The ’50s have a reputation for cultural squareness, but the decade was marked by radical flourishes: in literature, music, the fine arts, and even in Hollywood. Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire is in some ways the product of a more repressed time. Kazan and Warner Bros. had to dull or remove some of Williams’ references to rape, homosexuality, and promiscuity; and even Williams’ original play often speaks in code about its characters’ sexual hang-ups. Yet the movie Streetcar still seethes with lust, and retains so much of Williams’ florid dialogue and insinuation that it often feels like Kazan and his cast are getting away with something.
Vivien Leigh stars as Blanche DuBois, a former Mississippi schoolteacher and delusional advocate for the courtliness of the Old South, who lost her property and her standing in the community. When Blanche comes to visit her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans, she takes up with a reasonably good-natured middle-aged man named Mitch (Karl Malden), but Mitch gets frustrated by the obviously damaged and worldly Blanche’s pretensions of purity. Meanwhile, lurking in the background is Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), a handsome brute with a hair-trigger temper and a raw sexuality that Blanche fears and Stella can’t abandon.
Leigh, Hunter, and Malden all won Academy Awards for their Streetcar roles, but it was Brando who was the revelation—so much so that some weren’t sure what to make of his performance at first. One of the leading lights of the Stella Adler/Actors Studio/“method” crowd, Brando had played Stanley on Broadway, and had electrified audiences with his not-always-measured combination of low-key naturalism and uncontrolled ferocity. He carried that over to the film, tripping over words and mumbling in ways that never seemed like an actor failing to hit his marks, but rather like a human being who’d wandered on to a set.
That the movie’s French Quarter looked like a set was part of the genius of Kazan, and Williams. The latter’s plays dealt with mature subject matter but embraced theatrical-sounding, often obfuscating language, while Kazan’s early films balanced his interests in documentary and cinematic expressionism. That’s how a movie that never ventures beyond women in slips and men in torn T-shirts can seem so explicit, and how it can be at once exaggerated and true. “I don’t want realism,” Blanche says at one point. “I want magic.” Kazan’s film of A Streetcar Named Desire offers both.
Key features: The new Blu-ray carries over the wealth of features from the old DVD special edition: A lengthy 1995 Richard Schickel documentary about Kazan’s long and controversial career; shorter Laurent Bouzereau-directed featurettes about Streetcar’s Broadway run, about Brando, about the film’s battles with the censors, and about Alex North’s smoky, jazz-informed score; plus Brando’s stunning Warners screen test (using a scene from the then-unproduced Rebel Without A Cause), roughly 15 minutes of outtakes (showing Brando trying out different inflections and slouches), and a factoid-filled commentary track by Bouzereau, Rudy Behlmer, Jeff Young, and Karl Malden.