Let me take you back to the 24th Academy Awards (OSCARS) of 1951. A year when the film version of Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire found itself bagging twelve nominations. Making Oscar history in winning three prominent categories; Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. However, despite this success two awards evaded the films reach. With the young Marlon Brando loosing ‘Best Actor’ to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. While the films director Elia Kazan lost ‘Best Director’ to George Stevens for a A Place in the Sun. A loss he would eventually overcome in winning the honour with his second Brando picture On the Waterfront in 1954. Just as Brando would also take the Best Actor trophy for the same film.
However, in many ways 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. And 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 equally finding a new voice in our modern era.
After the loss of 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 mentally insecure and shaken.
As Stella makes her sister welcome in a home that sways from affection to sudden violence and aggression under Stanleys grip. Blanche finds her own delicate mental health and past scrutinised by Stanley. A man who not only controls the house, but also the destiny of those visiting.
Unlike the Williams play that premiered on December 3, 1947. Kazan’s film expands the narrative beyond the oppressive walls of the New Orleans apartment block. And while some may argue this stifles some of the claustrophobia inherent in the play. It also helps to strengthen the portrayal of each character. Emphasising the difference between their public and private faces. And it is within these nuanced performances that Streetcar continues to enthral new audiences.
Vivian Leigh’s OSCAR winning portrayal offers a complex portrait of a women slowly descending into darkness. Her life trapped in a vortex of pain, heartbreak and indiscretion. While her love of youth, and in particular young men is dovetailed with a fear of her own youth fading with age. Lee’s Blanche is both damaged yet tender, insecure yet accomplished at lying 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 sudden violence and intimidation.
And that brings us to Brando’s Stanley, a man who symbolises toxic masculinity. While equally carrying the insecurities born of a 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, one where Brando gave birth to method acting. Allowing a whole host of fellow actors from Montgomery Clift to James Dean to follow suit.
However, Brando’s brutal and animalistic performance is also balanced by his friend and co-worker Mitch (Karl Malden). A man who offers a different refection on masculinity. His interest in Blanche and desire to find love and affection more tender and accepting of difference. Yet equally controlled by the alpha male instincts of his friend.
Therefore, although A Streetcar Named Desire is often viewed as Leigh and Brando picture. The success of the film sits within its ensemble cast. With each performance layering the picture with a multitude of reflections on what it means to be a man or a woman. While equally playing with the interface between class, control, deceit and desire.
However, its is within the narrative constructs that led to the film proving so controversial on its release, that Streetcar still carries emotional and social weight. With its unflinching commentary on domestic violence, rape and mental health still managing to crawl under the skin of the viewer. While at its heart debates on toxic masculinity and the interface with poverty of opportunity, class and control still speak to modern society. Making A Streetcar Named Desire not only a stunning piece of cinematic history. But also, a reflection of the true horror and complexity of domestic control and abuse that sadly still feels relevant today.
Director: Elia Kazan