Tennessee Williams' Streetcar On Film
Tennessee Williams' 1947 play, "A Streetcar Named Desire" won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The 1951 film of "Streetcar" was almost as celebrated. Elia Kazan directed the Broadway production and the film. Three of the four principals, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, starred on Broadway and in the movie. Only Vivien Leigh, who replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois, did not act in the Broadway production; Leigh had performed Blanche on stage in London.
Williams' script, the acting, direction, cinematography, and music make "Streetcar" a moving, lasting film. The play tells the story of a fading Southern belle, Blanche DuBois, who is forced by circumstances to come stay with her sister Stella and her husband, Stanley Kowalski, in a shabby apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter. Stella has had a promiscuous sexual past after the death of her husband many years earlier. She flees her native town in search of one final chance at happiness. The play explores the tension between the romantic Blanche, and the crude, earthy, Stanley. The film builds in force as Stanley destroys Stella's dreams, in the form of a possible relationship with Stanley's friend Mitch, and Stella's sanity and liberty.
The film is best-known for Marlon Brando's performance as Stanley. Brando becomes the character in all his crudity while giving Stanley a vulnerable side as well. Although the performance defined his career, Brando did not win an Academy Award for his portrayal of Stanley in "Streetcar." Each of the other principals, Leigh (best actress), Hunter (best supporting actress) and Malden (best supporting actress) received Oscars. Leigh's performance as Blanche is highly charged and sexual in its own right. It almost matches rather than opposes Stanley's raw sensualy. Kim Hunter's portrayal of Stella shows her strong sexually-based attraction to Stanley. Malden's performance of Blanche's would-be suitor, the mama's boy Mitch, is a gem.
The scenes on the New Orleans streets in the French Quarter are highly effective in the film as was the lighting and the music. Before its release, "Streetcar" faced a battle with censors. Blanche's hysteria and nymphomania and the homosexuality of her young husband were toned down. The climactic rape scene was kept in while its portrayal was only suggested. The ending of Williams' play was changed to suggest that Stella was leaving her husband while in the play the family stays together as Stella tries to push from her mind Stanley's rape of her sister. With the changes, this film remains an excellent realization of Williams' play.
I have been revisiting Tennessee Williams after reading a new biography by John Lahr, "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh". (2014) Lahr's book offers many insights into both the play and the film of "Streetcar". I have seen the play on stage and read it several times over the years, but oddly this was my first time with the movie. I was glad for the opportunity to see it. Those with an interest in American theater or American movies will want to see this film of "A Streetcar Named Desire".