A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the best films ever made and I have been a fan for a long time. The movie, directed by Elia Kazan, starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh is one of the most quoted films, and has become a piece of pop culture that will never cease to be an influence. I would like to discus just what it is about this 1951 film version of the 1947 Tennessee Williams play that makes it great.
First of all there is the talent of Tennessee Williams himself, who created this story of desire and death in the city of New Orleans. Desire and death are the study of this play; as Blanche hears the Mexican woman selling her flowers for the dead she says, "Death--I used to sit here and she used to sit over there and death was as close as you are…We didn't dare even admit we had ever heard of it!… The opposite is desire. So do you wonder?"
The genius of Tennessee Williams is in layers of the death that Blanche experiences; she describes the death of her family, the lose of the family home, the death of her gay husband by his own hand, the end of wealth and also the death of her youth. The loss of Blanche's virtue is directly due to her using desire to escape death, and in the end she loses her sanity.
The brilliance of Williams play could have been lost in translation, but Elia Kazan chooses to give us a movie that was faithful to the play. Censorship and scene locations change the story to a small degree, but the bulk of the play is staged in Stanley and Stella's seedy apartment in the depths of the French Quarter in New Orleans. The movie hinges on the actors' ability to exhibit the range of emotion, which is the undercurrent of the story.
Stanley Kowalski is a man of power, a "brute" forcing his way through life. With strength and determination, he has always gotten his way. Marlon Brando allows his own personal force to break the confines of stereotypical character acting. Brando is Stanley Kowalski; and in a way he becomes sympathetic to the viewer because he is true to his nature; he is honest, he is brash and he is unrepentant. The power of the performance and the skill of writing come together perfectly in Brando's performance.
Vivien Leigh plays Blanche DuBois, a sensitive schoolteacher who comes to stay with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), and encounters Stanley in their small apartment. Blanche has nowhere to go due to the "epic fornications" of her and Stella's ancestors. The money and Belle Reve, their plantation, are gone; and Blanche has nowhere else to go. Blanche speaks of poetry and literature, dresses in fancy clothes, takes long steaming bathes and engulfs their apartment with mock elegance.
The part of Blanche is central to everything that has depth and meaning to the play. Blanche has lived through the death of her family from close range. She knows death and desire; and, in this house of cards that is Stanley and Stella's life, she has created her own world of lies to build upon. Vivien Leigh is perfect in her portrayal of the woman who craves soft light because a "woman's charm's fifty percent illusion."
The people who know and love this movie quote it because of the words that Williams wrote were perfect, but it is the delivery that burns it in our minds. Brando and Leigh are as much responsible for the timelessness of this movie as the play itself.