A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) – Marlon Brando as a still-scorching Stanley Kowalski

A-Streetcar-Named-Desire-1951-6-sheet

A Streetcar Named Desire remains a touchstone for both theater and cinema in America, continuing to influence generations of moviegoers. Whenever someone wails “Stella!” or talks about “the kindness of strangers,” they prove how it has entered our national vocabulary.

Yet would the play and movie have been as well-remembered without Marlon Brando in the lead? That’s one of those what-if questions that will never be answered, because Brando electrified Broadway and movie audiences with his nuanced portrayal of Stanley Kowalski, the beer-drinking, animalistic chauvinist of New Orleans. It’s now an understatement to say that Brando added layers of depth, perhaps beyond what even playwright Tennessee Williams imagined, to what could have been a stereotypical role.

Stanley and his wife Stella (Kim Hunter) find their poor but happy life disrupted by the sudden appearance of Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh). Blanche tells her sister that she needed a prolonged break from her teaching job and proceeds to turn the Kowalski’s modest hovel into Mardi Gras Central. Blanche’s pretentious ways also stir the interest of Stanley’s bachelor friend (Karl Malden). But Stanley doesn’t appreciate Blanche’s disruption of his conjugal routine and does some snooping to find out just how and why Blanche blew into town so quickly.

It’s easy to see Stanley as a prehistoric brute who runs his household with an iron fist. Yet Stella’s constant bowing to Blanche’s fantasies is an angle curiously unexplored by the story. Stanley not unreasonably points out Blanche’s delusionary tactics, to which Stella has blinders. Thus, Stella’s denial contributes somewhat to Blanche’s eventual comedown.

(PARAGRAPH SPOILER ALERT!) Critic Leonard Maltin, while giving a four-star review to the movie version, also calls it “Hays-Office-emasculated,” referring to the film censorship bureau that watered down anything even mildly controversial in a movie. But having seen the play staged numerous times, I think the only major Hays Office tinkering actually made the story better. The stage play’s ending ties things up a bit too neatly. The movie’s ending takes Stanley far more to task for his brutish ways, and its ambiguity — Stanley is left alone, to bellow “Stella!” one more time — is far more satisfying, at least to me.

In any case, Marlon Brando is the gold standard for Stanley Kowalski. Though he still had major movies up his sleeve (see On the Waterfront, by Streetcar director Elia Kazan) before he became rich and bloated, this is still the role everyone remembers. And generations of would-be stage Stanleys still quiver at the thought of measuring up to Brando’s stunning take on this role.

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3 responses to “A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) – Marlon Brando as a still-scorching Stanley Kowalski

  1. Some nice points made here. The relationship between the sisters really wasn’t explored as it could have been (but I think this was also in the original play – Tennessee Williams, while a brilliant writer of Southern Gothic theater, was always more interested in his male characters than his female characters). As to the question of whether this film would have been remembered had it not been for Brando, I would answer yes. Both Kim Hunter and Vivien Leigh were excellent in this film and very memorable. One thing I’ve always loved about Leigh is that she could have easily been considered only “the actress who played Scarlett O’Hara”, like many actors get pegged for one outstanding role early in their careers but she showed, especially in the 1950s with roles like this one and “Ship Of Fools” that she was much more than just Scarlett.

    For the record, even though I like Tennessee Williams for the way he vividly portrayed the disfunctional family, I didn’t like this film and hated Brando in it. Films about wife abusing sexist pigs are not high on my list of favorites. But one thing that made me respect Brando is that he felt equally disgusted with the character as well.

    Tam

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed the post. Wish I liked the film as much. Brando plays his raw power to the hilt, and class issues are so compelling in play and film. I had the amazing good fortune to be involved in an amateur theater production of the play, and found so much more than the film allows us to see. In particular, I was drawn to the need to play Blanche as strong in the beginning, then breaking down slowly but surely. Vivian Leigh plays her beaten from the start and there’s nowhere to go.

    The TV version with Ann Margaret may be crappy in some ways, but her Blanche gives a nice contrast to Leigh.

    Liked by 1 person

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