I have a challenge for you. The next time you watch any movie made before the release of A Streetcar Named Desire I want you to have a pen and pad ready and available. While watching whatever film it may be, I ask that you keep a tally of every single emotional scene that comes off as just a tad too stiff to be believable. Seems easy, right? Just make a note of each moment where you needed the action to be a bit more raw. A lot of films from Citizen Kane to The African Queen have been criticized for the dated feel of their leading actors. We all know that realism was the problem with movies before Streetcar, and actors before Marlon Brando.
Brando has an unequaled ability to dig deep into himself to find the characters that he is playing on the screen. It has famously been dubbed "Method acting" and his particular use of the practice in this film paved the way for several actors, like James Dean and Sean Penn who would go on to use the Method style with great success. I am not an expert on the acting process, but it does not take an expert to see that Brando's portrayal of Stanley Kowalski is one of the most emotionally charged performances in all of movies. He is played with such depth and circumstantial understanding that if the audience didn't know any better they would believe that Marlon and Stanley were the same person.
The whole production is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans and follows Stanley, his wife Stella (Kim Hunter) and her sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh) as they live together in an apartment that feels a great deal more claustrophobic than it does inviting. Stanley dominates his home life with an animalistic dominance with his ripped, sweaty shirts that show off defined muscles and his brute speaking tone. As a character, Stanley's intelligence is lacking, but his masculinity has inflated his head to the point of being comparable to a Neanderthal.
Stella is about as anti-feminist as a female character can be. She is blinded by her sexual attraction toward Stanley. Just watch the famous scene in which Stanley is screaming for Stella to return to him. Pay attention to how quickly and sharply she reacts to his voice as he wallows in the rain for her forgiveness. The crime he committed against her was domestic abuse, and Stella had the presence of mind to escape that bad situation. But then hearing him emit an almost masculine battle cry immediately sends charges of sexual energy through her that ultimately lead her down the stairs and back into her abusive husband's arms. As she slowly walks back to him it almost looks as though she has surrendered her well being over to her own desires. She even later admits to being "excited" by Stanley's overly-aggressive behaviors. I'm not going to say that her situation is her fault because Stanley is obviously to blame for the abuse, but nobody in Streetcar is really the good character. They are all flawed - none more than Stella's sister, Blanche.
Vivien Leigh is an actress who has been crucified for her off-screen behavior, but on the screen she is as solid as any other Golden Age actress. Her performance is so charged with emotion that the audience is automatically drawn to her. Tennessee Williams not only wrote the screenplay, but also the play on which the film is based. I think it is obvious that he spent the most time coming up with Blanche as a person. Her psyche is annoyingly fragile, but her varying life experiences demand sympathy. Her young husband committed suicide due to his inability to deal with his own homosexuality. She cannot return home because she was forced out of town for being promiscuous with younger men. One of the best scenes in the film has Blanche flirting with a young delivery boy. A lot of the original "sexiness" in this scene was initially cut from the film (though Kazan fought to keep it) and wasn't seen as a part of the movie until the restoration in 1993.
It goes without saying that the acting in Streetcar is superb. Leigh, Hunter and Karl Malden all won Academy Awards for their roles as Blanche, Stella and Blanche's gentlemen caller, Mitch. Brando's Method acting technique changed the way that actors played characters, but he actually lost the acting Oscar to Humphrey Bogart. Most people chalk this up to the fact that Stanley was much too vile of a character to be awarded in that time period. Marlon Brando was simply ahead of his time with his gritty performance.
Most of us already know how A Streetcar Named Desire ends. For those of you who do not, I will spoil nothing. But the ending has created controversy and sparked discussions for many years now. I personally think the ending is perfect in every sense of the word. The black and white shimmers perfectly and beautifully amidst the heartbreaking conclusion. Kazan's camera frames the action deliberately to keep the audience focused on the characters over everything else. Streetcar is a movie that is primarily about three people - each one of them flawed. Whether it be masculine aggression, sexual desire, homosexuality or insecurity - this masterpiece was bold enough to approach the topic and mature enough to do it well.
A Streetcar Named Desire: A