A Streetcar Named Desire
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Tennesse Williams
Starring: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Madden
A Streetcar Named Desire served as a launching pad for the film career of Marlon Brando. Fittingly, it acts as the curtain raiser for The Lighthouse Cinema’s Brando season. Brando, now considered to be one of the best actors of all time, had originally starred in the Broadway play of Streetcar which was also directed by Elia Kazan working from the work of infamous playwright Tennesse Williams. First seen on Broadway, Brando created a stir with his method of acting which in retrospect we can now see was decades ahead of its time. A mumbling Brando had a natural presence on stage. His energy came from within and as a result he shunned the generic theatrical performances that audiences had witnessed and came to expect from actors up to that point.
His style of acting translated perfectly to screen. In Streetcar, Stanley Kowalski is not the protagonist, that role is taken up by Blanche DuBois, played by Vivien Leigh. Leigh was also a very capable actress who taught outside the box with her film roles in the 1950’s. Blanche is a romantic English teacher who has turned to alcoholism after a series of traumatic events in her life. Blanche endeavours to repress her trauma by transgressing sexually and in turn hides from this by slipping into fantasy; fabricating stories to save face. Stanley acts as Blanche’s antithesis. He is a real-world working class man. He sees straight through Blanche for who she really is. He acts as a catalyst for Blanche’s deteriorating mental health because of his cynical and brutish view on life.
Brando portrayal of Stanley is accentuated by contrasts; the calm and the destructive, the loud and the quiet, the submissive and the dominant, and the strong and the sorrowful. Brando manages to embody all these characteristics in Stanley, unleashing each with such officious subtlety. Brando’s presence on screen is engulfing, both spatially, as Brando is a big man, and metaphorically. Blanche’s facial expression on seeing him for the first time evokes this perfectly. In the tiny two-room apartment which the characters occupy for the majority of the narrative Brando portrays Stanley like a caged lion, a beautiful but deadly force. At first Brando dupes the audience into thinking Stanley is a working class hero, a righteous man who acts with disdain at the intrusion of an old-fashioned middle-class racist who looks down at him and calls him a ‘Polack’.
However, as the narrative progresses, Brando slowly shows us to the core of Stanley. Yes, working class hero he maybe but he is also an abusive, violently tempered, emotionally unbalanced misogynist. He flies off the handle and the most minuscule of acts that disrupt him, and turns to domestic violence after too much to drink. An act that is close to home to Brando himself, having been brought up by an alcoholic mother. Stanley says ‘Every man is a King, and I am a King here’ and he has no problem resorting to violence in order to maintain dominance.
Despite Stanley’s despicable attitude towards women, Brando still became a male sex symbol of the 1950’s, a clear indicator of his charisma and star power. Kazan recognised this immediately, filming him topless in earlier scenes in order to hook in female audiences. The female gaze is something to behold in 1950’s cinema. Nowadays comparable perhaps to the likes of Ryan Gosling, who has played equally violent roles, most recently in Drive (2011), The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) and Only God Forgives (2013), Gosling has continually been conveyed as a sexual object in the media and most overtly in romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). In the public domain the actors good looks overcomes their vicious deeds on screen.
A Streetcar Named Desire is now a classic of American cinema. The reason it stands out from its filmic terms is its sharp writing, controversial themes and Brando contrasting, larger than life, and quiet as a mouse performance. Streetcar proved to be a perfect vehicle for Brando’s stardom, and an apt allegory for his art and career; a destructive force hurtling downhill destroying everything people had come to know about acting in the past, changing it forever. A joy to watch retrospectively.
A Streetcar Named Desire is playing in The Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield
Friday 23rd August 22:05
Sun 25th August 15:30