Okay, it’s time we tackled some Marlon Brando. His movies actually appear quite a bit on our list (#2 The Godfather, #19 On the Waterfront), and he undoubtedly makes any movie he’s ever been in. But here it is his subtle character development with Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara from #6 Gone With the Wind) as a leading lady that makes A Streetcar Named Desire one of the most beloved classic films.
The movie actually began as a play by Tennessee Williams. Stanley (Marlon Brando) and Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter) live humbly in New Orleans in the post WWII era, until Stella’s sister, Blanche (Vivien Leigh) shows up on their doorstep. Stella and Stanley are expecting a child, but for all their (albeit off-color) marital bliss, Blanche can’t seem to understand why they live so simply, or really how her sister could choose someone so unrefined and gruff as Stanley. Tensions rise between Stanley and Stella, as her background becomes clear—she has a history of mental illness, and has been lying to Stella in order to come between her and Stanley. Faced with a threat to his marriage, along with Blanche’s inability to resist pursuing virtually any male character, Stanley tries to get Blanche to come clean. He finally has her committed to a mental institution.
So, it’s a pretty intense plot, and it’s in black and white, which to me always adds a more serious, if more romantic backdrop to the setting. It’s an interesting film because there are two stories at work throughout the movie. On the surface, there’s the dynamics between three people living in a small household, and how their various relationships play out. But deeper down, there’s an intense interplay between Stanley and Blanche, the tension dramatized by the black and white austerity of the film. Further, the two characters have such strong attitudes against each other, the viewer almost wants there to be romantic tension, because it makes sense based on every pattern of leading-role relationships we’ve ever seen. At the same time, it would be perverse for Blanche, who has already disturbed so much of her sister’s life, to take her husband, too.
This wave of anxiety about the fate of these two characters rises and falls throughout the film as the viewer realizes that Stanley loves Stella far too much to compromise their relationship, culminating in the infamous “Hey Stellaaaaaa!” sidewalk scream, which may have been the basis for Lloyd Dobler’s attempt at luring Diane Court out of her house with a boom box in Say Anything. Let it be known that Marlon Brando originated the window beckoning (okay, maybe that was Romeo). In any case, it is the depth at which these actors fall into their roles that makes this story so compelling (Brando and Hunter also starred in the Broadway production, but Leigh came in to replace Jessica Tandy). The emotions are so real, augmented by the lighting in the foggy streets of New Orleans and a dim apartment that set the tone for this wonderful masterpiece.
And what of the title? Blanche comes into town on a streetcar route named Desire, but she also enters her sister’s life with the force of a train—her desire being what drove her away from her hometown (she had an affair with a 17-year-old student), and also her downfall (her attempts at pursuing both Stanley and a man named Mitch fail for various reasons, the least of which is Stanley’s discovery of her past). For a serious drama with some of the finest acting in film history, give A Streetcar Named Desire a shot.