Oh, Stella. What have you gotten yourself into, marrying a drunken boor and living in a squalid flat in New Orleans?
A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those Hollywood archetypes that many movies end up getting compared to, fairly or unfairly. Streetcar, as it’s commonly known even among the relatively culturally ignorant, is a film that isn’t like the usual Hollywood fare. For starters, it’s a movie about relationships. Most of it takes place in a decrepit apartment in a city that’s been falling apart for a century. None of its characters are particularly likeable. One, the infamous Stanley Kowalksy, as embodied by Marlon Brando, is downright awful.
It’s into this home that the well-meaning Blanche (Vivien Leigh) comes to visit her naive sister Stella (Kim Hunter), who’s pregnant and living with Stanley, a brute of a husband who likes to drink, play cards, and, apparently, scream a lot. At first Blanche seems like a refined southern lady, but soon we discover there’s something not quite right with her. She’s a bit crazy, suffering from that classic ‘nervous exhaustion,’ and soon we realize she’s a disgraced teacher, run out of her home town for seducing a student.
Yow. While Blanche finds solace in the arms of friendly yet misguided Mitch (Karl Malden), she tangles repeatedly with Stanley over just about every subject imaginable but primarily relating to her kid sister. Will Blanche end up with Mitch or will this house of cards collapse?
Brando is of course the reason to see this movie. His performance here defined his career more than any other, even The Godfather, for his chest beating and throat warbling and, for lack of a better term, searing line delivery. There’s no subtlety here, and his method inspired a generation of followers, from Pacino to Nicholson, actors that don’t so much say their lines as spit them out in contempt for everyone around them, including the audience. It’s an effect that has decayed over time, 50 years now, to the point where anyone seeing a typical Sean Penn performance can’t help but feel he’s aping Brando, and not very well.
But there’s the original, a rough-hewn and bawdy film that must have felt nothing short of insane to audiences back in 1951. Men screaming in the streets? A pedophile heroine? (In all fairness, some of the harsher material had been lost to censorship in the original cut, but various director’s cuts have restored it, making the film even more controversial.) This is a film about passion, and the movie positively oozes it.
And yet many of Streetcar‘s defining features make it less than perfect, especially today. The brazen performance by Brando overpowers everyone else, almost shamelessly. Director Elia Kazan clearly had no handle on the man (as many directors have complained), and just cut him loose. The film retains too much of its play-like demeanor, too, and it’s on the repetitious side. We know too well where the film is headed, and the getting there doesn’t create so much a sense of anticipation as it does distress.
But maybe that’s what we’re supposed to feel all along. You decide.
The new DVD features commentary by Malden and a film historian, a documentary about Kazan, outtakes, Brando’s screen test, and five making-of featurettes and retrospectives.