by Brad Nelson
Also known as A Streetcar Named Desire. But I couldn’t help reacting to Vivien Leigh’s riveting performance as a…shall we say…a Sandra Fluke type person. She’s a bit of an s-word. And a victim. And a dreamer, as well as a bit of a scoundrel. But that is all in her past and is but alleged.
First, I love it when a movie knows how to end itself. This one did, and quite powerfully. I’m not at all surprised that Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for her performance. It took me a while to figure her out though. Was this simply her reprising her role from Gone with the Wind?
Only after she had occasionally dropped the “Lil ol’ Me?” Southern Belle persona could I see the various faces of Blanche DuBois, and thus appreciate the depth of Leigh’s performance. When that affected face of Scarlett O’Hara was occasionally set aside in a moment that looked like honesty dredged up by despair, you saw inside. And I think Leigh even managed a couple layers beyond that.
And by the end of the film, when she was on the floor howling in pain, I actually felt something. That’s what good movies do. I was hardly indifferent up until this point, but the entire movie built toward this moment and it was a deep one. Despite all attempts to make us dislike her, in the end, she evokes such compassion and pity. We see beyond the lies, the conniving, and the sluttiness. She’s been worn down to this moment. We all die eventually. The body wears down for us all. In Blanche’s case, her mind was the symbol of the coming moment of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Brando wasn’t chopped liver either. He plays a secondary, but crucial, role. (He lost the Oscar to Bogart in The African Queen.) But this is Leigh’s picture, along with her on-screen sister, Stella (played by Kim Hunter who also deservedly won an Oscar for her performance). Never did I know where this movie was going. Sorry to take another shot at today’s Hollywood, but I must. Even having the Tennessee Williams’ play handed to them, most would have made it predictable. But director Elia Kazan handled the material well.
How can you go wrong when you pair Vivien Leigh with Marlon Brando in a Tennessee Williams play? Well, the fact is, (modern Hollywood perhaps excepted) you can’t. They didn’t. This is another old movie shot gloriously in black in white that is thoroughly colored with grime, grit, and despair. Nearly every other line is a chiseled icon ringing with implications. Blanche DeBois barges in on the lives of her sister and brother-in-law swinging feminine wiles around like a wrecking ball. But she’s hiding something. It’s all a front.
Or is it? Is she now little but her pain and delusions of what she wanted her life to be? Whatever the case may be, you get the stark contrast of the refined world that Blanche DuBois represents (if only in the remnants of her mind) and the gritty, even debased, world of Stanley Kowalski and his working-class poker friends.
One gets the feeling that Stanley (Marlon Brando) is a brute, and yet without the contrast of the more refined and hopeful Blanche, who would have ever noticed the difference? Delusional or not, by her very presence, Blanche DuBois holds up a quite unflattering mirror to Brando’s character. The best scene (other than the end) is at about the forty-eight minute mark. I think it contains the heart and soul of the picture and the key to Blanche’s sanity (or lack of):
Blanche: He’s common.
Stella: Yes, I suppose he is.
Blanche: Suppose? Surely you cannot have forgotten that much of our upbringing, Stella, that you just suppose there’s any part of a gentlemen in his nature. Oh, you’re hating me saying this, aren’t you?
Stella: Go on and and say it all, Blanche.
Blanche: He’s like an animal. Has an animal’s habits. There’s even something subhuman about him. Thousands of years have past him right by and there he is: Stanley Kowalski, survivor of the Stone Age, bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle. And you…you here waiting for him. Maybe he’ll strike you, or maybe grunt and kiss you. That’s if kisses have been discovered yet. His poker night, you call it. This party of apes? Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image. But, Stella, my sister, there’s been some progress since then. Such things as art, as poetry, as music. In some kinds of people, some tenderer feelings have had some little beginning that we have got to make grow and cling to and hold as our flag in this dark march toward whatever it is we are approaching. Don’t… don’t hang back with the brutes.
That is an extraordinary thing for an unstable and confused mind to say. But it’s not an insane mind. It’s a mind that may be that of a willing slut, but it also seems to be the mind of someone with powerful noble ideals. Life tends to grind such ideals into the dust, taking us with them. Blanche is a casualty. She gets twisted but remembers the ideals. She has a sense what life can be about rather than the dirty reality that it often is. And one might understand that such idealism, although dangerously fragile in this world, is the very underpinning of civilization.
There’s an obvious feminist angle to this where you want to “throw duh bums out.” One of the best lines of the film is where Blanche says “Some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the most unforgivable thing in my opinion, and the one thing in which I have never, ever been guilty.”
It’s not long after she says this that Brando shows how cruel he can be. Blanche is reduced to being a raw nerve in a world where “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is a reality far rarer than it should be. The implications of Blanche’s character is that we can readily be pushed over the edge by a cruel world that often has no inclination toward mercy. Blanche desperately needed the kindness of strangers and doesn’t perhaps find it until they come to take her away to the funny farm.
But Blanche is far from being only a victim. But she is that too. Will Stella go back to her ape? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. There are, after all, such things as art, as poetry, as music….
This is truly a masterpiece. I give it 4.2 “Stellas!” out of 5. • (632 views)