[Mitch confronts Blanche after he learns of her scandalous past.]
Mitch: I thought you were straight.
Blanche: Straight? What’s straight? A line can be straight or a street. But the heart of a human being?
A Streetcar Named Desire
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter
Warner Brothers, 1951, 122 minutes
By the late 1940s, Elia Kazan was widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s premier directors, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Kazan had successfully staged Tennessee Williams’ play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which had a Broadway run of two years and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. When plans were being made to adapt the play to film, Williams pressed upon a reluctant Kazan to direct.
Completely out of other options, a frazzled Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), in their run-down French Quarter apartment. The aristocratic and genteel Blanche is both repulsed by and attracted to the animalistic Stanley. A relationship blossoms between Blanche and Mitch (Karl Malden), one of Stanley’s more civilized friends. Increasingly annoyed by her condescending airs, Stanley learns of Blanche’s disreputable past and ends her relationship with his friend. Without any hope, Blanche is driven to madness and taken away to an asylum.
Movie theater audiences were stunned by “Streetcar.” Williams’ dark portrayal of humanity was not typical Hollywood fare. And what about Brando’s performance? Audiences had never seen anything so brutally raw and realistic on the screen prior to this. “Streetcar” was nominated for twelve Oscars and three of the leads (Leigh, Malden, and Hunter) would win. Brando’s method-acting performance was just too shocking for 1951 to garner official recognition. But with “Streetcar,” Brando and Kazan had revolutionized acting and the American film industry. Kazan shot the film in much the same way the play was staged, with most of the action taking place in the Kowalskis’ decrepit two-room flat but added some on-location scenes at a train station, bowling alley, and factory floor. Harold Stradling’s cinematography is excellent as is Alex North’s jazzy score. The American Film Institute twice selected “Streetcar” as one of the fifty-best American movies ever made (#45 in 1998, #47 in 2007).
Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective
Many books and articles have been written about the meaning of Williams’ lyrical “Streetcar.” The characters aren’t meant to be actual people but they’re symbolic of humanity. Here we see the perennial conflict between civilization with its art, education, religion, and manners versus the baser instincts of survival. Yet, Blanche is not all she pretends to be and Stanley is more than happy to confront her hypocrisy.
“Streetcar” was considered quite scandalous back in 1951 although it wouldn’t cause even a ripple on today’s prime time television. As a believer in Jesus Christ, I’m a big fan of this film. Why? Because it shows people as they really are; sinners and hypocrites. Underneath the pretense. Without the sugar coating. Williams and Kazan don’t give you the Gospel in this movie but they rub your nose in man’s inhumanity and man’s sinfulness. I’ve read that the audience stood and applauded the Broadway premier for thirty minutes after the final curtain went down. But why were they applauding? Williams was holding up a mirror and showing them exactly who and what they were without Jesus Christ.
Blanche was desperately searching for a “safe harbor.” Without Christ, where do we go? Who will take us in? To whom can we turn?
Thank you, Jesus.