The Essence of Streetcar

        Elia Kazan’s 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire, captures Tennessee Williams’ 1947 masterpiece of a play completely, through the uses of actor choices, music, and staging. The movie is, of course, toned down from the actual stage production of the play in many ways, mostly scenes involving the sexually charged Stanley; but, even with censorship in some areas, the movie still possess the raw energy to shock and amaze today.

        One of the biggest components of A Streetcar Named Desire’s success on the stage was Marlon Brando. As Kazan said, he felt people were not coming to see a story about Blanche Du Bois after a while—they were coming to see the Marlon Brando show.

        Brando’s big break was Streetcar; and, as I discussed in another essay, Brando made Stanley. He embodied the character, mind body and soul—and not just because he was a method actor. In many ways, Stanley Kowalski and Brando were very similar. They were both good-looking, blue-collar, passionate men; and this really shows through in Kazan’s film. The moment Brando steps into the screen in his sweat-drenched white T-shirt, screaming like a cat, right in Blanche’s face, we can feel the essence of Tennessee Williams’ Kowalski practically oozing from him.

        Brando even said, once filming was through on the film, that he had found Vivien Leigh attractive but could not bring himself to “seduce” her, as he found her husband (actor Laurence Olivier) to be too nice of a guy. Vivien Leigh, unlike Brando, as not the first person to portray Blanche on stage. She was hired solely for the reason of having a big name attached to the film. She does, however, do a brilliant job of the performance. Leigh’s Blanche possesses grace, even in her slow, bourbon-soaked fall to insanity. The chemistry between Leigh and Brando is palpable throughout the film from the moment their characters first set eyes on one another, no doubt due, in part to the mutual physical attraction. However, it also had to do with the fact that, like Brando, Leigh possessed a few similarities to the character she played, Blanche. Leigh was very probably bipolar, and something of an alcoholic herself. It was this fragility of her own self that helped to communicate the desperate, tragic essence of Blanche to the screen.

        The music, scored by Alex North, used throughout the film--all of it heavy. bluesy, saxophone-laden jazz--does such a thorough job of setting the stage emotionally for the film, the audience barely needs the set at all. From the first note, as Blanche enters the neighborhood where Stella and Stanley live, we know what kind of movie this is going to be, solely on the music. This music is grinding, raw, and powerful—so like Stanley. The audience can just imagine what Blanche would be thinking if she too could hear the music. She would have been, I think, much more wary of the situation she was going to. The music epitomizes the southern working class, the very thing Blanche is struggling so hard against. She is trying desperately to keep something of the Old South still alive, even if all that it is is herself. The music throbs in the background of the movie throughout, ever pushing forward toward change and advancement, pushing against Blanche and leaving her behind, only a shadow of a ghost of her Old South upbringing. The music in Kazan’s Streetcar is in and of itself the very essence of the soul of Williams’ play.

        I have never seen A Streetcar Named Desire performed onstage, but I have a feeling that the set would look very similar to what I see in the Kazan film. The setting is beautifully executed by art director Richard Day and looks nearly identical to what I had pictured when the set up and stage directions in the play for the first time.

        All of Eliza Kazan’s choices for bringing A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen, from Brando and Leigh, to the heart-wrenching jazz to the beautiful scenery and dark, cramped apartments, embodies the heart, soul and essence of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar.

Alexa K Adams

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