My first ever encounter with A Streetcar Named Desire came in August of 2012. It was schedule pickup day a few weeks ahead of my first day of Junior year of high school and a chance to pickup class material. Junior year, English class was subtitled as, “American literature“, and along with Streetcar, the other required reading that year was The Crucible. With my specific teacher, I also ended up reading: Catcher in the Rye and Death of a Salesman.
For those who may be unfamiliar with A Streetcar Named Desire, it tells the tragic tale of Blanche DuBois, a fallen southern woman whose disillusionment over her struggles in life sends her into madness. The 1951 film version stars many of the same actors who appeared in the original Broadway stage version, including Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, Karl Malden as Mitch, and Kim Hunter as Stella. Vivien Leigh as Blanche DoBois is the notable change for the film, as Jessica Tandy played the role on Broadway. Leigh did, however, play Blanche in the London production.
Reading Streetcar in class didn’t come until just before spring break of that year, and my first impressions of the play weren’t very prestigious at all. I recall thinking it was going to be some sort of romance or drama, not expecting a tragedy, with despicable characters. I found Stanley to be a monster and Stella to be a complete pushover. Blanche, however weird of a character she was, did attract my attention because there seemed to be a mystery about who she was.
At this time, I had no idea there was a movie adaptation, and after we finished the book, the teacher announced we would watch it. I was interested because I wanted to see how these characters would visually interact with each other, I thought it would help me better understand the play as a whole. The moment the teacher put on the DVD and it started playing, a majority of my classmates were uninterested because, “it’s an old black and white movie”. I personally didn’t mind if it was black and white, and while I didn’t know much about Vivien Leigh’s work other than Gone with the Wind, I was glued to watch something with her in it.
My personal highlight of the film was the introduction to the marvelous actor that is Karl Malden. There I was, at age 16, watching this movie for the first time ever, and I see Karl Malden come on screen: I was immediately transfixed on his powerful voice, and automatically had high respect for his acting ability. Due to the fact I knew the outcome of his and Blanche’s relationship, I was really upset! I didn’t want to watch Mitch reject Blanche and snub her after learning her story. I really hoped it to turn out better than the play, but overall, I knew the rejection was the right decision. Mitch and Blanche’s dissolution of their friendship and any level of romantic relationship ending is the catalyst for Blanche’s final descent into her downward spiral, and it needs to happen for the story to conclude.
This movie was my real first exposure to Marlon Brando’s acting as well, and I took an instant dislike him. Of course now looking back, what I really meant was I can’t stand the character of Stanley. Stanley is a horrible husband to Stella, and is disgusting to Blanche- plus his famous “Stella” yell can absolutely get on one’s nerves. When looked at from an acting perspective, I admit it was spectacular. Brando could become any character, and you believed he was this nasty person. I’m sure I can’t picture anyone else yelling “Stellaaaaa” on a balcony.
Blanche was perfectly portrayed, and because I wasn’t alive during the original role on Broadway, I can’t see anyone else but Vivien- Sorry Ms. Tandy!! She was so immersed in this role, which certainly shows shades of her real life struggles. I’m sure it was a combination of Vivien’s stage training in the role, her professionalism, and her real life experience with mental health struggles that made her become Blanche. Its an occasion that only comes once in a lifetime- or perhaps in Vivien’s case, twice, where an actress is so perfectly married to the screen role. I think this was the best paring of actor and role since Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story!
Over the years since my junior year of high school, I sort of put this film out of my mind, really dismissing it, until I took a deeper look at it as an adult. I really was able to connect it to its source material, and it’s as faithful to the play as it could be for the screen.
The ending of the film, is what I wished would have happened in the play, upon comparing the two endings for the first time back in high school. Yet today, when watching the film’s ending, it cheapens the play’s ending. By having Stella stay with Stanley it makes it raw and real, and adds to the tragedy of the whole situation. Seeing Stella run off with the baby while leaving the house in the movie, it kind of almost makes you less emotional about what just Blanche minutes earlier. It was all due to the production code- and I’m not sure a better ending could have been conceived, but it makes the film less emotionally reactive.
Overall, its been a long winding road for me to appreciate this film. Seeing it in high school was just that, a high schooler watching, doing as they are asked. I did watch it as an adult for the first time at age 20- and I didn’t care for it, finding it even more bizarre than I did in high school. Finally fast forward now to my current age of 24 where it just clicks- and I defend the Oscars for Vivien Leigh and Karl Malden. I look at the film and I see something so tragic, but deeply layered with psychological depth and connection. I view it, and I really do see a masterpiece!
Be sure to check out other posts for The 4th Broadway Bound Blogathon 2021, HERE!