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Movie Review: Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh Square Off in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

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Watching the great A Streetcar Named Desire today, you can practically taste the intense rivalry that director Elia Kazan stoked between his two leading actors, then-up-and-coming young actor Marlon Brando and Gone with the Wind star and Hollywood Royalty Vivien Leigh.  Sure, their characters certainly squabbled on the page (no one will ever rank Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois among the most memorable BFF partnerships), but their conflict spilled into the behind-the-scenes arena.  Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy, who created the Blanche part on stage, and Kazan never let Leigh ease into the rapport of the other actors.  Brando thought her overly haughty and stuffy; Leigh thought him mannered and impulsive.

As a result, the end result gets a charge far outstripping anything in the stage version; the movie resembles nothing less than a psychic boxing match, a clash of performance styles.  In the red corner: Brando, representing the emerging Method discipline.  In the blue corner: Leigh, fighting to maintain the Old Guard’s poise and dignity.  The purse: acting domination of the Silver Screen.

Short version: Brando won.  Knockout.

Longer version: how could he not?  If you weren’t a frequent visitor to the stage, this was acting from the dark side of the moon.  Viewed with modern eyes, Brando’s acting choices no longer look realistic—his Stanley is as heightened and extreme as something in Kabuki Theater—but the work’s spontaneity still has the power to hold viewers in thrall.  Pauline Kael recalls knowing Brando would be big when she first saw him on-stage—she thought he was having a seizure—and Streetcar maintains his unpredictability.  On the page, Stanley is a brute, but Brando gives him a queer affability.  Here’s a man who drinks too much and thinks nothing of forcibly taking sexual favors (his last-act physical triumph over Blanche is still an ugly masterwork), yet we remember his easy smile, the goofy way he laughs.

At the end of the day, Stanley is a massively destructive child; look no further than the careless way he slouches and slurps down dinner.  He’s a stranger in his own body, sexual id incarnate, whether he’s going into rages that turn-on his wife (Kim Hunter, in the film’s most subtle, underrated characterization) or out-and-out raping Blanche, and so an otherwise lurid air instead feels elemental and just.  In that sense, he redeems playwright Tennessee Williams’ source material, which for all its brilliance, often confuses “seedy” for “organic.”  With Brando, the delineation is never in doubt.

Would Brando give better performances?  Absolutely: he and Kazan refined his Method intensity to a honed edge in On the Waterfront, and the revelatory candor he brought to Last Tango in Paris finally bridged the gap between performer and performance that he had so long attempted to cross (and, true to exasperating Brando form, he never bared his soul in such a fashion ever again).  But A Streetcar Named Desire was the Big Bang, both for Brando and the emerging Method acting trend.  To put it another way, if you walk away from the play thinking of Blanche, it is Brando who dominates your imagination after the movie.

The tragedy, if there is one (and I’d argue that the acting world ultimately reached proper equilibrium: this town is big enough for both Ryan Gosling and Colin Firth), is that Vivien Leigh gets lost in the shuffle.  Part of that is Gone with the Wind‘s fault—Scarlett O’Hara’s shadow never quite left her—but her pairing against Brando merits comparison with the story of the slender reed (her) in the hurricane (Brando).

And that’s a shame, because she does her best-ever work as Blanche.  You get immediately why Kazan chose her star over Tandy’s; Blanche has that same magnetism, but it’s broken and weak, and Leigh does a brave thing by letting her own celebrity dim in response to the character.

She’s vulnerable and pathetic and lusty and repressed.  Her scenes with Brando are iconic, yes, but better still are the moments she shares with Karl Malden’s dopey blue-collar joe; you want the two to connect so badly, even as it becomes clear that Malden needs to run—as fast as possible—from the trainwreck that is Blanche Dubois.

The tragedy felt at the end is dual.  It is not just Blanche who topples, but Leigh’s peerless craft.

Warner’s Blu-ray represents the best A Streetcar Named Desire can look without getting a 4K restoration; it’s clear and textured, if a little soft at times.  Though the movie is fairly nondescript, sonically, the monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track shines when the film needs it to (Alex North’s jazzy score, Brando’s eruptions).

Warner has provided its usual roster of entertaining and informative supplements.  We get a great commentary between Laurent Bouzereau, Karl Malden, and film historians Rudy Behlmer & Jeff Young, a track that covers a lot of ground without repeating much from the three Streetcar-centric featurettes: A Streetcar on Broadway (the play’s Broadway run), A Streetcar in Hollywood (the transition from stage to screen), and Censorship and Desire (the play’s controversial subject matter).  We also get Richard Schickel’s feature-length Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey, a thorough retrospective of Kazan’s creative labors; short profiles of both Alex North and Marlon Brando (North and the Music of the South and An Actor Named Brando, respectively); and a slew of wonderful archival material, including video and audio outtakes, three theatrical trailers, and Brando’s original screen test.

In addition, the set comes packaged in an attractive forty-page Digibook.

What is so interesting about A Streetcar Named Desire is how the sixty-one years since its theatrical release have shifted its impact.  In 1951, the film’s mature thematic content made it the talk of the town; now, we see in it the birthplace of Hollywood’s Method traditions, brought forth—snarling and screaming—courtesy of the great Marlon Brando.

A Streetcar Named Desire is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

-Visit A Streetcar Named Desire‘s official Facebook page HERE.