May 18, 2022

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AFI Countdown Challenge #45: A Streetcar Named Desire

A working class man and a woman with upper class pretensions clash in New Orleans.

I love The Simpsons in its prime.  It was sharp, emotional, and hilarious all at the same time.  The show was always willing to push the envelope without becoming too crass.  As such, when Marge decided she wanted to do community theater, the series opted for Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  However, Williams’ estate opted not to give the series permission to use the actual play, but there were some general rules about parody the show could use.  That meant that they could adapt the original play into a musical with Marge as the doomed Blanche DuBois and a surprisingly buff Ned Flanders as Stanley Kowalski.

That’s a great episode, but the 1951 film version is also pretty definitive, and it could use the actual Tennessee Williams script.

A Streetcar Named Desire is the story of Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh).  Arriving in New Orleans to see her sister Stella (Kim Hunter), Blanche seems to be the typical Tennessee Williams heroine:  a woman stuck in the past, unable to reconcile the loss of some sort of Southern lifestyle that doesn’t exist anymore.  Why is Blanche in New Orleans?  She doesn’t say right away, but Stella’s rough-and-tumble husband Stanley (Marlon Brando) is suspicious.  Louisiana, it seems is under the Napoleonic Code, and that means what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband, and as it stands, if Blanche “lost” the family estate, that means Stella and Stanley should have had a piece of it.  Stanley wants to know what happened and why Blanche is in New Orleans (and his apartment) at this time.

Here’s what jumps out at me here:  both Stanley and Blanche are right about each other.  Stanley is a violent brute.  Blanche is hiding something from everyone.  Stanley is the worse of the two, easily.  He hits Stella at one point, and it is implied he raped Blanche at the end of the film, an act that pushes Blanche over the edge and into madness.

But Blanche is hardly innocent herself.  She’d been previously chased out of the town she called home and lost her teaching job for statutory rape, she is full of high class pretentions, and she did lose the family estate.  Though she is very low at this point in her life, she also still looks down her nose at Stanley, berating him as a Pollack and a brute continually in front of Stella and privately.  Blanche is the more sympathetic character, someone already prone to mental instability, and Stanley’s general suspicions about Blanche aren’t very helpful, but it does seem there is an objective to their continual fighting:  Stella.

Stella at the beginning loves both her husband and her sister.  She’s pregnant with her first child.  She excuses the general lack of information Blanche provides, but also doesn’t sit for Blanche’s initial bashing of Stanley.  The Stanley thing becomes very obvious in the famous scene where Brando, ripped with muscle, dripping wet, and in a ripped t-shirt, calls for Stella to come down from the upstairs apartment after he has hit her during a drunken brawl after a poker game with his friends turned violent.  This was 1951, so sex was something that could only be implied, but the sultry look Hunter gives as she slowly descends the stairs before Brando scoops her up and carries her back inside, well, that tells you all you need to know about why she stays with this guy.

As for Blanche, when she isn’t putting Stanley down, she’s hiding everything about herself, preferring to project an image of herself as young, pure, and of a higher standard.  That mostly works at first as she finds the one guy among Stanley’s friends who seems to be more polite and gentle than the others, especially Stanley.  Blanche’s romance with Mitch seems sweet, but this isn’t a happy play or film, so it doesn’t end well, in part because of Stanley’s snooping and his decision to tell Mitch.  As Mitch puts it, he isn’t upset that Blanche lied about her age.  He’s upset that Blanche concealed her shaky past, and when Blanche is carted off to a mental hospital at the end of the film, he’s showing clear regret.

Next time, just go on a date in the sunlight, Blanche. You look less suspicious that way.

Stanley also loses Stella.  After the birth of her baby, Stella may not know what Stanley did to Blanche, but she’s clearly had enough.  Did Blanche ultimately win the war over Stella?  If she did, she achieved a Pyrrhic victory.  Her fragile mental state finally broken beyond repair, Blanche can only famously depend on the kindness of strangers.

Williams and controversial director Elia Karan clearly sympathized with Blanche here, a faded Southern belle played perfectly by Leigh in a way that is very different from her most famous role.  She’s a damaged thing, not as innocent as she’d like everyone to believe, but what she may need is a little kindness in her life.  True, she seems incapable of giving it to those she sees as beneath her, but that doesn’t change the fact that she needs it.  That’s a simplified view of things, but given Stanley’s first thoughts went to possible monetary issues while Blanche instantly judged Stanley as being beneath her, it was bound to get very ugly, very fast.

NEXT UP:  Ho boy.  Some films don’t age well, and some of them are the highly controversial 1915 The Birth of a Nation.  That one really didn’t age.

It’s hard to find stills from this film off Google Images that don’t feature some guys in Klan robes…
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