Let me take you back to the 24th Academy Awards of 1951. Here, the film version of Tennessee Williams stunning play A Streetcar Named Desire found itself with twelve nominations—winning in three major categories; Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. However, despite this success, two awards evaded its reach; Best Actor for Marlon Brando, losing out to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, and best director for Elia Kazan. However, despite its loss in these two categories, A Streetcar Named Desire remains more relevant to modern audiences than any other film nominated in 1951. Its themes of domestic violence, mental health and patriarchy still touching a communal nerve in 2020.
Now gloriously restored, A Streetcar Named Desire finds itself back on the big screen courtesy of the BFI. Its power and impact once again enthralling cinema audiences. But Tennessee Williams extraordinary play also finds a new distinctive voice as it re-enters our cinemas. One born, not only from Leigh, Hunter and Brando’s exquisite and timeless performances but social themes that still crawl under our skin today.
After losing her family home in Mississippi to creditors, Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh) travels from the small town of Auriol to the French Quarter of New Orleans. Her life stored in a trunk of ageing clothes and costume jewellery, her destination the working-class home of her younger sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), and brother-in-law, Stanley (Marlon Brando). However, Blanche not only carries a trunk full of possessions, but also a secret fall from grace that has left her insecure and shaken. And as Stella makes her sister welcome, Blanche finds her delicate mental health and past scrutinised by Stanley. His life with Stella rocking wildly from affection to sudden violence and aggression as he controls the home’s mood and the destiny of those visiting.
Unlike the Williams play that premiered on December 3, 1947, Kazan’s film expands the world of Stella, Stanley, and Blanche beyond their New Orleans apartment block’s oppressive walls. His movie full of the sweat, heat and raw energy of New Orleans working-class districts. And while the film’s ending was altered slightly from the play to appease censors, Kazan maintains the play’s claustrophobia. Each scene embodying the difference between the public and private faces of our characters in a community where closed doors hide real-life trauma.
In Blanche, Vivian Leigh’s OSCAR winning portrayal offers a complex portrait of a woman slowly descending into darkness. Her life trapped in a vortex of pain, heartbreak and indiscretion. At the same time, her love of youth is dovetailed with the fear of growing old alone. Blanche is damaged yet tender, insecure yet accomplished and knowing yet frail. Meanwhile, her younger sister Stella, played beautifully by Kim Hunter, is strong and resilient as an expectant mother but equally blind to the control her husband wields. Her love and affection caught between a husband who alternates between a boyish need for attention and controlling intimidation.
Vivian Lee and Marlon Brando star in A Streetcar Named Desire 1951 ©️Warner Brothers
And that brings us to Brando’s Stanley, a man who symbolises toxic masculinity. While equally carrying the insecurities born of poor education and limited opportunity. Brando’s nuanced performance plays with the interface between his boyish good looks and a dark emotional rage, born of class consciousness and blame. While equally ensuring Stanley carries an almost animalistic charm and danger. His torn t-shirts, sweat-soaked clothes and childish yet cutting dialogue combining with the hormonal energy of a dog on heat. This multi-layered approach to performance marked a transition in Hollywood, with Brando further building the method acting approach alongside Montgomery Clift to James Dean.
But, the sparks truly fly when Stanley and Blanche enter a tit for tat war of culture, control and sex. A war in which only one person can claim victory at the expense of the other. Here, Brando and Leigh’s on-screen chemistry is full of danger, simmering sexuality and raw emotion. Their scenes together, as hot as the sun beating down on their New Orleans apartment, Tennessee Williams sublime psycho-social drama given space and time to grow. Each scene and each performance layered with profound reflections on gender, class, control, deceit, and desire.
However, far from being a mere Hollywood classic, Tennessee Williams’s play on-screen still carries a raw emotion and social weight. With its unflinching commentary on domestic violence, rape and mental health crawling under the viewer’s skin. Its discussion on poverty, class, control and power continuing to speak to our modern social struggles and debates. In turn, ensuring A Streetcar Named Desire continues to reflect the horror and complexity of domestic abuse and control, a horror sadly still relevant today.
Director: Elia Kazan