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A Streetcar Named Desire (12A)
8th March 2020 4:30 pm
Elia Kazan’s legendary adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play is famed for the brute and unruly power of Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski.
In the sticky heat of New Orleans’ French Quarter, Blanche DuBois, (Vivien Leigh) a fading small-town beauty arrives to stay with her sister Stella and explosive brother-in-law Stanley. Originally hailed as immoral, decadent, vulgar and sinful, its sexual explicitness was cut and sanitised for ’50s sensibilities until the 1990s. Kazan and Brando nurtured a tough and emotional vein of male introspection, soon labelled the ‘Method’, which influenced American cinema significantly over the coming decades.
Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
US, 1951, 2 hours 7 minutes
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Can anything be more perfect than Tennessee Williams masterpiece?
I doubt it. And at Malvern the cinema is warm, the armchair seats are deep and restful,
your paper cup of tea is at your fingertips, and you have Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois, Marlon Brando in his
young glory days as the Pole, Stanley Kowalski,Kim Stanley as Blanche's sister Stella, and many more actors (who later became stars in their own right)
in this glorious movie, which is the most searing picture of the collapse of a beautiful woman into mental
failure that you are likely to see this side of Paradise.
When I interviewed Tennessee Williams on one of his visits to Britain ( in this case ostensibly to oversee a production of his play "Vieux Carre", in Nottingham
"but really to kiss the doorstep of D.H. Lawrence " he said) I asked him about his heroines in 'Streetcar', "Summer and Smoke" or "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof"..
"They're all me," he replied during the hours I spent with him in a Nottingham Hotell, " all of them---any author is the same, Dickens, Thomas Hardy, all of them
you create a woman to fit in with whatever you are writing."
We left part of the conversation on the simmer, as Williams realised he had no "downers" with him, nothing to suppress his general sense of panic, something which
gave him the violent downs and rapturous ups of any given day. We called room service. The hotel doctor arrived but firmly refused to prescribe anti-depressants, Williams
flew into a Hollywood rage. Totally unmoved, the doctor suggested half a bottle of Scotch.
"I'm meeting 20 journalists in one hour from now" yelled Williams, "they're expecting to see a whey-faced old faggot-- I drink a load of Scotch and I'm gonna look healthy--it's gonna ruin my decadent image---- and where are my pants!!!??
"They're being refreshed now Mr Willimas," said a terrified room service and fled. Williams stalked around the room shouting and bellowin,g in nothing but his very brief
shorts. Order was finally restored. He spent the rest of the interview giving me valuable tips on how to write plays,before going down to the ballroom, where he gave the journos the image they wanted. The untouched bottle of Scotch lay in the waste bin.
So Blanche Dubois in this incandescent film, which burns itself into your mind, was Williams himself. As a gay man Williams was bringing into play emotions, relationships with male lovers , and the successes and physical rejections which that implies for anyone in a simillar situation."Gay - non-gay, they all just folk" he said.
Much more is made sharply explicit in Margaret Bradham Thornton's excellent book "Tennessee William's Notebooks". where you get the monumental mental workings of an American literary genius.
Thus Blanche has a dark side to her nature which is in stark contrast to her Southern belle persona and which is already bringing into play
her violent side, (at one moment she fights with Stanley using a broken whiskey bottle to 'glass' his face).Later she accuses him of rape. Something that is totally believable in a love/hate relationship which excites both parties.
Violence opposes Blanche's preferred image of the shy, socially diffident English teacher with a Southern gentlewoman's upbringing in a dilapidated Southern mansion called Belle Rive. . But as a good playwright. Williams in thise violent scenes raises the emotional levels, thus revealing as true the rumours of Blanche's seamy past that Stanley has unearthed from friends ( poignant memories here of Leigh, as a younger version of Blanche, playing Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind").
But Blanche, penniless and without a future, is here in a muggy, sweaty New Orleans because she has been hauled up before the education authorities over an affair with a 17 year-old. boy .She has been sacked. She has also been refused access to the Hotel Flamingo and rooms rented there, because of the many "gentlemen callers" who passed through. So, Belle Rive has been sold off to pay Blanche's debts. But the money has gone. Where to Blanche demands Stanley?
Stella refuses to believe her fastidious sister capable of whoring and protects Blanche but her continual put-downs get under Stanley's skin.
Stanley's revenge at Blanche's dismissal of him as a thick" Polack" capable only of a coke and a card game, lies in his rape of Blanche. The final scene in the film as Blanche loses the game and her mind with it, are still deeply disturbing even after half a century.
. A doctor and nurse arrive from the mental home and Blanche, to evade them, crashes around the cheap apartment like a frenzied moth.
The nurse is pitiless, but the doctor courteously raises Blanche to her feet, after she crashes screaming to the floor.
She, in her broken mind, thinks the doctor is Shep Huntley a millionaire friend from her past, and finally leaves calmly on his arm for what is actually an asylum for the insane.
As she leaves the flat, where an indifferent Stanley is playing a racketing card game, and booziing meanwhile with equally rackety mates, Blanche believes fhe car outside is for Shep's yacht .and the Caribbean.
For her exit, Williams has given Blanche the immortal line: "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers." Outside in the damp twilight an old flowerseller cries: "Flores para los muertos" flowers for the dead.......it is one of cinema's most memorable sequences.
At the end of the film, a young man next to me sat in silence his face wet with tears. Such is the power of fine acting.
My son Ben, a young theatre man with a fine degree in theatre arts to his name, has always confided in me that one day he intends to play Stanley.
I have long thought that his experience of this remarkable film lies behind that commendable ambition