A Streetcar Named Desire
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In 1951, Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire, was adapted for the big screen by director Elia Kazan. Starring Hollywood legends Marlon Brando, now known for his portrayal of mafioso Vito Corleone in The Godfather, and Vivien Leigh, most famous for her Oscar-winning performance as the Southern belle Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, the film is a Southern Gothic tale of woe, deception and debauchery set in mid-20th century New Orleans. A Streetcar Named Desire went on to become one of America’s most celebrated films, winning three out of four of the acting categories at the 24th Academy Awards – Brando lost the Best Actor award to Humphrey Bogart – while also winning the Oscar for Best Art Direction after being nominated for 12 out of the total 26 categories. While he failed to bring home the Oscar, Brando was subsequently thrust into stardom for his hauntingly realistic portrayal of the brutish Stanley Kowalski, changing the way actors approached their roles forever. In the years since it’s release, A Streetcar Named Desire has become a staple in American film, with The Library of Congress selecting it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1999 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” with it’s influence in film and acting visible to this day, (“National Film Registry…”).
After acting as director of the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan, with his intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the play, was the best choice as director of the Hollywood adaptation. The film immediately sets the tone for the audience, highlighting the theme behind the play, which is the decay of American values with the grainy exterior shots of New Orleans and the run-down streets and buildings of the French Quarter. Kazan takes advantage of not being hindered by the small scope of the stage and expands the audience’s perception of the small world surrounding the story and its characters, effectively bringing the audience to the story and not the other way around. Even though almost every film from around that time was filmed in black and white, A Streetcar Named Desire made special use of the unsaturated look in setting the mood and really taking advantage of the color scheme. In his review of the film from his website, critic Roger Ebert said of the look: “Color would have been fatal to the special tone. It would have made the characters seem too real, when we need them exactly like this, black and gray and silver, shadows projected on the screens of their own dreams and needs,” (qtd. in Ebert). Alex North’s unique musical score also added to the weight of the film by deviating from the Hollywood standards and instead scoring the film to cast light on the psychological states of the characters, (“A Streetcar Named ...”).
With the original director of the Broadway production now in charge of directing the film, most of the original players were brought in on the Hollywood adaptation. The only main character replaced for the film adaptation was Jessica Tandy who played Blanche Du Bois, because the executives behind the film felt that she did not have enough star power to carry the role over to the big screen; she was subsequently replaced by film veteran Vivien Leigh, who had played Blanche in the London production of the play, (“A Streetcar Named ...”). Leigh’s portrayal of the neurotic Southern belle garnered her an Academy Award for Best Actress, while Kim Hunter, who played her character’s sister, also won an Oscar. Critic Roger Ebert stated that even though A Streetcar Named Desire was considered an ensemble film, there was no mistake whose performance singlehandedly carried the film. “Look at the way Brando, as Kowalski, stalks through his little apartment in the French Quarter. He is, the dialogue often reminds us, an animal. He wears a torn T-shirt that reveals muscles and sweat. He smokes and drinks in a greedy way; he doesn't have the good manners that 1951 performances often assumed,” (qtd. in Ebert). Before the film’s release, Brando had only starred in one other film, having mainly performed on the stage. In fact, in the film’s original trailers, Brando’s name also received second billing behind Leigh – and understandably so. This was essentially his breakout role that made him a true star. Later, once the world was introduced to Marlon Brando and the realism he brought to his characters – especially his portrayal of the boorish Stanley, a performance so convincing – that people often mistook the actor for his rugged, vulgar characters in real life (“A Streetcar Named ...”).
While Kazan’s vision for the film exceeded all expectations, and the cast’s unique ability to bring such mundane and ordinary characters to life greatly contributed to the success of the film, one cannot forget the source material and its author, Tennessee Williams. His controversial and unapologetic story about the horrific deeds and misgivings of Stanley and Blanche has haunted American drama – after all, being in the realm of the Southern Gothic story – both in film and in theater, changing the way audiences view films, plays and the world around them. It was no longer about escapism, a laugh and a happy ending. A Streetcar Named Desire was, in a way, a response to a post-WWII Hollywood in the 1950’s, an era when almost every major motion picture was about the leading man wooing the leading lady, them riding off in the sunset, and so on. This story was about real people with real neuroses acting as only someone afflicted with the human condition can, just like monsters; and even though the film was controversial in its own right, it’s still a toned-down version of the original play. Elements such as Blanche’s husband committing suicide because he was a closeted homosexual was left out of the film, and the play’s original ending was changed, too. Perhaps the most iconic seen of the film, the final scene where Stanley is yelling out for Stella was not in the play. In fact, Stella stays with Stanley despite the fact that he has raped her sister, but Hollywood instead opted to punish the Stanley character, deviating from Williams’ heartbreaking and uncompromising ending.
What constitutes a masterpiece? What are the elements needed for the equation, if there even is one, that when brought together become a highly revered work of art? Every member of the audience and every critic possess their own criteria, but in the case of A Streetcar Named Desire, the response was unanimous: the brilliant direction of Elia Kazan beautifully adapted a classic and famous stage production into a Hollywood blockbuster. The performances of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh took characters that were nothing more than dialogue and brought them to life in a most spectacular and precedent-setting way. And Tennessee Williams’ masterfully written source material brought an element to modern audiences that was not commonplace in 1950’s Hollywood: despair. A Streetcar Named Desire is not a story about larger-than-life characters living in a fantasy that in no way reflects the world around them. Instead, it’s a painful and hyper-realistic look into the decay of American values at the hands of the human condition and it’s leading agent – sexual, hedonistic desire – and thus forever changing film and theater.
"National Film Registry, 1999." National Film Registry, 1999. Library of Congress, 16 Nov. 1999. Web. 20 June 2014. <https://www.loc.gov/film/nfr99.html>.
Ebert, Roger. "A Streetcar Named Desire Movie Review (1993) | Roger Ebert." All Content. N.p., 12 Nov. 1993. Web. 20 June 2014. <https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/a-streetcar-named-desire-1993>.
"A Streetcar Named Desire." IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 20 June 2014. <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044081/>.