One of the most celebrated relics of the 1950s, A Streetcar Named Desire is emblematic of American cinema’s artistic apotheosis. For modern viewers who are watching the film for the first time, the production will appear to be a powerful prospect on paper, featuring the dream combination of Elia Kazan’s direction, Tennessee Williams’ poetic writing, and the devastating method acting of Marlon Brando. However, at the time, Brando was a relatively unknown actor, and Kazan was slowly transitioning from the world of theatre by adapting to the unique demands of the cinematic medium.
Starring Vivien Leigh as the complex figure of Blanche DuBois – an aristocratic woman from Mississippi – A Streetcar Named Desire is an intense document that chronicles the ugliness seething underneath the constructs of civil society. Although major elements from Williams’ seminal play had to be censored due to the strict Production Code at the time, Elia Kazan manages to elevate the visual narrative by contextualising it in different backgrounds (as opposed to the play) and conducts mesmerising experiments with light and shadow.
Set in the run-down French Quarter of New Orleans, Kazan creates a carnivalesque framework with flashing lights and a vibrant nightlife in which two estranged sisters greet each other after a long time. Taking a ride on a streetcar named ‘Desire’, Blanche arrives in New Orleans to meet her sister Stella (played by Kim Hunter) only to find herself in a constant battle against her husband Stanley Kowalski (Brando). Unable to tolerate her elitist charms or her superficially valuable possessions, Kowalski takes it upon himself to completely obliterate Blanche’s already destabilised ego.
While talking about Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick once said: “Without question, the best director we have in America, [and] capable of performing miracles with the actors he uses.” Although A Streetcar Named Desire isn’t the best collaboration between Brando and Kazan (that goes to On the Waterfront), Kubrick’s comments prove to be undeniable true when one witnesses the nuanced mastery on display in Streetcar.
Kazan obviously brings out the best in Brando, who ends up delivering one of the definitive acting masterclasses of the 20th century as a deeply problematic infant, tragically trapped within the pernicious constructs of masculinity. In addition, Leigh keeps pace with Brando’s incendiary talent and delves deep into the crumbling psyche of a deranged woman (based on Williams’ own sister). Through their collective brilliance, A Streetcar named Desire transforms into a timeless meditation on death, desire and the moral poverty which eclipses the bleak socio-economic reality.
The characters created by Tennessee Williams are unforgettable, thoroughly flawed and deeply human. As members of the audience, we oscillate between feelings of empathy, sympathy, disgust, rage and even a profound sadness but never apathy. While Stanley is a wife-beating patriarch who rapes a mentally ill woman and has regressive ideas as well as deep-rooted anger problems, Blanche is a paedophile who sexually violated a 17-year-old boy. Blanche pleads, “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” but Williams does not hear her cries. Instead, he focuses on the gritty social realism that forms the heartbeat of the play as well as the film.
A Streetcar Named Desire wrecks through the illusions of the human condition with such force that it destroys everything and everyone in sight, leaving us to wonder in a stunned silence whether human depravity has replaced the conventional ideas of morality for good. Despite the fact that some of the more relevant themes from Williams’ play, like the oppression of homosexuality, were cut out due to Hollywood’s conservatism, Kazan’s masterpiece remains an indispensable part of American cinema that continues to gain access to the hearts and minds of newer audiences with magical ease.