Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Six

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#26 — A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
Elaine Stritch was talking about Marlon Brando once, and Elaine Stritch never minced words. In discussing Brando’s time in class with Stella Adler, studying the fiercely emergent acting strategy formulated by Constantin Stanislavski, Stritch noted, “Marlon’s going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.” What it must have been like to be in attendance at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre in the winter of 1947 when Brando debuted the character of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. It had to rattle the senses, like a blast of smelling salts to the soul. The reviews from that time don’t necessarily bear out that notion, with Brando’s performance often something of an afterthought for critics more preoccupied with offering and immediate assessment of the play’s placement in the trajectory of Williams’s career or even dwelling more on Jessica Tandy in the admittedly attention-getting role of Blanche DuBois. Yet, even Williams credits Brando with unlocking facets of the character that were lost to him in the creative process. By his own assessment, Williams wrote Stanley as a mere brute. Brando played him as a human, carrying all the wounds endemic to that state of being.

Released four years later, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire captures a monumental shift in acting as it happens. Much of the stage cast was transplanted to the screen, with Tandy as a notable exception. The producers insisted a proven movie star was needed for the role, someone with name recognition who could counterbalance the relative unknowns in the rest of the cast. Vivien Leigh, twelve years past Scarlett O’Hara and experienced in the role thanks to a turn in the London stage production, was recruited to play Blanche. It is the contrasting styles between Leigh and Brando, with the rest of cast residing unsteadily somewhere in between them on the spectrum of acting realism, that gives the film its unnerving dynamic. Leigh maintains the theatricality of the preceding generation of film actors, an affectation ideally suited to a Southern flower raging against her own withering. Simultaneously, Brando is burrowing into the combative Stanley with a unwavering commitment to naturalism, particularly in finding the small gestures and flickers of emotion that signal an inner life. The ugly familial conflicts that take place in the rundown New Orleans home of the Kowalskis are a mirror to the seismic shifts taking place in the art and craft of acting. The drama crafted by Williams is powerful on its own terms. The interplay of artistic transformation deepens it.

Elia Kazan directs the film with an feel for the story’s downbeat energies. The gruesomeness of the emotions of display brings out a bruised knuckle fortitude to Kazan’s style that I would argue was the unmet aspiration of his earlier films. He had a clear itch to say something profound about the American experience, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, he finally found the work that could unlock that statement, or at least the foundational elements of it. There is a conflict between past and future (again, paralleled in the approach to the craft that conveys the message), as well as the sick joke at the heart of the American Dream, that any hopes of upward movement are beset by a thousand unseen manipulations to leave a life sputtering on the launching pad. Kazan would find ways to make these points again, even more effectively. There’s a different purity to them here, perhaps because of the added sense of discovery. A Streetcar Named Desire, in a way increasingly vital in American film, simply meant something. It told truths that couldn’t be reached in other ways. And with Brando, it offered the most profound introduction to one of the great acting truth-tellers in the history of the form. And the revolution dawned.