#238) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
OR “A Method to Her Madness”
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Tennessee Williams, based on his play. Adaptation by Oscar Saul.
Class of 1999
The Plot: The French Quarter of New Orleans gets an unexpected visitor when southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrives from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella (Kim Hunter). Blanche has a hard time adjusting to Stella’s cheap apartment, and an even harder time coexisting with Stella’s barbaric husband Stanley (Marlon Brando), who immediately questions Blanche’s stories. During the course of Blanche’s stay her mental health starts deteriorating, putting her relationship with Stanley’s poker buddy Mitch (Karl Malden) in jeopardy. Can three Tennessee Williams characters share an apartment without driving each other crazy? (Spoilers: No. No they cannot.)
Why It Matters: No superlatives from the NFR, just a plot summary, a few pieces of trivia, and a poster!
But Does It Really?: The play is better, but the movie is still one of the best stage to film adaptations. “Streetcar” is one of those rare movies where everyone is on the same page. There isn’t a false note in any of the performances, with Leigh, Brando, and Hunter at the center giving strong, conflicted characterizations. The film suffers from some Production Code meddling (Homosexuality? What’s that?), but Kazan et al are able to rise above it and create a film that can stand alongside the play as a classic by its own merits.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the film’s supporting cast, many of whom had originated their roles on Broadway. Among them Peg Hillias as Eunice, Edna Thomas as the Flower Lady, and Ann Dere as the Nurse.
Wow, That’s Dated: The title was already dated before the film came out. The actual “Desire” streetcar stopped running in 1948, and had to be brought in from New Orleans especially for the film.
Title Track: Blanche says the title once at the very beginning to a character credited as “The Helpful Sailor”. Fun Fact: That’s Mickey Kuhn, aka Beau Wilkes from “Gone with the Wind”. It’s the reunion we all wanted!
Seriously, Oscars?: “A Streetcar Named Desire” led the pack at the 1951 Oscars with 12 nominations, and walked away with four awards: Actress (Leigh), Supporting Actor (Malden), Supporting Actress (Hunter), and Art Direction (Richard Day & George James Hopkins). First-time nominee Brando famously lost Best Actor to overdue Humphrey Bogart for “The African Queen”, and the film lost Best Picture to “An American in Paris”. Five of the film’s other nominations went to fellow NFR entry “A Place in the Sun”.
- In addition to director Elia Kazan, nine actors made the transition from stage to screen. The major exception was Blanche, originally played by Jessica Tandy. Vivien Leigh did play the role in the West End (directed by Laurence Olivier), and was chosen over Tandy for her star power. Tandy’s film career took off eventually.
- During the opening credits, the title is preceded by the preface “The Pulitzer Prize and New York Critics Award Play”. For the record, the Tony Awards opted for “Mister Roberts” that year. Seriously, Tonys?
- I gotta say, Vivien Leigh does a good American accent. Of course she had some prior experience.
- This isn’t his film debut, but this is where Marlon Brando catapulted to fame. In one fell swoop, America was struck by his natural acting style unlike any seen in film before, while at the same time completely baffled trying to figure out what the hell he was saying.
- It’s hard to match Tennessee Williams’ flowery and poetic dialogue with realistic Method acting, but this cast finds the balance quite well. Almost like they performed this script eight times a week for several months.
- My favorite line no one quotes: “Funerals are pretty compared to deaths.”
- I’m sure there had been previous attempts to bring the Method to Hollywood, but it helps that Marlon Brando takes his shirt off.
- Greek-American actor Nick Dennis IS Pablo Gonzales.
- Kudos to Kim Hunter, whose walk down the stairway after Stanley’s “Hey Stella” was so sexually charged it had to be trimmed by the censors.
- Of course Stella has no objection to Blanche calling Stanley and his friends “apes”. She knows that in the future apes will try to domesticate the humans.
- Oh Malden, you’re so endearing in this part. You just want to take Mitch home with you. Well…except for the part where he tries to assault Blanche. That’s out of line.
- Yeah, the play’s edges are dulled by the Production Code censoring. There’s still sexual tension throughout, but the neutering prevents it from getting where it needs to be.
- A lot of ripping clothes in this film. Stanley goes through more shirts than the Incredible Hulk.
- This film’s use of sound should not be underestimated. It helps highlight Blanche’s descent into madness in a way you can’t on stage. It’s a shame the Warner Bros. sound department lost the Oscar to “The Great Caruso”.
- “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Oof, that still stings.
- Thanks to the iconic performances in this film, every revival of the play has been forced to live in the movie’s shadow.
- There have been two TV remakes of “Streetcar”, both of which aimed to be more faithful to the stage version. The 1984 ABC broadcast starred Ann-Margret and Treat Williams (plus two actors from “National Lampoon’s Vacation”), and the 1995 CBS version saw Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange recreating their Broadway performances.
- Lots of quotable lines from this film, most memorably Stanley’s cry of “Steeeelllaaaaaa!” There’s even a contest in New Orleans every year to see who can painfully cry for their abused spouse after a physical outburst the best.
- Both Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” and Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” are strongly influenced by “Streetcar”.
- “Streetcar” is responsible for two of television’s greatest moments. The first, a full-blown musical parody courtesy of some prime “Simpsons”.
- And secondly, this dummy.
Listen to This: The soundtrack album of Alex North’s groundbreaking “Streetcar” score was added to the National Recording Registry in 2015. The NRR calls it “the first [film score] to integrate jazz into a major motion picture” and states that the music is used to “express a character’s emotions, even if those emotions are in conflict with the action.”