A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)

02Jul11

Vivien Leigh (Blance DuBois), Marlon Brando (Stanley Kowalski), Kim Hunter (Stella), Karl Malden (Harold Mitchell). Screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Elia Kazan. Rating: 12. Running time: 122 minutes.

Putting my relatively robust knowledge of American cinema history to use, I’ve been scouring my mind for examples of female characters in the movies that have allowed actresses to truly flourish. The number is, of course, shamefully small. With the exception perhaps of Shadow of a Doubt, not a single 30s or 40s noir I have seen has provided a woman with anything more than a platform upon which to window dress, performing as the predictably stale and seductive femme fatale and never rivalling male counterparts for screen time or character complexity. Think of your favourite actors (and actresses – the bias is even inherent in our natural use of language), and they will no doubt be predominantly if not all male. How brilliant, then, was Tennessee Williams to create Blanche DuBois, and how fortunate was Vivien Leigh to get the chance to embody her.

It’s indescribably apt that Almodóvar centred All About My Mother around A Streetcar. That Spanish director more than anyone has provided women with meaty roles over the past few decades, but it’s evident that his main inspiration for doing so just must have been the power to be found here. I can’t quite grasp what it would be like to watch something like The Killers in 1946, with Ava Gardner looking so beautiful yet being so tragically refined, before walking into A Streetcar only five years later, and seeing the explosive energy of Leigh and Brando battling it out on camera. This is neither character-building nor acting in any traditional sense. Gone is the polished suavity of Bogart, and in steps the raw machismo of Brando rewriting the rule books. Raging Bull and even De Niro more generally are inconceivable without this performance, and what makes this so special is that despite all that we watch Brando do and become, Leigh and Blanche trump him and Kowalski. This is possibly the only film I’ve ever seen with strong male and female leads, in which the latter is more interesting and performs better, even when the former reaches stunning new heights.

That Leigh’s performance has this status is slightly ironic, for the role is on paper every bit as oppressive as the society it is reflective of. She plays a sensitive, delusional, appearance-obsessed young woman with too much to say for herself, and Brando plays the husband of her sister whose brute masculinity tyrannises her throughout the film. Yet in this power relation, and in Williams’ impeccable screenplay, lay the opportunity for Leigh to imprint her name on acting history, and she grabbed it with both hands. What she does and whom she plays is frightening, but in these exchanges we’re treated to two of the finest performances of all time, and probably what were the best performances at that moment in history.

And herein lies a problem for auteur theorists, who pride themselves on appreciating directorial contributions and extracting true artistic value from the man behind the camera’s touches. I myself do this often. GoodFellas is one of my favourite films because I see Scorsese bursting through it at the seams. But more recently, the films I’ve been truly feeling and becoming passionate about aren’t primarily indebted to their director. Don’t misunderstand me; Kazan’s contribution here is quiet but no doubt huge and essential. But the point is that I love A Streetcar for the reason I love pieces of theatre: the performances lying therein. Brando and Leigh are the main creative forces here that make the film unforgettable. They owe the opportunity to the film’s writers and makers, but the distance they run with the roles is solely down to their own barely paralleled brilliance.

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