Marlon Brando is Stanley Kowalski. While perhaps not matching the character perfectly in the physical sense--reading the play, I imagined a more brutish Stanley--he plays the character to perfection, capturing Stanley's explosive manner and rough attitude in a way that makes it difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. The scene at the dinner table during Blanche's birthday is one of his best in the film. He sits, eating sloppily like an animal, making the occasional back-handed comment. Stella reprimands Stanley for his manners and asks him to help clear the table. He promptly smashes his hand on his plate and throws a cup against a wall before asking Stella if she wants her plate cleared as well. I have always thought that great actors can be defined by how they portray the extremes of emotion. In this scene, Brando makes us hate Stanley as well as fear him. Stanley becomes the childhood bully, the abusive father, the one person in our lives whom we can never stand up to and whom no one ever will. I think this is the essence of Stanley Kowalski, a man who pushes every relationship with every person he knows to the breaking point, trying to see how much power he can exert.
In Stanley Kowalski, Tennessee Williams creates a character who is deep, realistic, and who evokes emotion. But it is Marlon Brando who truly gives life to Stanley, complementing Williams' work and helping audiences to understand who this man really is.
Vivien Leigh, whose performance often seems overshadowed by Brando's, also does an outstanding job in her role as Blanche DuBois. Blanche is more complicated than Stanley, and Leigh plays her well. At the beginning, we are to believe that Blanche is a typical genteel Southern lady, one who is merely down on her luck. Leigh plays this part to perfection, often seeming to summon Scarlett O'Hara when putting on her best act. We later come to learn that it has been a long time since Blanche fell from her perch and hit rock bottom before coming to New Orleans. Leigh manages this transformation well, and we begin to see the underlying insecurity behind many of her actions. Leigh makes us see Blanche for the frail, weak actress she really is, despite the strong confidence she exudes in the beginning.
Looking at Blanche's character, one sees that she is not easy to play. She has to seem a strong-willed, though traditional, Southern woman, but the actress who plays her has to let the audience know that this is just an act, that there is someone else entirely lurking beneath this façade. Leigh's performance is masterful, indicating from the beginning that something is not right about Blanche without revealing too much. In the end when we see Blanche unmasked for what she truly is, we feel pity for her. I think this matches Williams' intent for the character, and Leigh pulls it off flawlessly.
Brando and Leigh truly help elevate Streetcar to its current status as a classic of American cinema. While an excellent play, it is the performances of these actors that truly make the film a work of art. That is why this is such a good adaptation. Poor adaptations are eclipsed by the original work, but with Streetcar, the play and the film go hand in hand, and neither would be complete without the other.