Saturday, January 1, 2011

1951 - A Streetcar Named Desire

Happy New Year! I write this from sunny and warm Sydney, Australia. Despite the sweat glistening on my forehead, I am more than pleased to experience these hot climes because it means I have avoided the recent blizzardy conditions of New York. To ring in the new year, last night Kat and I first caught up with some friends to enjoy the early evening fireworks over beautiful Sydney Harbour with our view from a park in Lavender Bay (pictured - just imagine fireworks). We then made our way back to my parents' place to watch the midnight fireworks from an equally stunning viewpoint on their balcony.

Earlier in the week, I watched my last film of 2010, another film classic from 1951's list of Best Picture nominees...

A Streetcar Named Desire
Elia Kazan
Tennesse Williams and Oscar Saul
(based on Williams' play)
Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
4 wins, including Best Actress (Leigh)

Blanche DuBois (Leigh) arrives in New Orleans and hops aboard a streetcar named Desire, making her way to the French Quarter to visit her sister Stella (Hunter). Stella's macho husband, Stanley Kowalski (Brando), immediately takes a disliking to Blanche's snobbishness and accuses her of secretly selling the family home and keeping the money for herself. When Stanley's poker buddy Mitch (Malden) shows interest in Blanche, Stanley digs around in her past to uncover all sorts of nasty secrets, creating tension between ... well, everybody.

I have a confession to make. Despite being an actor and a film buff, I had never seen this (or any other) adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Even more embarrassingly, I have not seen or read the play on which it is based. I was aware, of course, of Blanche's famous last words, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," and of the iconic image of Stanley outside screaming, "Stella!" but somehow, I was almost completely oblivious to the plot ... which turns out to have been a bit of a hindrance.

As I've discovered over the course of this project, many films of this era find creative solutions to the restrictive censorship rules to which they were forced to adhere. However, in this instance, it seems some of the censoring occurred after the film was shot and without director Elia Kazan's approval. Consequently, there are a few relatively crucial plot points that remain slightly elusive. After I viewed the film, I read a synopsis online and was somewhat astonished to discover that Blanche had previously engaged in prostitution and that her suicidal husband was gay. To top it all off, the climactic fight scene between Stanley and Blanche turns out to have been a precursor to a rape. Mind you, everything made a lot more sense with that knowledge. I only wish that I had discerned that information while I was watching. (I suppose I should acknowledge, though, that my failure to correctly comprehend these events may also be due to the lack of focus brought on by my jet-lag.)

Unfortunate censorship notwithstanding, the picture boasts a captivating atmosphere. The story takes place during a hot Southern summer and the heat permeates the screen, both literal heat and metaphorical heat. The characters sweat from the high temperatures and also from their sexual desires, simultaneously represented by many a torn undershirt (pictured). Amplifying the heat is the sultry and steamy score. If it is at all possible for music to feel hot, composer Alex North succeeds admirably.

The first film to win three acting Oscars, A Streetcar Named Desire's performances are arguably its most striking feature. Vivien Leigh's portrayal of the pretentious Blanche DuBois at first seems merely to be a reprisal of her other Oscar-winning prissy Southern belle role, but develops into several truly touching moments. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden both won supporting role Oscars for their superbly compelling characterisations. In my humble opinion, however, it is the only non-winner in the cast who gave the standout performance. Marlon Brando's naturalistic approach to his portrayal of the intensely passionate Stanley Kowalski is a seminal example of method acting, a technique that was probably not well understood or accepted yet by the old guard of the Academy. Instead, they gave the Best Actor award to an overdue Humphrey Bogart. Nonetheless, Brando (along with fellow nominee Montgomery Clift of A Place in the Sun) delivered a performance that was influential in shaping the future of screen acting.

1 comment:

  1. Happy New Year, Matt. I must admit that I have never been drawn to Tennessee Williams screen adaptations, with their fragile delusional southern women, and have never seen A Streetcar Named Desire until in its entirety until now. Yes, it is over-theatrical and over-wrought and to put it oxymoronically, artificially naturalistic. It is also filled with poignancy, passion and amazing energy. It was luminous.I could smell the pungent perfume and sweat.

    It is true that Marlon Brando's performance changed the face of acting in the movies. It's a smoldering, inarticulate sexual performance. Yet, it is Vivien Leigh's show all the way. This diminutive, frail British actress gives a performance that stands along side of her Scarlet O'Hara and Meryl Streep's Sophie at the pinnacle of Best Actress Oscar Winners, in my opinion. Her ramblings aren't the easiest dialogue to get through, but that's just Williams style. I guess I'm more of a Hammett/Chandler guy myself.

    Elia Kazan, who directed this on Broadway, demonstrates why he is perhaps the finest director of actors ever. This is a strong contender for the best of 1951