanley.

Stanley and Stella's marriage is already a shaky one on account of Stanley's physical and emotional abuse, and adding the nut-burger sister into the tiny two-room apartment doesn't help. Stella does stand up for herself in the form of running upstairs to the safety of ... the upstairs apartment ... but Stanley is a charmer and wins her back every time he yells "STELLAAA!" Hunter plays Stella with a real backbone and plenty of grit, but the chemistry between her and Brando is so real that you understand why they end up back together time and time again, even if you yourself might not. But come on. You probably would.

Blanche finds some companionship in Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (Oscar winner Karl Malden), Stanley's dopey co-worker. His sick mother wants to see him settle down so he's on the marriage fast-track (wow, I've been watching too much of The Millionaire Matchmaker lately), and Blanche arrives just as the pressure's mounting. Their date is beautifully executed by both actors, who both long for each other but can't quite commit for their own respective reasons.

Here, and nearly everywhere in the film, Kazan keeps the camera close on his actors (in the apartment scenes it's nearly impossible to be too far from anyone, and in fact as the story goes on the apartment set actually got smaller to create a stronger sense of cabin fever among the characters). This not only reminds us that this is truly an actors' film, but even more amazingly it's essentially a quartet for Brando, Leigh, Hunter and Malden. Minor characters come and go but these four carry the entire melodrama on their shoulders. (Note: all but Leigh performed in the original Broadway production, and several minor characters are holdovers as well, which is nearly unheard of today. Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy to boost star power, but she had performed the role in London under the direction of her then-husband, Laurence Olivier.)

Awkward dinner party.

William's play didn't win the Pulitzer for its thematic brilliance but for its fascinating understanding of the characters and its beautiful dialogue (it brings to mind the wordplay in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- they sure don't write plays like they used to!) The scene that stuck out for me was the one in which Blanche, home alone, encounters a young man collecting for the Evening Star. Their quick scene packs so much emotional punch and then ends as suddenly as it began. Love it.

Get out of here quick, before I start screaming!

All four performances are of course legendary (this film was the first, and remains the only film besides Network, to win three acting Oscars, with Brando losing to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen -- and not to knock Bogart's sweet sea captain, but Brando's tortured torturer deserved it for this) but Vivien Leigh's central performance as the fading belle stands out for me. Just listen to her vocal work as her facade cracks near the end of the film, and the new register she suddenly brings to Blanche's desperate pleas for a way out of her fantasy. Perhaps because she was the outsider in rehearsals for the film, the only one who wasn't on Broadway with the rest -- supposedly Kazan thought that helped her performance, and you really have to agree. Now seeing this film again (I missed this summer's Guthrie staging) I appreciate even more how difficult a role Blanche is.

Another interesting talking point about the film is the wealth of changes made by the Hollywood moral code. References to Blanche's late husband's homosexuality are entirely omitted in favor of his being called "weak," but losing that crucial back story for Blanche does mar the audience's sympathy. Also, the ending is quite changed (won't say how, for spoilers' sake, but look it up on IMDb if you care or dare) as to punish the wrongdoers, whereas in the play the tragedy comes from the wrongdoer not being truly punished. This to me would be maybe the only reason to attempt a remake, to keep in the bleaker and truer ending. Otherwise, the film is nearly flawless. Don't you love it?

Don't know how many more of these I'll get through before the new year but I'm pretty happy with how far I've gotten in a year's time, even if I didn't make all 100 in a year. Speed isn't the point, I suppose. I'm also gearing up for my year-end film review, which is always fun to do.

Next up: the sweet Capra comedy of 1934, It Happened One Night.

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