Hey Fella!

      Why are we all, men and women, drawn to a savage? Is there some instinctive appeal to brutishness that somehow harkens back to our distant roots? How can there be a strong attraction to someone who is more than a little dangerous? After reading A Streetcar Named Desire, the 1947 play by Tennessee Williams, and viewing the adapted 1951 film version (directed by Elia Kazan), one could make the case that one is both drawn to and repelled by the brute, Stanley Kowalski.

      Certainly the character of Stanley is a threatening persona, rife with hair-trigger emotion, one minute a tender lover, the next an abusive, domineering bully. He wears all his emotions on his sleeve, which understandably can be an attractive thing. One pretty much knows where one stands with a person like Stanley. His temperament is laid bare in facial and body language. It is somehow akin to watching a traffic light; one second he is all GO ; the next he could flash out CAUTION or even STOP! With a character like Stanley, a good thing to remember is how to duck and cover.

      Stanley's physical presence, that wound-up, testosterone-soaked, unpredictable bundle of muscle that strides about his apartment like a jungle cat in a cage, has a very strong and unmistakable sexual attraction, certainly to women and even to some degree to men. Men generally fall into two categories in regards to Stanley: the type who want to protect women from the likes of him, and the type who want to be him. For all his lack of civility, Stanley comes across as a man's man.

      I think that Tennessee Williams was toying with us by creating the character of Stanley. He knew we would be both fascinated and repelled by the character. As portrayed in the film by Marlon Brando, Stanley certainly displayed a smoldering sexuality. More than that, he was shown to have a playful, tender, almost little-boyish nature. Women like his wife, Stella, played by Kim Hunter, were drawn to this little boy side of him, wanting to nurture and protect him. He obviously loved Stella in his own way, his way meaning to own and totally dominate. For this we dislike him, but his firm control at the helm of his household was seen as a credit to his nature at the time. A man was supposed to rule in his house, with an iron fist if necessary. This idea of the masculine, domineering husband, firmly in control of hearth and home, bringing home the bacon and laying down the rules, was firmly ensconced in the American psyche after World War II. The reverse, an image of the frail, henpecked husband, was to be avoided at all costs. Sensitivity in a man was neither desired, nor tolerated, at least not in popular culture.

      And yet, Stanley, as portrayed by Brando, definitely had some sensitivity. This served to make the character a little more complicated than we first believe; his sensitive side and his brutish side are certainly at war with one another, leaving him conflicted and confused at times. He wants to be fully in charge. He is the king in the castle that is his home, or so he tells the world. But inside he really is that little boy, insecure, uneducated and sure of only a few things, his own physical strength and attraction to women, his ability to bring home a paycheck and father a son, and his camaraderie with his buddies through bowling and poker.

      These personality traits, along with Stanley's physical presence, manage to form one pretty potent sex symbol. It is the kind of character that one openly disdains but secretly wishes one could spend a little time between the sheets with. I remember a story about when Clark Gable was being cast for It Happened One Night, directed in 1934 by Frank Capra. He had auditioned for the part along with another popular fellow, and the casting director could not make up his mind. He called in his secretary and showed her both audition tapes, and this was her reply. "Well, the first guy is the best looking. I'd like to be seen with him at dinner or a night on the town. But this other guy, this Clark Gable, he's the kind of guy you want to take to bed." Stanley was like that. One knows one should despise him, but secretly, inwardly, in the dark recesses of our hearts, he can be safely desired.

      Did Stanley rape Stella's sister, the emotionally frail Blanche DuBois, played by Vivien Leigh? One cannot be certain, for Blanche's mental state was such that one could not fully believe any story she might tell. Throughout the play and film we see the exaggerations and half-truths that make up her fragile existence. She is at odds with Stanley during her stay and repeatedly tries to get her sister to leave the sub-human brute. And yet, by the time Blanche has her breakdown, we are convinced that Stanley is capable of such dastardly conduct for a number of reasons. For one, Blanche is relatively educated and sophisticated, which is at odds with and threatens Stanley's own quite simple nature. For another, she has outstayed her welcome in Stanley's mind; and for a third, she has been too influential on her sister. It could very well be that with the added inducement of the celebratory alcohol, Stanley let his base nature get the better of him. It really does not matter, since in Blanche's mind it probably was a very real occurrence, and because for us, by this time we believe Stanley fully capable of rape, whether he actually did it or not.

      Was it logical for Stella to return to Stanley, as she does in the play but not in the movie? Probably not, but since when did logic have much to do with love? Stella and Stanley, young and in love, probably lived out their lives as did most couples of their time, fighting one minute and loving the next, maybe divorcing in later years, maybe not. But Stanley probably stayed Stanley for the rest of his life, a loud, menacing, physically threatening bully who only understood the world on his terms, the terms of total surrender.

Wade Kingston

For this writer's reviews of his many favorite films, please visit his "Movie Favorites" site.

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