IMDB #195 A Streetcar Named Desire

One of the many subcategories I could parse this countdown into would have to be "Movies I'm Familiar With Only Through 'The Simpsons.'" Though the classic example is how the episode "Rosebud" totally spoils Citizen Kane, "A Streetcar Named Marge" is a great one from the fourth season.

In fact I rewatched it after today's entry, 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire and so many jokes were that much funnier.

Also it's a classic of American film with some landmark performances and et cetera, et cetera.

The Key Players:

The stage play was written by playwright extraordinairre Tennessee Williams, who also co-wrote the screen adaptation. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for "Streetcar" and "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," as well as New York Drama Critics' Circle awards for "The Glass Menagerie" and "The Night Of The Iguana," all f which have been films at some point (Iguana in particular is a fun tour-de-force for Richard Burton).

Director Elia Kazan directed the original broadway production of "Streetcar," and brought most of the principal cast with him to the screen. He would win two Best Director Oscars, but most of his classic films tend to be remembered for their stars over their director: On The Waterfront (Brando), Splendor In The Grass (Beatty, Wood), East Of Eden (Dean).

If Humphrey Bogart is the archetypical movie star, then Marlon Brando is the archetypical actor- one of the earliest and foremost method actors, he embodied each role so much that you tended to forget his mumbling delivery. His career ran the gamut: early classics and multiple awards (On The Waterfront with Kazan, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar), mid-career masterpieces (The Gofather, Apocalypse Now), and old age flops amind incerasingly odd behavior (Free Money, The Island Of Dr. Moreau).

Vivien Leigh was an Englishwoman most famous for playing two American southern belles- here and in the seminal Gone With The Wind. She also had a long stage career, often in Shakespearian productions with then-husband Laurence Olivier. She was the only primary castmember not to star in the original broadway production, starring instead in the West End production in London.

Kim Hunter (whom we saw before but not really saw in Planet Of The Apes) and Karl Malden (Paton, How The West Was Won) round out our main cast.

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The Story:

Leigh plays fading southern belle Blanche Dubouis, who's made her way from Aurial, MS to New Orleans at the start of the action. Her younger sister Stella (Hunter) fled to The Big Easy ten years prior, leaving Blanche to care for the elders (who died) and the homestead (which she lost).

Her arrival and overly demure, unstable and self-deluding nature dramatically disturbs the balance of her sister's home. Stella's husband Stanley Kowalski (Brando) is a bowling-alley-brawling, ripped-shirt-sporting, hard-drinking animal of a man, and the demure, prevaricating Blanche immediately takes a dislike to him.

And vice-versa- Stanley goes on at length about the "Napoleonic Code" by which he's entitled to know more about the loss of his wife's family estate, and is irritated by Blanche's long baths and delicate sensibility.

Stella and Stanley's marriage proves to be a codependent, violent mess, as Blanche is shocked to witness Stanley beating his wife in a drunken rage, and then, weeping, yell in the street in a classic scene for her forgiveness- and it works!

Soon, a co-worker and old army pal of Stanley's named Mitch (Malden) becomes smitten with Blanche, but Stanley starts to hear rumors about her past that don't match up with anything she says.

The Artistry:

First off, can't say enough about Alex North's score, which creates motifs for each character and is jazzier and impressionistic in a neat way (without going over the cliff, Quincy Jones in In Cold Blood style). The score when Stella descends the staircase (right after the "STELLA!!" part) was probably my favorite bit.

Visually I liked the constant reminders of the summer heatwave, from Brando's constant flopsweat to the steam baths and cigarette smoke. A lot of atmosphere (figurative and literal) in this film.

But it's clearly all about the acting. Leigh and Brando in particular set the standards for two different types of scenery chewing: descending into "mahdness" and the child-like tantrum, respectively. Hunter and Malden do great with what they're given as well, but it's head-spinning hysteria and method-inspired yelling that still wins Oscars these days (Marion Cotillard and Sean "IS THAT MY DAUGHTA IN THERE?!?!" Penn are two good recent examples).

Many people make the astute observation that Blanche and Stanley represent clashing lifestyles in a changing south, but I'll admit that didn't occur to me while watching it, not from my context. But that's why the play is taught in schools, and the film is all the more a classic I'm sure.


Stanley finds out that Blanche mortgaged the family estate after her husband (a closeted homosexual) killed himself- we find out in her scenes with Mitch that she blames herself for this. She then conducted a series of affairs out of a hotel in Aurial that eventually banned her for scandalous behavior, driving her to her sister.

Stanley tells this to Mitch, who withdraws his offer to marry Blanche and makes a crude pass at her instead.

Stella goes off to give birth (she's been pregnant this whole time- did I not mention that?), and a drunk Stanley is left to celebrate the birth of his son with Blanche. In a fitful state of denial, she tells him that she's had a wire to join a rich gentleman on a cruise, but Stanley won't indulge her lies.

Her makes his own crude pass, and when rejected, attacks and rapes Blanche (cut off by a fade to black).

Later, we find Stella at home with her newborn, awkwardly tending to her sister, who's had a nervous breakdown. Stanley arranges for her to be commited, and everyone waits tensely for her to be picked up.

Stanley, looking around the room, claims he never touched her, but the suddenly noble again Mitch punches him in the face. Blanche seems to realize what's happening when the attendants from the home show up, but ultimately calms down and goes with them, uttering the signature line ""Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Personally, I've seen that line on several "Best Movie Quote" lists, and I had always sort of assumed it was at least a little positive, not the proud declaration of a character flaw by a thoroughly defeated fading archetype.

But hey, it's not entirely a downer, as Stella takes her baby and flees to the neighbors, vowing never to go back to Stanley. This coda was apparently insisted on by the Hollywood Production Code for moral reasons- the play ends with Stella gravely remaining by her husband.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I'd say it can remain where it is, for acting acumen and situational cultural relativism. I don't really need to see it again, as I didn't care in particular for the characters and I tend to avoid things relentlessly bleak, but I'm happy to finally put a few key scenes and lines in the right place.

Plus, and again, that one "Simpsons" is just so much better now, especially the big ending song about how "A stranger's just a friend you haven't met!" and the song that Apu sings as the newspaper boy.

The Legacy:

Of our two lead actors (Leigh, Brando) and two supporting actors (Hunter, Malden), all won Oscars except Brando (though if there were Oscars for letting muscles do half of the acting for you, he'd have been a shoe-in). It also picked up and Art Direction statue among 12 total nominations.

There's the usual AFI/NFR accolades, and though the play is technically what's been adapted for film and tv several more times, this film must be exhibit #1 in preparation, given that it's nearly all of the original Broadway personnel.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Marlon Brando: not a fan of shirts.

Leftover Thoughts:

-I wonder if Brando was cast as Stanley the same way Ned Flanders was: "Everyone audtioning for the role of Stanley, take off your shirts!"

-Didn't touch on the whole 'Desire' analogy, but it seemed pretty obvious. I think Williams just set the play there because of the streetcar line.

Coming Up...

194. King Kong (1933)

193. Rosemary's Baby

192. Dial 'M' For Murder

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