A Juggernaut Named Brando.
There are three reasons to watch A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: Brando. Brando. Brando.
It is 50 years gone, and we still feel Marlon Brando’s bestial heat flare off that black and white celluloid like the flashpots from the third row of a KISS concert. It is obvious why his work in this movie has been lauded, critiqued, dissected, imitated, codified and ultimately iconicized – it’s absolutely astounding! To this day, few have captured that feral rawness and “natural-ness” that he exuded; an actor boldly pioneering a new style, a bravura “Method.” The movie becomes all too two-dimensional when he is not onscreen.
From Tennessee Williams‘ play, Elia Kazan directs this drama of a Mississippi school teacher, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh, Oscar winner), who travels to New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter, who would also win an Oscar, this performance long before her most “recognizable” primo role – as an ape). Stella is married to the ape-like Stanley (Brando), in the sense that he is primal, a force of nature. She visits under false pretenses and her fantasy lies and faux upper class posturing pisses off Stanley until he is flinging poo.
I know how he feels. Vivien Leigh’s acting style alone is enough to fling poo to. Though lauded by film aficionados as a symbiotic, diametric marriage of intensity with Brando’s, it is hard to watch and quite embarrassing. For modern viewers, she cannot seem to “convince” with her old-school Presentational/Theatrical style, clashing irreconcilably with Brando’s then-new Method.
The story is slowly exposed that Blanche was ostracized from her community for seducing a young boy and is on the lam. She thinks she can gold-dig her way into a life in New Orleans when one of Stanley’s mates, Mitch (Karl Malden) irrationally goes ape for her. (Trust me, it was the blondeness – I feel your pain, Karl). But the icy romance between the two only pounds home that 50’s sexual mores, coupled with idiotic censorship, are too far removed from us here in The Future to be considered vital or even interesting. So in place of actual gold-digging sex and seduction, we are left with an inordinate amount of yapping that Blanche inflicts on Mitch; enough to make any man turn to drink, drugs, other women, other men, football, synchronized swimming or forsaking humanity and leaving for outer space like Chuck Heston in PLANET OF THE APES.
During Blanche’s incessant rambles, strewn passim to illustrate her neuroticism, one continually wonders whether one is missing innuendo which was considered innuendo Back Then but which is now simply naiveté, or whether there was any innuendo courted at all and it was as innocent and puling as it sounded. Ultimately, it is too taxing to pretend filmic sophistication and dissect character motivation. When it comes to pure animal enjoyment, Leigh delivers only to historians and academics.
There is nothing “academic” about Brando’s performance though. His Stanley is pure pragmatic muscle, tactile and musky. Witness the famous “Hey Stella!” scene where Stanley calls from the foot of a staircase to prostrate himself before his angry lover. Look at those back muscles ripple under the torn shirt; look at that face, carved from the imprint of a Roman coin. No wonder Stella couldn’t resist him. Even with the idiotic censors breathing down their necks, we sense Stella’s loins quivering urgently, as she walks slowly, deliberately down the stairs, for Stanley to face-plant in her midriff as she rakes her hands down his corded back. Best Supporting Actress? She warn’t acting!
Meanwhile, Blanche is upstairs, overacting. Whereas Mitch says everything unmanly to stay in Blanche’s Pumping Paradigm, Stanley is pure Alpha Male id, scorching his way through uncovering her lies, and scaring her into even more melodramatic overacting.
Surely, The Play’s The Thing and the story is as vital now as it was then (that of the estranged sister – Leigh – with the profligate and promiscuous past attempting to excise her demons by immersing herself in a new life with her sister and brother-in-law), but the manner in which it is told has dated, the only remaining vital aspect being Brando.