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.