Sunday, September 18, 2011
Relying on the Kindness of Strangers
The transition from stage to screen can be a bumpy one. All too often, what worked in the comparatively intimate confines of a Broadway theater feels awkward and stilted when committed to celluloid. Narratives originally devised for limited sets and locations can seem claustrophobic and weirdly constricted. Or there is the temptation of moviemakers to make the play more “cinematic” and subsequently lose what made it so compelling — and worth doing — in the first place.
A Streetcar Named Desire is that rare masterwork to soar on both stage and film. Released theatrically 60 years ago today, that 1951 motion picture preserves the poignancy and brilliance of Tennessee Williams’ acclaimed stage play while accommodating nicely the advantages of the movies. It helped, of course, to have the talents of an extraordinary director and cast.
Set in a steamy New Orleans, Streetcar stars Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, an aging Southern belle who leaves her Mississippi home to visit her younger sister, Stella (Kim Hunter). Things have not been easy for Blanche, whose airs of antebellum propriety appear at odds with her jitteriness and melancholy. She is a widow, her young husband of years ago, Allan, having committed suicide. More recently, Blanche has lost the family plantation, Belle Reve, as well as her job as a high school English teacher, although she’s fuzzy about the details of why.
Stella, who evidently left Mississippi long ago, tries to accommodate Blanche as best she can, even when the older sister expresses dismay with Stella’s blue-collar lifestyle. More specifically, Blanche disapproves of Stella’s blue-collar husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), a brutish lout who doesn’t appreciate it that his snooty sister-in-law has disrupted his card games and drunken rampages.
Tensions simmer, particularly after Stella reveals she is pregnant and Blanche captures the romantic interest of Stanley’s co-worker and poker buddy, Mitch (Karl Malden). Stanley digs deeper into the circumstances surrounding Blanche’s departure from Mississippi. He learns that she essentially was run out of town amid allegations of promiscuity and, most damning, an affair with a 17-year-old male student.
The battle between Blanche and Stanley reaches grotesque and tragic proportions when Stella goes to the hospital to give birth. Stanley rapes his sister-in-law, a trauma that sends her into a world of fantasy. Earlier in the film, Blanche shouts to her tormentor, “I don’t want reality; I want magic!” In a memorable ending, this woman, so wounded and guilt-ridden over Allan’s suicide, is ensconced in both as she is taken to a mental asylum.
Promiscuity, domestic violence, rape, mental illness, a teacher-student affair with shades of pedophilia — this was not necessarily run-of-the-mill movie fare at the dawn of the Eisenhower era — but the Pulitzer Prize-winning play had been a huge hit, and Hollywood was determined to bring it to the big screen. In April 1950, screenwriter Oscar Saul had crafted the first draft of a script for Warner Bros. Concessions were made to satisfy the Production Code. Blanche’s promiscuity was softened. Elia Kazan, who had helmed the Broadway production and was tapped to direct the film, excised all references to Allan’s homosexuality, a key component of the play. The climactic rape scene, however, would stay put. That did little to assuage fears at Warner Bros., that the Catholic Legion of Decency would condemn the movie, in effect ordering Catholic audiences to stay away. The studio ordered about four minutes to be cut, although the footage would be restored years later.
Perhaps the most immediate reaction to A Streetcar Named Desire was the caliber of its acting. That’s not exactly an insightful observation. Vivien Leigh won the Academy Award for best actress, while Hunter and Malden snagged Oscars for supporting performances. Leigh, who had portrayed Blanche in London’s West End production of Streetcar, is particularly remarkable, a fluttery belle whose affectation is belied by her sad, wounded eyes. Malden demonstrates strong comic timing — his initial meeting with Leigh injects the proceedings with welcome humor — and Hunter is fine, if overshadowed, as a woman caught between divided loyalties. The acting is theatrical and over the top, certainly, but it is undeniably mesmerizing.
Streetcar put Marlon Brando on the proverbial map. The role of Stanley already had been turned down by John Garfield, who deemed the part too minor. Although it’s intriguing to ponder what Garfield would have done with it, it’s nearly unfathomable to imagine anyone but Brando, then 27, as Stanley Kowalski. Crude, flippant and smoldering with a sexuality that hasn’t dulled with the passage of time, Brando is a force of nature onscreen. And his embrace of the Stanislavsky method ushered in a decade of acting by the likes of Montgomery Clift, James Dean and others. Kazan, to his credit, resisted whatever temptation there might have been to cram in more locations. While he opens it up a bit, most notably a bowling alley where Blanche meets up with Stella and Stanley, the director chiefly exploits the possibilities of cinema by keeping the lens closer to his remarkable cast. He knew what they were capable of bringing, certainly; Brando, Hunter and Malden had been in the Broadway production. Kazan frames the actors tightly together, amplifying the intensity of performances and overall sense of claustrophobia. Somehow, the heightened melodrama works well. Early on, Blanche briefly recalls Allan’s suicide. We hear the faded strains of courtly music, then a gunshot, as Blanche covers her ears with the painful remembrance. An overblown and dated device? Sure, but unequivocally effective.
Sixty years later, the haunting and harrowing A Streetcar Named Desire still resonates as one of the finest instances of translating a play into a film.