There is essentially a quartet of characters in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire that require our sympathy and hatred in some way. Each one of them is a heavily flawed individual who possesses some sort of redeeming quality. They are played superbly by their respective actors, but out of the four, only Marlon Brando strikes a chord with me. And the movie’s not even about him.
His character, Stanley Kowalski, is a sexy, sexually-charged, rugged hunk, who doesn’t like to be taken for a fool. He’s also a drunkard, a wife abuser, and a rapist. It’s not easy to combine all these traits into one tightly knit performance; Brando executes with the precision of a marksman and the tenacity of a rabid dog, yet he somehow manages to maintain an air of elegance about him. It’s this juxtaposition that makes him mesmerizing on screen.
Consider the way he moves about his apartment. At once you can tell that the apartment is his, and that he owns everything in it, including his wife, Stella (Kim Hunter). She is another member of the quartet, pregnant, and totally submissive to Stanley’s abusive ways. That’s her flaw. It is unclear whether she has Battered Wife Syndrome or if she simply finds her husband’s aggressive behaviour arousing. Her redeeming factor is that she cares whole-heartedly for her sister, Blanche (Vivien Leigh), who is probably the most flawed character of the lot.
Blanche arrives on the scene carrying a tonne of luggage, and the luggage is symbolic of the emotional and psychological baggage she brings with her. She is a broken woman, betrayed, cast out, beyond hope, but she still keeps her looks and maintains her facade. She invites herself to stay at Stanley’s and Stella’s apartment, and almost immediately, the hair on the back of Stanley’s neck stands on end. He is suspicious of the baggage that Blanche brings, and what this baggage may do to his household, and to his marriage.
Vivien Leigh plays Blanche well, embodying both sides of a would-be schizophrenic. We don’t know if we should be hating her or sympathising with her, suspecting her or rooting for her. She’s a woman of secrets, and even though we don’t like secrets, we have a need to find out what they are. And so we find Blanche engaging, because we need to know what she’s hiding (naturally, I shouldn’t divulge this information). But as good as Leigh is, she is heavily overshadowed by Brando, who drives the narrative forward with every line of dialogue he delivers. His now famous yell — “Stella! Hey, Stella!” — is memorable not because of how the words fit into the situation, but because of how Brando says them.
The movie is directed by Elia Kazan, who also directed the Broadway play off which it is based. What Kazan does with the film adaptation is simple: he directs it as he would the stage version. Sets and props are arranged to resemble their positions on stage, and even the way the characters place themselves in relation to one another works better within the two-dimensional space of theatre, as opposed to the three-dimensional space of film. Scenes take place in fragments, and more often than not, we can see characters enter and leave the frame, whether it’s through the door, out the window, or disappearing behind the compound wall.
But the heart of the story lies in the performance of its actors. It’s a character-driven story, and so it seems only fitting that all the main roles are filled by the same people who played them on stage. Brando, Hunter, Leigh, and Karl Malden (who plays Blanche’s suitor, Mitch) know their characters backwards, and it shows. They are effortless in their delivery, masterful in their acting, and powerful in their impact. It’s almost as if this world of Louisiana has been molded around the impenetrable bond that the quartet has forged. The backdrop works to enhance their struggles, not to beautify them.
Brando didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor (that privilege went to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen), but Leigh won for Best Actress. While it’s tough to comment on who should’ve won what, Leigh’s performance ultimately left me at a fork in the road, and instead of choosing a path to follow, I chose to stay put and not move. Brando, on the other hand, tied a rope around my waist and energetically pulled me along to wherever he went. And I didn’t struggle.
Best Moment | Stanley confronts Blanche about her past, hoping to make her confess to everything. He pins her down onto the bed and torments her. Great stuff.
Worst Moment | Nope.