Elia Kazan faced a daunting challenge when the famous playwright Tennessee Williams asked him to direct the film A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan had already been directing the Broadway version of the play by the same name, and it had had a highly successful four-year run. Having only one film under his belt, the leading young actor, Marlon Brando, was a huge hit on the Broadway stage. Kazan was not sure that he could keep this success going on the screen, but he was ready for the challenge.
One thing that did help him was that Vivien Leigh was brought in to replace the Broadway star Jessica Tandy in the role of Blanche DuBois. Although Kazan had been very happy with Tandy’s stage performance, it occurred to him “that a fresh presence on the set, giving him fresh problems to face, might rekindle his interest in a way that Tandy would not.” (Schickel pg 211) Leigh also had the advantage of being a large screen star, and even though the Broadway play had been a huge success, the actors were not really that well know in the film world. Kazan felt bad that Tandy was the only one of the Broadway principal cast that would not be used in the film version, but as Karl Malden, Harold “Mitch” Mitchell in the production, said, “If Jessica had played it, I wouldn’t have been in the movie, and neither would Kim Hunter. Because Jessica was no star, and neither was Brando. But Vivien, who after Gone with the Wind was the biggest thing you ever saw – she could carry us all.”(Schickel pg 210) The decision proved to be a good one. The film was a huge success for Kazan, garnering him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and it catapulted the young Marlon Brando into film stardom, with critical acclaim resulting in his Oscar nomination for the movie, and with the movie theaters filling with hordes of young Americans obsessed with his brooding good looks.
A Streetcar Named Desire, the adaptation of the classic Tennessee Williams play, is about the fading southern belle Blanche DuBois as she moves in with her sister Stella and Stella’s sensual husband Stanley in their French Quarters New Orleans apartment. After learning that Blanche has lost the family plantation on which he had put so much score, Stanley is determined to bring down Stella’s and Blanche’s old world Southern values as brutishly and violently as he can.
One of the oft-discussed themes about this story is old South versus new South, with Blanche representing the old South. It is interesting that Vivien Leigh is cast as the southern belle Blanche DuBois, because Scarlett O’Hara, the character she played in Gone with the Wind, is the celebration of the southern belle, but Blanche proves to be more of the southern belle’s demise, and keeping with her is a depressing aspect. Blanche, representing the old South, was a specifically defined person meant to only live where she had been living, whereas Stanley, Blanche’s sister Stella’s husband, is meant to represent the new South, which is not farm based, but is heavily industrial. Blanche has a line that shows what the old South has become: “Now that all but us are in the grave.” That is an interesting way to describe living in the past; it very much exists only in the grave.
Both of these roles brought her an Academy Award. “Miss Leigh won the first Oscar in 1940 for her portrayal of Scarlett. She won the second Oscar 12 years later for her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire.”(LAtimes) She appeared as the stunning young beauty Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, and she was still a beautiful woman when she played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, but her looks had started to fade, and this was exactly what the role called for. Did she find Brando irresistibly handsome as did most other women at the time? Probably, and this added to the realism of the film, as it can be noted that her back story was that when she discovered her husband to be gay she started seeking solace in her young male students, a scandal that lost her her job and led her to come to stay with her sister in New Orleans.
It becomes clear quite early on that Blanche is a tortured soul. When talking to Stanley originally, she mentions rather quietly that “a boy died,” referring to her son’s death. Then when Stella is asking Brando to be nice to Blanche, she asks him “not to mention the baby”, as she thinks her pregnancy would bring up sad feelings for Blanche.
It is clear also from this first meeting that Stanley, played by Marlon Brando, has laid great stock in his wife Stella owning part of a plantation. When Stella tells him that Blanche has informed her that they no longer own it he talks about the Napoleonic Code in Louisiana which would give him equal ownership of anything his wife owns. With Blanche having lost the plantation, Stanley has lost almost everything that he had counted on. This is probably the base for the grudge that Stanley now has towards Stella.
In the original play Stanley was supposed to be an older man, a drunk, who was angry because life screwed him over, but when they cast Brando that changed. Both Kazan and Williams were enthralled with Brando, and Williams had no problem at all accepting Kazan’s choice of the young handsome Brando to play Stanley’s role. Marlon Brando was typical of the actors that Kazan liked to cast. He thought James Dean was a good pick; Dean acted similar to Brando, and in one of his later movies he cast Warren Beatty, another similar actor, in a leading role. He had a very clear type of man that he liked. He liked dark, brooding men who society was against. Kazan probably saw himself a little bit as Brando, or at least Brando was the sort of person he wanted to be. Brando also had a hard-nosed, domineering father, just as did Kazan. In his book Elia Kazan: A Life, Elia tells of his father’s response when he decided to go to the Yale Drama School: “Didn’t you look in the mirror?”(Kazan) Brando and Kazan definitely were a good fit for each other.
There is a line that demonstrates that Stanley had originally been meant to be an older, out-of-shape man, and it is interesting that it had been left in with the new, fit young actor playing the role. The line is: “When you’re exercising hard, like bowling.” In the original interpretation this was probably meant as a sly joke on Stanley, because to an overweight, out-of-shape guy, bowling is exercise. Even though Brando did not fit what Tennessee Williams originally had in mind for Stanley, he was thrilled with having Brando play Stanley. Brando, however, never really came to terms with the character of Stanley; he said that he was the complete opposite of everything Brando himself was. He resented that Stanley turned into a sex symbol. A dichotomy had arisen with the choice of Brando to play Stanley; Stanley still had the character of the brute as written by Tennessee Williams, but this was overlain with the idealism of the young, incredibly handsome and fit Brando.
Brando had a touchiness that moviegoers found endearing. In his later movies he demonstrated this with the glove in On the Waterfront and with the cat in The Godfather, and here he shows it as he goes through the things in Blanche’s trunk with Stella while Blanche is having her hot bath in the other room. Although in On the Waterfront and in The Godfather it was not in the script, it probably was here. He points out to Stella the fur stoles, saying “Is this fox? Where is your fox fur?” showing that Blanche had money to buy these things whereas Stella did not. What is remarkable in this scene is that Brando so clearly is demonstrating anger, jealousy, and disgust, yet he does this without raising his voice or appearing over dramatic. This is likely an example of his Stanislavski training. “He is credited with bringing realism to film acting. He helped to popularize the Stanislavski system of acting, studying with Stella Adler in the 1940s.”(Wikipedia) Kazan was also a huge fan and was one of the early initiators of the method.
Kazan is known for his preference to use live shots rather than sets in his movies, and this caused some consternation for him when taking the highly successful Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire to the big screen. He wanted to maintain the intimacy of the play, for as Kazan said about the theater: “The characters were trapped right in front of you and you watch this terrible thing going on and you aren’t able to prevent it or do anything about it.”(Schickel pg 214 ) His solution was “not to open up his production, but rather confined its intense actions and tense dialogue in his claustrophobic set. He further intensified this mood with a heavy reliance on tight close ups.” (Schickel pg216)
Another interesting feature of Kazan’s movies is that there is often found a scene that the critics and movie goers talk about over and over, and no discussion of A Streetcar Named Desire could be complete without discussing the famous Stella scene. One thing that people don’t really talk about that much is that the scene has a very odd rhythm to it. The build up to the scene is that Stanley is having a poker game and Stella and Blanche keep talking, and eventually Blanche starts playing some music, and Stanley is getting angrier and angrier that they keep talking, and it turns into a great fight. What is interesting though is that it builds really well. It is almost paced like a thriller scene, or almost like a horror scene. It even has what in horror is called a jump scare, where a very sudden silent action occurs and he throws the radio through the window and the fight grows really violently. It is interesting to note that the whole thing of him calling up to his wife, “Stella, Stella,” actually works. When she is coming down at 42:56 she gets a very sexual air to her. It is a beautiful scene. Stella and Stanley seem to be two people entirely driven by emotions. There is no logic to them; they are emotional wrecks.
There is also another scene that shows the brilliance of Kazan’s directing. At 38:40 Blanche has Malden’s character put a paper lantern around a light bulb, and then she turns it on and turns on the radio. I was initially a bit critical of the directing choice here, and I was thinking you know what they should do, they should turn off the lights or something. But watching it a second time I love how the apartment looks in no way different, partly because it is in black and white, but also with it looking no way different after the paper lantern is placed, it gives a good indication that Blanche has very childlike sensitivities. An element that this scene shows is that Blanche, just like Stanley, has never grown up. They both are in a sort of preadolescence, and I thought it was an interesting choice to not really change any of the lighting structure at all in this scene. It underpins how non-romantic this whole situation between Blanche and Stanley is.
There are so many elements that make this an outstanding film. The music in the movie is amazing and helps set the atmosphere throughout the film. The lively jazz music in the opening scene at the streetcar platform gives us the incredibly realistic feel of being in New Orleans. The score was written by Alex North, and as with many of the other components of the film, he had to play homage to the censor board. The board forced them to add strings to their numbers to remove some of the provocative aspect, but even with this taken into account, the music is breathtaking.
The film was produced at a time when America was happy to be through with the Second World War, and young people just wanted to enjoy life. They enjoyed the wardrobes in the film, the gossamer, delicate, femine dresses worn by Blanche, and the t-shirt which Brando wore and which became a staple for young men everywhere. The movie theaters were crowded, as people just wanted to enjoy their freedom without the worry of a devastating war.
A Streetcar Named Desire was released in 1951 to an audience that was greatly anticipating it due to the amazing success of the Broadway production of the same name. It did not disappoint. It had a box office take of 8 million dollars in the U.S. with a budget of 1.8 million dollars.(imdb.business) It won 4 Oscars, including Best Actress in a Leading Role to Vivien Leigh, Best Actor in a Supporting Role to Karl Malden, Best Actress in a Supporting Role to Kim Hunter, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration to Richard Day and George James Hopkins, as well as Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Recording, and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Along with four other Oscar nominations Marlon Brando was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role; Elia Kazan was nominated for Best Director; Tennessee Williams was nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay; and Alex North was nominated for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic of Comedy Picture. It also won numerous other prestigious awards. (imdb.awards)
It is clear in so many ways that this film, as well as the earlier theater production, was meant for greatness. Even the title A Streetcar Named Desire is mesmerizing, and many people think that it is a metaphor. In reality, though, there was a real streetcar line in New Orleans named Desire. An historical account states: “The Desire streetcar line gained widespread acclaim when Tennessee Williams' play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," was published in 1947. By that time, New Orleanians were quite familiar with the Desire line--many of them probably taking it to work, home, or the market.”(Ramirez) Tennessee Williams had chosen his title well, and was adamant that he wanted Elia Kazan as the director for his masterpiece, and Kazan brilliantly rose to the occasion.