Saturday, January 1, 2011
1951 - A Streetcar Named Desire
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
Tennesse Williams and Oscar Saul
(based on Williams' play)
Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
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.)
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.