REVIEW: “A Streetcar Named Desire”

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Tennessee Williams first took Broadway by storm in 1947 with his Pulitzer Prize winning stage production “A Streetcar Named Desire”. His dark and dysfunctional story was ripe for a film version and it came in 1951. In order to recapture the success of the play, Warner Brothers brought over several key players from the stage show including Williams to help with the screenplay, the director Elia Kazan, and cast members including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. The one big change came in the lead role. Jessica Tandy starred in the Broadway show but the studio didn’t consider her a big enough name. Vivien Leigh, who had been working on the London stage version, was brought in to round out the cast.

Leigh plays a southern belle named Blanche DuBois from Auriol, Mississippi. She arrives in New Orleans’ French Quarter to visit her pregnant sister Stella (Hunter) and brother-in-law Stanley (Brando). Stella is happy to see her sister but begins noticing several peculiar things about her. Blanche clings to fantasies of past luxury and prosperity. She still sees herself as a beautiful woman of prominence and stature. But we quickly see it to be a facade that she mixes with heavy drinking in order to deal with deeper buried secrets.

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Stanley doesn’t like Blanche from the start and suspects her of holding out an inheritance from the sisters’ homeplace which was meant for both of them. He is brutish and his hot-temper often shows itself in fits of rage. His relationship with Stella is volatile and his physical and emotional abuse is startling. Stella just takes the treatment and keeps coming back to him which her sister doesn’t like. But Blanche has problems of her own which are seeded in some deep emotional baggage and psychological scars. The personality clashes and conflicts between these people is the driving force of the story.

In almost every way “Streetcar” is more theatrical than cinematic. Its Broadway roots show themselves in nearly every facet of the production. It’s a very talky picture that focuses heavily on the actors and their performances. The vast majority of the film takes place in and around a cramped apartment building – a confinement that also resembles a stage production. But these parts are integral components to a story that doesn’t require lavish production designs or location shoots. The well conceived Hollywood studio sets are perfect for creating claustrophobic living spaces that force these characters to deal with one another. Add to it Kazan’s sweat-soaked depiction of the New Orleans heat and you have a grimy and uncomfortable environment that fits the narrative.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” was an Academy Award magnet earning twelve Oscar nominations and winning four of them. Most notably three of the wins were in the acting categories, a first at the time. Vivien Leigh won for her twisted and tormented depiction of Blanche. She was the only one of the main cast members who had not worked together on Broadway. Kazan urged her to use that lack of connection in her performance. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden also won Oscars for their supporting performances. Malden plays a unassuming fellow who desperately wants to love Blanche.

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Marlon Brando was nominated for Best Actor but lost out to Humphrey Bogart who won his one and only Oscar for “The African Queen”. What’s interesting is that Brando’s performance is the one that has had the greater impact. This was his second feature film and it introduced his unique and tenacious method acting to a wider audience. Just look at the differences between the acting styles of Brando and Leigh often in the same scene. His performance as Stanley Kowalski displayed an instinctual prowess that would be present throughout his career. He brings such a vivid range of emotions to every scene he’s in. It’s raw but calculated work. Whenever the question is raised about Marlon Brando’s place among the best actors in cinema history, I point people to this performance.

Often heralded as a classic, “A Streetcar Named Deserve” earns its accolades. The Tennessee Williams story mixed with Elia Kazan’s sharp eye and some unforgettable performances cement “Streetcar” as one of the most focused and well made productions you will find. It’s rough, depressing, and unstarched, but it is so potent because of the characters. They are overflowing with energy and life and it is impossible not to be mesmerized by them despite their dysfunction. “Streetcar” made an indelible mark on cinema and it introduced the world to Marlon Brando. How can it not be considered a genuine classic?

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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31 thoughts on “REVIEW: “A Streetcar Named Desire”

    • WOO HOO! Finally!!! 😉

      You are so right. The performances and story are brilliant. Brando gives such a raw and earnest performance. You can really tell that he is doing something vastly different than what most were doing at that time.

  1. A classic indeed bro. I’ve also been a big fan of Tennessee Williams and this is one of the very best. Great, great movie. As much as I love Bogey, though, how could Brando not get the Oscar for this. It’s one of his finest moments.

    • Bogart was amazing in The African Queen but you can’t help but wonder if it was one of those “oops, we screwed you over in the past so here is your Oscar” things.

      I also wonder if the sheer impact of Brando’s work was realized at the time? I wonder how much they appreciated and understood how is performance would shape the way actors and actresses would work in the future? It has definitely become one of the groundbreaking performances in cinema history, wouldn’t you say?

      • Definitely one of the most groundbreaking. I did love Bogey in the African Queen too but I think you’re spot on. The academy handed it to him for other reasons. Brando’s performance is one of the true cinematic achievements.

      • Yep. And as I mentioned in the review, this is the performance I point to whenever there is a discussion about Brando’s greatness. If you are like me during the film you can’t take your eyes off of him when ever he is on the screen.

    • You can’t go wrong with either of those. They are two very different movies. “Streetcar” feels like a play from start to finish while “Waterfront” is pure cinema. But both equally good and definitely worth seeing. Two wonderful classics.

  2. This is one of my favourite films, Marlon Brando is absolutely genius in this!
    I highly recommend reading the original play too – the story is so rich and compelling, I adore it!

    • Oh I bet the play is fabulous. The characters are so rich and realized in the movie. I can only imagine how much more detail and emotion the play gives us.

      Glad you like this film too. I just recently revisited it for this review and it’s still strikes a strong chord. Isn’t it amazing how boldly different Brando’s performance was at that time? You can look at scenes he shares with the other great actors and the difference in what they are doing and how they are approaching their scenes is noticeable.

      • It really is incredible. I’m such a huge fan of Tennessee Williams’ work.

        You’re right – his power as an actor clearly had an effect on the cast around him and brought the acting standard of the film right up I think. I was quite taken aback watching it for the first time and realising just how gifted Brando was.

  3. I have never seen this one (though I am very familiar with the play – honestly, that’s probably part of the reason I haven’t seen the film. I know the story very well). Some day I’ll get around to it, though. Hopefully I like it as much as you do.

    Great work!

    • Oh you definitely need to get around to seeing this one mainly because of the amazing performances. As a cinema fan I think you really appreciate the strides it takes in new directions, specifically Brando. It’s an amazing film.

  4. I know I’ve said it before but it’s always a pleasure to visit these posts and share an appreciation for the classics.
    Sadly I have never managed to read Tennessee Williams play, but I have watched the film adaptation, and I do think you’re right that Leigh and Brando and their conflicting characters symbolise a change in acting style here.
    It’s almost too appropriate that Vivien was cast to play Blanche DuBois. While she represents the dying state of melodrama, Brando is the figure of realism towering over her, despising her facade.

    • Thanks so much for reading!

      I love your final two sentences. Such a great summary of those two performances and how they relate to the characters. I remember loving this film when I first saw it. But I forgot how brimming with life it is. When I rewatched it for this review it really took my breath away.

  5. Great review. I watched this for the first time not long ago and thought it was great. Brando was a truly beautiful man and whenever he was on the screen, I found it hard not to look at him.

  6. Hey! You just recommended this one! Haha. I really do need to see this. It sounds excellent, and, as I said, I’m definitely a Brando fan. Although I think my favorite Brando film will always, ALWAYS be On the Waterfront. Love. It. Excellent review, Keith! 🙂

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