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Review: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

Banish all thoughts of the regrettable “Island of Dr. Moreau,” “Don Juan Demarco” or even Col. Walter E. Kurtz; this is how Marlon Brando deserves to be remembered. Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” trimmed down and censored from Tennesse Williams’ play, is a snapshot of Brando when he was bursting with rakish charm and talent. As the volatile Stanley Kowalski, he all but melts lens right off the camera; he fills up the screen with his intensity. This is the performance that illustrates why Brando is still considered not just a great Method actor but one of the all-time great actors.

So Brando is a revelation. That point asserted, the actor — though mesmerizing and explosive — is not solely responsibile for charging “A Streetcar Named Desire” with predatory tension. In this task he has an unlikely companion: Vivien Leigh, every bit as mannered as Brando is not. She plays Blanche DuBois, living with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley in New Orleans’ French Quarter after a breakdown, as a hunter. With all the focus on the sexual tension, no one seems to notice that innate cunning is what makes Stanley and Blanche natural enemies. Since predators have a keen ability to peg their own kind, Stanley senses that Blanche preys on people. Unlike her brother-in-law, Blanche doesn’t use force to get what she wants, relying instead on a cultivated air of mannered, fluttery femininity; she uses people out of emotional necessity. But her façade is cracking, and the weaker Blanche gets the more Stanley readies himself for the pounce. The lead-up to that attack — censored initially, restored in the 1993 director’s cut — is nerve-wracking.

The Blanche/Stanley conflict hammers hard on the play’s pointed theme of illusion (the America of gentility and refinement) and reality (the rougher, more cutthroat immigrant America), with Blanche unwilling or unable to embrace the realities of her sister and Stanley’s life. Even more interesting, that juxtaposition seems to manifest itself naturally in the very different but equally effective acting styles of Leigh and Brando. Leigh — who admittedly does pour on the “Southern charm” a little too thick a little too often — uses planning and a great deal of forethought in constructing Blanche’s revolving door of personalities. From smoothing her hair to smiling wistfully at Mitch (Karl Malden), a friend of Stanley’s who falls for her shrinking violet act, every gesture and expression is deliberate. The way she seduces a nervous teen-age boy collecting for a newspaper, for example, is remarkably cool-headed. Improvisation has no place in her performance; Blanche lives to create enchantment, to “tell what ought to be truth.”

Then there’s Brando — nothing about what he does feels calculated. He’s running on animal instincts; Stanley wants what he wants right then and right there, and he doesn’t care to analyze his motivations. Note his ghoulish smirk as he corners Blanche, which wordlessly signals his bad intentions (getting some help from Alex North’s dramatic score), or listen to his drunken caterwaulling for his wife in the cliched-but-still-momentous “Stellaaaaaa!” sequence by the staircase. Perhaps the best example, though, is the infamous dinner table scene — partly improvised by Brando — where Stanley, napkin still tucked in his shirt, “cleans the table” by snatching up his dishes and smashing them on the wall. There’s a verocity in these moments that seems authentic, like Brando aimed for anger but overshot his mark with scarily persuasive results. Malden and Hunter fall somewhere in-between Leigh and Brando on this scale, as both essentially play trapped victims: Stella can’t override her sexual attraction to her husband, and Mitch, lonely for female companionship, falls for Blanche’s act. He just plain wants somebody.

Come to speak of it, “A Streetcar Named Desire” seems, above all, to be a study of want. The characters all want something different, but they think they need it to feel “right.” For Stella, it’s sexual attraction that keeps her entangled with Stanley. Blanche labors to create magic and illusion (by depending “on the (sexual) kindness” of strangers, which prompted censors to demand Kazan to skirt this point). And Stanley thinks he needs Stella, but what he’s really after is control and domination. He goes around believing himself to be king, but he forgets even rulers take a fall.

Grade: A-