A Streetcar Named Desire

AFI Rank: #45
Year Released: 1951
Director: Elia Kazan
Actors: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh

A Streetcar Named Desire is a stunning film which shocked the censors in 1951 with the powerful acting by both Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Set in sultry New Orleans, Marlon is a working class man who has a run down but stable life with his wife, Stella, in a tiny two room apartment. Suddenly his wife's younger sister, Blanche, shows up. Blanche is from southern gentility, dresses in fancy dresses, and expects men to act in a gentlemanly way. Stanley likes to drink, gamble, bowl, and throw things when he gets upset - which is fairly often.

It's clear right away that things are not going to go smoothly between the two, and poor Stella is stuck in the middle, struggling to defend her sister and her husband from each other. On top of that she is pregnant. She's both upset by and enthralled by her husband's passion, running from him and to him in the same breath.

Fairly quickly we realize that Blanche is not all she seems to be. Despite her claims of high class morals, it seems that she's quite willing to drink heavily, seduce any man who gets near her, and become lost in angst over her husband who committed suicide. This happened many years ago - when she was only in her teens - but the experienced affected her immensely.

The interplay between the sisters is just as powerful as the scenes with Marlon, and this is one of the few movies on the AFI top 100 list which actually passes the Bechdel test of having two meaningful female characters in it. There are both a censored and non-censored version of this film, and the ending is meaningfully different, so it's well worth searching out both of them and watching them to see what happens. I would rather not give away spoilers here!

It can be easy to think of a movie about a rough marriage as "typical" in modern times, but for 1951, this was something rarely seen on the scene. I'm sure for many families it was not strange at all, to see this kind of anger and angst in a family. Perhaps for some it was even a bit reassuring, to think that others went through what they did, and that not all families had a golden-glow life of all smiles that Hollywood tended to portray.

Interestingly, background stories about this movie indicate that Marlon stayed in character throughout filming - even when not on set - and that it greatly upset Vivian to have him be that way. So perhaps her looking down at him on film is a reflection of how the woman herself felt about his acting technique. If that's the case, maybe his technique was quite effective, to get each one of them to give the most authentic performance possible.

While I appreciate the acting immensely in this movie, it's not a movie I would personally want to watch repeatedly. There is too much seething anger and despair for me, and there's already enough of that in the world.

A Streetcar Named Desire on Amazon.com

AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100