“Take a look at yourself here in a worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for 50 cents from some rag-picker. And with a crazy crown on. Now what kind of a queen do you think you are? Do you know that I’ve been on to you from the start, and not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes? You come in here and you sprinkle the place with powder and you spray perfume and you stick a paper lantern over the light bulb – and, lo and behold, the place has turned to Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile, sitting on your throne, swilling down my liquor. And do you know what I say? Ha ha! Do you hear me? Ha ha ha!”
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, directed by Elia Kazan in 1951, is an adaptation of a play by Tennessee Williams. Vivien Leigh plays Blanche DuBois, a school-teacher who travels from Mississippi to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law Stella and Stanley Kowalski, played by Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando. The three live in a small, run-down apartment and Blanche’s demeanour puts her at odds with the abrasive Stanley. When Blanche meets and begins a relationship with a neighbour, Stanley becomes determined to find the real reason his sister-in-law has left her home, and uncovers a scandal that ultimately leads to her mental breakdown. It’s a tense, claustrophobic melodrama with a collection of heightened performances including, most notably, Brando’s brash and physical portrayal of Stanley. You get the feeling that there is something pioneering about the way this film is made and performed. Like his later ‘On the Waterfront’, Kazan’s film is doggedly working-class, an unflinching if gothic depiction of poverty in the southern states that acts as a curious counterpart to the earlier and more lavish ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Gone With the Wind’. Somehow, opposite Brando’s potentially suffocating acting style, Leigh and Hunter manage to shine as the sisters driven apart, with Leigh’s mercurial depiction of a women who moves from imperious secret-holder to nervous breakdown a particular highlight.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a gritty, refreshingly raw and outstandingly performed melodrama. Watch either with Kazan’s later ‘On the Waterfront’ for a more sympathetic Brando character, or with ‘The African Queen’ to watch Bogart play a working-class role that beat Brando to that year’s Academy Award.