Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

I first saw Streetcar about 10 years ago, with some friends. Frankly, I didn’t remember much about it beyond the fact that I thought it was really, really weird, and that I probably didn’t “get it.” Since it is number 45 on the AFI 100 list, I recently got to see it again. It’s still really weird, but I think I “got it” a bit more this time around, and could appreciate it for its merits.

A Streetcar Named Desire is based on a play by Tennessee Williams, set in New Orleans after World War II. It follows Blanche Dubois (Vivian Leigh), a mentally unstable woman who comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). Blanche’s tenuous grasp on reality becomes weaker as she is bullied by Stanley and attempts to make a match with his friend Mitch (Karl Malden). Ultimately, she drives a wedge through Stanley and Mitch’s relationship as well as that of Stanley and Stella.

Sorry for the really clunky synopsis. It makes the movie sound, well, only a little more boring than it actually is. This is definitely one of those where people mostly stand around and talk; one that is obviously based on a play with very little action or change of scenery. With such movies, you can assume that it’s the acting that makes them great, and Streetcar is no exception. Leigh, Hunter, and Malden all won Oscars for their roles, and Brando received a well-deserved nomination. The film received a whopping twelve nominations, in fact, many of them artistic, but with Best Director and Best Picture nods as well. Director Eliza Kazan works extremely well with the lack of scenery, utilizing small spaces to portray Blanche’s turmoil and to make what action there is seem much larger than it really is.

All in all, it’s one of those movies that you can watch and appreciate for what it does well, but that you won’t necessarily enjoy. I definitely got a lot out of a second viewing, but my husband, seeing it for the first time, was mostly just incredibly frustrated. That in itself is a testament to the revelatory performance by Vivian Leigh. She changes in an instant between being demure, superior, and intellectual to weak and unhinged, or to a tower of anger and strength. Overlying all of those changes, though, is a clear sense of manipulation. Blanche is constantly trying to take everyone in, maybe even herself, and Leigh really brings that across in a way that makes it difficult to feel any sympathy for her character. Brando also turns in an amazing performance as the brutish Stanley. He and Blanche are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin; they’re both trying to rise above, but are both pulled back down by their natures. As such, the characters are nearly too volatile to be in the same room together, and Leigh and Brando are magnificent in portraying that tension.

In thinking about it, I’ve started comparing Streetcar to The Lion in Winter in that they’re both based on plays and are therefore mostly talking and powered by great acting. The Lion in Winter manages to maintain a level of tension throughout that draws the audience in and keeps them interested, even without any action. I think that Streetcar doesn’t quite manage to do the same thing; the emotion and drama fail to keep one riveted quite often, and we are left with Blanche’s histrionics. While Vivian Leigh’s (and Brando’s) performance is indeed first-class, it’s not always enough to hold the viewer’s interest, sadly. Still, if you’re looking for drama and great acting, you could certainly do worse than this.

3 responses to “Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

  1. Seriously I need to see this film already, especially since I like Vivien Leigh. I’ve only seen clips of this as my mother was a big Brando fan, so I felt like I have seen it but I actually haven’t. Interesting that you compared this to Lion In Winter, I agree that it was quite intense considering it’s not an action film, and all the acting was all brilliant.

  2. While I still didn’t like the movie, your comments about Leigh’s performance and how it affected me are spot on — you’re right, she did a fantastic job with the role and deserves the accolades.

  3. I also found the comparison to Lion in Winter to be interesting. It made me think.

    I saw A Streetcar Named Desire quite a few years ago. I remember being struck by the presence and physicality of the young Brando. At that time I had only ever seen him in his older acting phase (i.e. The Godfather.)

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