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At the 24th Academy Awards in 1952, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams‘ A Streetcar Named Desire would walk away with three major awards, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. But three awards remained out of its reach, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, who lost to Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen), Best Director for Elia Kazan, who lost to George Stevens (A Place in the Sun) and Best Picture (An American in Paris). As with many runner-ups over the years, it now seems criminal that A Streetcar Named Desire was denied a full sweep, no matter how strong the competition.
As Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh) arrives in the French Quarter of New Orleans, she tells a stranger she is supposed to get the streetcar named ‘Desire’ – the one heading for the city’s Desire Street. After boarding ‘Desire’, she then changes to the streetcar ‘Cemeteries’ before finally alighting at ‘Elysian Fields,’ the home of her younger sister Stella and her husband, Stanley. From the outset, Williams and Kazan play with themes of paradise, desire and death and paint a vivid and detailed portrait of a woman caught between the three.
With a chest of fancy clothes and costume jewellery, the past is far deeper than the trunk at Blanche’s side. Why did she quit her schoolteacher’s job? What were those troubling rumours about her ‘entertaining’ habits? And why has she really fled? Blanche finds her past, place, and presence in the French Quarter scrutinised and challenged by Stanley (Brando), a man who oozes sex from every pore and controls the home with a volatile energy. It’s clear from the outset that Blanche is attracted to his brutish charm as she jossels with him at every opportunity. One could argue she even dates Stanley’s close friend to get closer to him. But Blanche is also petrified of her feelings and scared of her desires. Is it possible that Blanche is a female representation of the gay male experience in 50s America? After all, she is the subject of rumour, ostracism and a hidden desire that can’t be fed.
Stanley’s sexual allure is rooted in the fleeting years between the boyish good looks of teenhood and the chiselled perfection of a man’s twenties and early thirties when his allure and power are at their peak. His torn t-shirts, sweat-soaked clothes and childish yet cutting dialogue are rich with a dangerous and volatile sexual energy, as Blanche later discovers. From the moment they enter the frame, Brando and Leigh’s chemistry is a simmering pot waiting to boil over, their scenes together as hot as the sun beating down on their small New Orleans apartment. No matter how many times you watch Kazan’s adaptation, its sharp discussions on gender, sexuality, class, control, deceit, and desire offer something new, something you didn’t notice or appreciate on a prior viewing.
Maybe Blanche is Tennessee Williams? and Stanley is an amalgamation of all the men Williams desired but could never approach for risk of violence. Or maybe A Streetcar Named Desire is an unflinching commentary on domestic abuse, rape and mental health? One thing is for sure A Streetcar Named Desire crawls under the skin and leaves an eternal mark.
United States | 2hr 2min | 1951