in Oscars Fortnight

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

The 24th Academy Awards (1952)
Wins: 4

Like Ben-Hur last year, most of my frame of reference for A Streetcar Named Desire comes from the Simpsons. In this case, it’s the episode “A Streetcar Named Marge” where Marge is cast as Blanche DuBois in a musical adaptation of Tennessee William’s play called “Oh, Streetcar!” Here’s a recap if you don’t recall.

So I knew the basics, a fading southern belle named Blanche (Vivien Leigh) has fallen on hard times and moves back in with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and her abusive husband Stanley (Marlon Brando) in a cramped apartment in New Orleans. What I didn’t know is Blanche is a former teacher who sleeps with a student and then is set to an institution at the end. Sorry for the spoiler, but hey, it’s a 76-year-old play so that’s your problem.

Streetcar is far more grim than I anticipated. I knew Stanley was a drunk brute and screams “STELLA!”, and rips his shirt, what I didn’t know is how much abuse Blanche goes through. Even in moments where it seems like she’s gonna catch a break, like when she starts dating Stanley’s oafish friend Mitch (Karl Malden), it ends in tragedy when he discovers her lies.

You feel bad for Blanche but she is equally self-destructive and delusional that she will find a man to fix all her problems. Even though her sister Stella has a man and goes through hell being trapped with him. Speaking of “trapped” one of the most effective techniques in the film is the apartment the three share gets smaller and smaller throughout the movie. The walls are literally closing in!

But what would a dour Tennessee Williams’ drama be without an accomplished cast? Streetcar won three acting Oscars for Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Leigh especially is the most vulnerable of three. For a character who loves glamour we almost always see her in her least glamourous moments. Leigh’s the heart of the movie but it’s hard to ignore the freight train performance from a 27-year-old Marlon Brando, who ironically is the only principal character to not take home the gold.

Marlon Brando doesn’t inhibit characters as much as his characters become Marlon Brando. Any role Brando touches instantly becomes an intimidating yet charming collection of idiosyncrasies. It’s in the way Brando carries himself, confidently, and even in the way he speaks. I have never understood the Marlon Brando accent. It’s nasally, whiny, but also has this New York street-tough vibe to it. But Brando wasn’t from New York. He was born in Omaha, lived in Illinois and California until moving to New York as an adult. He was unique.

Brando is tearing open his shirt, screaming, teasing, taunting, I think it’s his best performance. The Island of Dr. Moreau is pretty funny though. He wears an ice bucket on his head! But this was Brando before he went off the deep end. He’s just wading in the waters of eccentricity. Which is a perfect match for such an unsavory character.

I’m not the biggest fan of stage-to-screen adaptations. I often find the cinematic quality of these adaptations as lacking, but this is an Elia Kazan film–who would team again with Brando and Malden on the iconic On the Waterfront (1954)–and Kazan presents us with a nightmarish-looking portrait of New Orleans. Like they said in the Simpsons episode about the city: “If you want to go to Hell, you should take a trip! To the Sodom and Gomorra on the Miss-iss-ip!”