On this day in history, screen legend Marlon Brando was born. The world didn’t know it then, but here was a man (/baby) who would shake up Hollywood to such an extent that the “rules” for what constituted a performance would never be the same. Brando didn’t care two figs about what was expected socially or professionally– he wore dirty jeans instead of then-fashionable high-waisted trousers, had three children with his housekeeper, bought a South Pacific island (?!)…the list goes on. In other words, he charted his own path, and steamrolled through the studio system like the bull-in-a-china-shop that he was. In later years, his hubris and laissez-faire attitude about his health and professional relationships would cause his star to dim a bit, but none of that can take away from the genius of his work.
To celebrate the life and impact of such an American movie icon, we at ItsJustAwesome decided to dedicate an entire week to reviewing (what we consider to be) his 7 most essential films. Today, on Day 1, we’ll be talking about one of Brando’s earliest triumphs: Elia Kazan’s take on the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
Aptly named, Streetcar is a sultry, sticky, bourbon-soaked doozy of a film. You can practically feel the stifling heat rising off the pavement of The Quarter, as bawdy New Orleans jazz floats through the open window of the apartment where Blanche and Stanley circle one another like cage fighters. Gone are the moonlight and magnolias of earlier Southern films like Gone With the Wind and Jezebel—Streetcar is an onion of emotional and psychological traumas, and it’s not until the final scene that we realize just how many layers must be peeled away and tearfully dissected to reach the core. Nobody can pen a seedy, disturbing family drama quite like Tennessee Williams, and, if nothing else, his story makes you thankful that you have the family you do.
This is an incredible movie, there’s no question about it. It won 4 Oscars, and was nominated for another 8. Vivien Leigh is pitch-perfect in her role as the emotionally fragile, high-minded Blanche DuBois, and she absolutely deserved her Best Actress win. If you ask me, Brando should have won for his explosive performance as Stanley Kowalski as well (sorry, Humphrey, I still love you–and The African Queen), but alas, it was not his time yet.
The film opens with Blanche arriving in New Orleans, by way of the titular streetcar named Desire. She has taken a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher in Auriol, Mississippi, and plans to stay in The Big Easy with her sister Stella…indefinitely. Unfortunately for Blanche, she knows nothing of Stella’s living situation before she arrives in town– or of Stella’s husband, Stanley, for that matter. As we’re caressed by a decadent horn soundtrack, we see the city of New Orleans through Blanche’s eyes: torrid, dirty, baked in sin. The aristocratic Blanche is horrified even further when she sees Stella’s graceless, ground-floor apartment in the the French Quarter. She can’t fathom why her sister would live in such a place, until she meets the equally graceless, animalistic Stanley.
Enter a sweat-soaked, T-shirt-clad Marlon Brando. Brando’s Stanley Kowalski is brutish, bull-headed, volatile…but DAMN, is he sexy. I say this because, not only is it difficult to deny as a person with eyes and the ability to see, but it is also integral to understanding the hypnotic hold he has on Stella. He shoves people around, rips his clothes under the agony of his own emotions, hurls dishes against the wall (“Oh, Stanley has always smashed things”); he’ll be tender and caressing one minute, then savagely dangerous the next. Yet, Stella has no interest in leaving him. She is utterly mesmerized by the magnitude of his sex appeal, and powerless to resist her own desire for him. This photo pretty much says it all:
In one of many examples of Streetcar‘s excellent dialogue, Blanche gets up the gumption to comment on Stella’s abusive relationship:
Blanche: You’re married to a madman.
Stella: I wish you’d stop taking it for granted that I’m in something I want to get out of.
Blanche: What you are talking about is desire– just brutal Desire. The name of that rattle-trap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another.
Stella: Haven’t you ever ridden on that streetcar?
Blanche: It brought me here. Where I’m not wanted and where I’m ashamed to be.
Stella: Don’t you think your superior attitude is a little out of place?
Blanche: May I speak plainly? If you’ll forgive me, he’s common. He’s like an animal. He has an animal’s habits. There’s even something subhuman about him. Thousands of years have passed 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.
Therein lies the central conflict of the movie. Blanche is immune to Stanley’s charms (if they can be called that), and sees him for the brute that he is. On the other hand, Stanley also sees through the carefully-crafted backstory that Blanche has invented for herself. She’s clearly hiding the true reasons she has for being in New Orleans, and he won’t rest until he has brought them into the light. At first, the cracks in her story seem innocent enough, but as time wears on and the threat of discovery looms, Blanche’s neuroses become more and more apparent. Stella, in dismay, finds herself torn between defending her husband’s actions and protecting her sister’s fragile grip on reality.
Again, this is a fantastic movie. The one con for me personally is that it feels very much like a play at times (which I guess it should, because it is), and I’m not always in the mood to watch that type of film. With that said, however, I do revisit this gem every 1-2 years, and it gets me every time. The performances from everyone involved give me chills, but I think my eyeballs would need to be surgically removed from the screen during any scene with Brando. It’s no wonder at all that this became one of the most iconic roles of his career–it’s a truly unforgettable performance.
Tomorrow, Brando trades a T-shirt for a toga in his performance as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (1953). Be sure to come back for Charles’ review on that one, as well as the rest of our Brando reviews this week at ItsJustAwesome.com!!