The Man Who Would Be Stanley

     Of all the actors interpreting roles for filmed adaptations viewed by our class this semester, the one who most inhabited his character had to be Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, directed in 1951 by Elia Kazan. Brando's tour de force captured Stanley's essence and firmly established the actor's position at the top of the American theater. Although Stanley first appears as a simple and straightforward man, Brando's portrayal was anything but, and he used a series of complex acting techniques to make his character a real one. Few people who see this film will forget Stanley.

     We know from the play that Stanley is not genteel. He is a man's man and quite contentedly so. He has the world all figured out and, for the most part, his place in it. A little wife at home, a job suitable for a roughneck, bowling one night a week and poker on another, all serve Stanley's needs quite well. His buddies, his brew and his babe sum up Mr. Kowalski quite nicely. Content to rule his roost, Stanley wants nothing to do with culture and refinement, two things certain to undermine his position as king of all he surveys. And as a man of action, Stanley proves quite ready to defend his lifestyle.

     True to the character as written, Brando does a commendable job of introducing us to Stanley. We know within minutes of the opening that he is young, vibrant, crude and most certainly in control. His overall air of braggadocio, coupled with a little extra swagger to his walk, leaves no doubt as to who wears the pants at Elysian Fields. He drinks a lot, he yells a lot. He swears, he bullies, he pouts. Brando, who was at this time in his early twenties and at the peak of his physical development, used his physique, along with various voice inflections, to best advantage. He fleshed out the character of Stanley so thoroughly that he really seemed to fill the room.

     Then in comes Blanche. Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), who is in almost every way possible, Stanley's foil. An English teacher (of all things), and a seeming arbiter of grace and refinement, it is apparent from her first appearance that these two will butt heads. At first, for the sake of Stella, Stanley's wife (Kim Hunter), they tiptoe around one another. Stanley seems to defer to Stella and holds his tongue even when it is apparent he would rather not. Beneath his thin veneer of hospitality we see the brutish side of Stanley pawing to be let out. Thus begins a dance we watch with increasing intensity. Blanche flutters about the small apartment like a bewildered tropical bird searching for a safe place to light. Stanley is a cat, waiting and watching for his chance to pounce. And pounce he does, just as soon as he learns that Blanche and Stella's childhood estate, Belle Reve, has been lost.

     Feeling cheated by the loss of his wife's inheritance, Stanley begins the investigation into Blanche's past that will bring her world down around her. Confronted with her sordid reputation, Blanche begins to lose her already feeble grip on reality. Rather than pity her, though, Stanley moves in for the kill time after time, his attitude towards Blanche remaining surly and threatening. He makes one brief attempt to patch things up, apparently while jubilant over the thought of a newborn son, but quickly slips back into his preferred role of predator.

     Stanley's ultimate act against Blanche, who by now is almost totally helpless, is so despicable as to be unforgivable. And so vividly has Brando used voice and physical presence, even we viewers can feel threatened by him. As a matter of fact, so skillfully did Brando weave his magic that, after having read the play and seen the film, I find that the two Stanleys are firmly entwined in my mind. It turned out to be a career performance linking actor and character indelibly, much as Vivien Leigh had previously done with Scarlett O Hara. I feel quite confident that Tennessee Williams must have heartily approved.

Wade Kingston

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