Some adapted plays become Hollywood sensations, but many often lose their aura of theater. That simply didn’t happen with A Streetcar Named Desire. Despite being the film that catapulted Marlon Brando to stardom, Streetcar will, in my head always be a Tennessee Williams play.
But then again, I’m more literary than cinematic. To many people, the film is the ultimate version, with Leigh playing, once again, a Southern Belle–an aging one this time. I always find it interesting that the woman who did so much to create the genteel, elegiac image of the Old South was British.
Aside from the star-studded cast, the main impression that this one gives is its sheer theatricality. The censors, even in the watered-down version that was filmed, must have had fits with this one. The famous rape is toned down, but audiences will have known what was happening. A lot of other themes skate quite close to stuff the Hays Code had deemed unacceptable.
But they got away with it, and the film is better as a result. It is a film about adults, with all the twisted realities of their loves and moral grey areas, and it’s a film for adults. The fact that it was so well received in 1950s America shows that the undercurrents in that rose-tinted decade ran much closer to the surface than what we might suspect looking back at it today.
The sexual tension of the play is definitely present everywhere in the movie, masterfully filmed to deepen the tempestuous, nearly tropical heat of the New Orleans settings. You can just feel the characters sweating, both from the temperature and their proximity to one another.
The end is as despairing as the theme. Aging beauty never ends well. When combined with lost gentility, the bereavement cannot be supported, and something has to break. It does. This one might not be popular today because, despite being hyper-progressive–transgressively so–for its era, it still serves as a paean to the loss of the Old South. Critics who look too closely at it might toss it out because of this. Of course, you don’t need that to hate it. There’s something in this film that could offend nearly everyone.
That’s probably what made it so great.
As for interesting notes, there’s a link to Planet of the Apes of all things. The actress who plays Leigh’s sister, Kim Hunter, also played Zira. Most of my friends remember the latter and have never seen the former. And finally, Mickey Kuhn, who was a child in the film, is still alive, so we give him a shout-out if he happens to read this.
This one should be obligatory viewing. It feels like a play, but is created in a way that only film can really capture. You feel yourself sweating with the characters, even if you watch it in winter. Brilliant, if not uplifting.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own exploration of the depths of human desire and frailties is collected in his book Love and Death. You can check it out here.