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Brando, Leigh and " A Streetcar Named Desire" by Jagannath Sriram

"A Streetcar Named Desire" is a 1951 film directed by Elia Kazan, adapted for from the “Pulitzer Priz”’ and play, beautifully by Tennessee Williams. Tennessee Williams also collaborated for the screenplay of the film. The genre of drama has never disappointed me and "A Streetcar Named Desire" is right at the top of my personal favourite.

Upon its release, the film drew very high praise. The New York Times said that "inner torments are seldom projected with such sensitivity and clarity on the screen" and commending both Vivien Leigh's and Marlon Brando's performances. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert called it a "great ensemble of the movies."

Last but not the least, the great American auteur in his 2020 autobiography “Apropos of Nothing”, showered lavish praise. Allen says,"The movie Streetcar is for me total artistic perfection... It’s the most perfect confluence of script, performance, and direction I’ve ever seen. The characters are so perfectly written, every nuance, every instinct, every line of dialogue is the best choice of all those available in the known universe. All the performances are sensational. Vivien Leigh is incomparable, more real and vivid than real people I know. And Marlon Brando was a living poem. He was an actor who came on the scene and changed the history of acting. The magic, the setting, New Orleans, the French Quarter, the rainy humid afternoons, the poker night. Artistic genius, no holds barred."

It's an amazing drama that is set in the city of New Orleans. The movie is predominantly shot in the house of Stanley Kowalski played flawlessly by Marlon Brando and Stella Kowalski played by Kim hunter. It feels very claustrophobic with all the conflict that happens in this small house.

The film is essentially about the conflict between the protagonist Blanche DuBois, which is played to perfection by Vivien Leigh. And the antagonist Stanley Kowalski. They are essentially two people who are on the opposite sides of the same spectrum. Blanche DuBois is the younger sister of Stella Kowalski, who has been brought up in a posh environment. She had it all growing up. It's very evident that she is from a privileged home from her dressing sense to the jewelry collection in her trunk which she claims is all she has. Even though she lost it all, she can't seem to let go of her luxury. On the other hand, Stanley comes from the rags. Even the house he lives in is not that big. It doesn't even have an extra room to put Blanche in. There's not even a door separating the living room from the bedroom only a curtain separates the two and thereby the space inhabited by the Kowlaskis and Blanche. Stanley must work very hard every day to put food on the table and he's content with that.

The conflict between the characters starts soon in the film. Stanley doesn't like Blanche living in his house which is very apparent from the first-ever conversation they have. The conflict strengthens once the trunk that belongs to Blanche arrives at the house. For a person who claims to have lost it all, Blanche sure does have many posh clothes and jewelry. Stanley right off the bat confronts Blanche and demands answers. Blanche claims to have lost the inheritance which she and Stella shared, to the debts of her predecessors. Stanley obviously doesn’t believe her.

Stanley is strong and macho. He is attractive but animalistic. Right from wearing torn T-shirts to treating the people around him badly, he does come off a ruffian. Brando known for his anti-hero trait, plays as one in "A Streetcar Named Desire". These are the formative years of Brando where he highlighted his command over the school of method acting and revolutionized the range of characters that can be played on screen in Hollywood. Up until Brando, all the heroes of Hollywood were always almost morally upright in the characters they. The only exception perhaps was the morally ambiguous characters of another great genre “film noir”. But the genre was fading by the fifties and Brando’s character in “A Streetcar Named Desire” is perhaps the missing link. The post-war anxieties mirrored diabolically in noir enters the space of familial and marital drama in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

Blanche describes Stanley as "simple, straightforward and honest" which is true. He is straightforward. He's not afraid to speak his truth. He is arrogant and short-tempered, but he loves his wife. The iconic scene where Brando in his torn T-shirt yells out "Stella! Hey, Stella!" stays with you so long after the movie is over.

Blanche DuBois on the other hand is unthinkable without Vivian Leigh. She plays this morally flawed person to perfection. Even though Jessica Tandy played the role of Blanche in the stage play, Vivian was roped in to play it for the big screen because she had a better box office pull. Leigh is so much more than that. Blanche is a very complex character. She starts off in the movie as this lady who's new to town, nervous, and lost. The only person she knows in town is her sister. Blanche is insecure about her looks and constantly fishing for compliments to boost her self-esteem. She's haunted by her past mistakes which keep playing inside her all the time.

As much as the conflict between Blanche and Stanley moves the film forward, the character arc of Blanche has an equal role to play in making the drama so engrossing. There is this beautiful monologue delivered by Blanche near the middle of the movie. Blanche tries to accept her past mistakes and wants to move forward. She feels guilty for pushing her husband to commit suicide. She says " He'd stuck a revolver in his mouth and fired. It was because, on the dance floor unable to stop myself, I'd said: 'You're weak. I've lost respect for you, I despise you. And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again. And never for one moment since has there been any light stronger than, than this yellow lantern (she points to a yellow lantern)". It's very clear that she's still suffering from the guilt and would do anything to get over it. She even falls in love with Mitchell a close friend of Stanley. Mitchell proposes to Blanche, and they get engaged. But her past mistakes come in between their engagement.

Shortly before Blanche arrives in New Orleans. She had been asked to leave her job as an English teacher from the school she was working in Auriol. She had an affair with one of the students and it was not the first time. We do get a glimpse of her past when a young man knocks on their door while she's alone at the house. She's not equipped to help the boy, but she doesn't want him to leave either. She asks him for the time and delays his departure. Then she slowly talks to him to seduce him which works fabulously. Right when she has him to herself, she kisses him and then asks him to leave immediately. It's a character growth on her part. In the past, she wouldn't have asked him to leave. The seduction of young boys stems from the fact that she's insecure about her age. All through the movie, she doesn't reveal her age. She wants to look and feel young, and she thinks being with boys much younger than her is the right way to go.

Blanche always stays in the dark. She doesn't go out in the day and has these paper lanterns for the bulbs around the house to dim their glow. She doesn't want anyone to see how she really looks which might give away her real age. It's Stanley who goes behind her back and gets to know her past. In a confrontation scene between Mitchell and Blanche, Mitch calls her out on her always being in the dark and literally forces her to come to stand in the light. As she comes to the light, she also comes out about her past. As she feared he tries to force himself on her and tries to hurt her. He only leaves when she yells hysterically.

Blanche navigates through her life with her sexuality. She starts the conversations with men by flirting with them. The sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche is an important part of the story. Blanche talks a lot. But when she meets Stanley for the first time she can barely talk. She's smitten by his looks and his macho attitude. Then after the confrontation about the inheritance in the next scene. She convinces Stanley by flirting with him. She asks him to help her with buttons in the back of her dress. She even tells her sister Stella " I laughed and treated it all as a joke. I laughed and called him a little boy and flirted. I was flirting with your husband, Stella". But this sexual tension leads to chaos rather than happiness.

In the end, what seems like an amazing end of Blanche's character arc turns out to be her going mad. She is left alone with Stanley when Stella is admitted to the hospital to deliver her baby. She talks to him about the men in her life. How they've always treated her badly. How she's finally letting them go. For good this time. She says that she's got a telegram from a friend and is going on a cruise. But it's just in her imagination. She says Mitch came and apologized to her for behaving like that, but that's in her imagination too. Stanley confronts her about this.

When she tries to leave the house, Stanley refuses to let her go. He now has a chance to win the war between him and her and he's not going to miss his chance. He takes full advantage of his sister-in-law. The true animal in him shows right there. He rapes her. From the beginning of the movie, Stanley is very open about not wanting Blanche in his house. But he had two chances to get her out of the house. One was getting her married to Mitchell. And the other one was letting her go when she tried to leave the house after Mitchell's unwanted advances on her. But Stanley doesn't pick either of those choices. He wants to dominate and degrade Blanche and he uses this perfect chance of being alone with her to do that. Blanche threatens his sense of superiority and male ego, by violating her he tries to regain it. And it's a perfect crime, there are no witnesses to his actions. It's his word against hers, the person who's gone insane. Stella commits her sister to an institution. Stanley has not only driven Blanche away, but he has also driven her insane. The movie ends with yet another iconic scene where Blanche tells "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers". The line works so well because she's always relied on strangers to make her happy. First with the series of flings with strangers to forget the past. Then getting engaged with Mitchell who's basically a stranger. The one time she relied on someone she knew, her sister and her brother-in-law. It paved the way for her insanity.

A Streetcar named desire starts with Blanche coming into her sister's house and ends with her leaving the house. The realism in the story and the acting are what makes the movie a masterpiece that it is.

Jagannat Sriram is an engineer pursuing his MBA and is a cinephile.

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Sivasakti Kumaran
Sivasakti Kumaran
Aug 09, 2021


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