Sunday, March 24, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.7: Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 97/A

Before Elia Kazan changed cinema, he conquered the stage. Kazan’s direction of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman made him the biggest director in theatre, and his version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire ran for three years with its original cast. When 20th Century Fox decided to take Williams’ sexually charged, controversial play and make a film of it, they reached out to Kazan. Initially reluctant to repeat a past hit, Kazan agreed, grabbed most of the original Broadway cast, and made a film that likely inspired more young men and women to become actors than any other film of that era. A Streetcar Named Desire is a near-perfect adaptation of the play, and possibly the greatest stage-to-screen adaptation of all time.

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) has just lost her Mississippi home and most of her dignity, and she travels to New Orleans to live with sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche struggles with alcoholism, fraying nerves, and a guilt-ridden incident involving her late husband, and she’s not helped by Stanley, a brutish man who doesn’t take kindly to Blanche’s pretensions and dainty attitude. Stanley’s friend Harold “Mitch” Mitchell (Karl Malden) falls for Blanche, but she can’t run away from her past forever, and she slowly begins to lose her grip on reality.

Kazan had worried in the past that his films would look too much like canned theatre, but he needn’t have worried about that here. Streetcar is easily the most florid and theatrical of his films, and yet it shows him at the height of his mixture of psychological realism and cinematic expression. Kazan only used New Orleans locations for some shots, but it hardly matters when the Kowalski house feels so lived in and believably seedy. The director’s use of close-ups and deep focus underline how performance driven the film is, but his blocking is immaculate. With every shot it’s clear how the characters affect each other- Stanley stalking around like a panther in the background, wearing on Blanche’s nerves; Blanche primping in front of Stanley, who’s clearly annoyed with her every action. There’s still a level of expressionism, however, be it in the film’s use of shadows (hanging over Blanche like a gloom that won’t go away), the use of veils or mirrors to highlight how Blanche hides behind her beauty, and especially in the set design. As the film goes on, the set slowly becomes more cramped and claustrophobic, which matches how much tighter the close-ups get. There’s nowhere for Blanche to run or hide anymore, and it leaves her exposed, enclosed in a small space with her greatest persecutor. Kazan is further aided by Williams’ perfect script and Alex North’s sultry, sexy jazz score.
Of course, the greatest mix of expression and intense realism comes from the performances, three of which (Leigh, Malden, Hunter) won Oscars. Hunter would be blacklisted in the span of a few years, a shame considering how spectacular she is here. Stella is the soul of the film and play, the one fought over by the protagonist (Blanche) and main antagonist (Stanley). She’s a happy medium between the two- she shares Blanche’s upbringing but lacks most of her pretensions, coming off as a far earthier and sexually comfortable woman. She responds to the visceral, primitive sexual thrill that comes with Stanley, but she also abhors his behavior around Blanche and retains certain aspects of her background. Her finest moment in the film comes early after Stanley hits his pregnant wife and she hides from him. As Stanley breaks down, Stella emerges from her friend’s apartment, silent, with a mixture of fear and sexual desire. As she slowly makes her way down and passionately embraces him, Kazan highlights Hunter’s earthy sexuality, her full figure. It’s one of the sexiest moments in all of film, in part because of the danger underneath it.

Malden, one of the greatest of all character actors, is the film’s conscience, a man with some of Stanley’s same animalistic behaviors but a more kindly demeanor. His genuine sweetness towards Blanche makes for some of the film’s most touching moments, particularly on a date where he reveals he talks to his mother about Blanche. Malden speaks of his mother with a mixture of love and (more subtly) hate, a desire to impress her mixed with an anger towards how she holds him back from his basest instincts. In that moment, Mitch and the damaged Blanche feel like they’re on an even keel even as she withholds some of the more troubled aspects of her background. That’s what makes his explosion of rage in the film’s final act so troubling- he’s been made a fool of by Blanche, who claims to be proper but has a sexual history that shamed her out of her hometown. Malden picked up Leigh like she weighed nothing earlier in the film, so his grabbing her and throwing her around like a rag doll here is particularly frightening. At this point, his genuine goodness has fallen away to primal rage.

Much like Jessica Tandy, who had originated the role of Blanche alongside Brando, Malden, and Hunter in the stage version, Vivien Leigh’s strength is the difference between her acting style and that of the other actors. Where Brando and company came from the Actor’s Studio and went for a more instinctive style, Leigh was classically trained on stage and screen, and almost everything she does on film seems slightly rehearsed until she breaks down. That’s largely the point- until she veers into psychosis, Leigh is the ultimate Southern Belle, proper and more than a little condescending. This plays not only with her history on screen (she won her first Oscar for Gone with the Wind), but with her own struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. Kazan reportedly pushed Leigh to the brink, getting easily the best performance of her career, which makes sense. Kazan only cast actors who he felt had the part in him. There was more than a little of Blanche in Leigh, the damaged heart of the film.

Still, it was Brando as the film’s antagonist who wound up making the greatest impression, and with reason. As Stanley, Brando seems less like an actor and more like a force of nature and messy human being who wandered on set and took over production. More than any role other than Terry Malloy, Stanley Kowalski embodied the contradictions that made Brando such a fascinating presence: brutish yet sensitive, instinctive and wild but masterful at manipulation, frightening yet charismatic and sexual. Brando captured Stanley’s soul even if he mumbled and garbled his words, which ended up making him more believable anyway. Stanley is a monstrous character, and Brando privately said how much he hated him, but he also managed to give him his humanity. Stanley is cruel and abusive to both Stella and the clearly unwell Blanche, but he’s also often tender towards Stella and sees through most of Blanche’s lies and pretensions. He’s trying to protect what he has, and it that means acting like an animal, so be it. Of course, his best moment comes with the famous “Hey Stella!” scene, in which Stanley’s brutish side falls away to reveal the possibility of shame and sorrow if he loses what he has.

The sexuality of that scene, and a number of others, got Streetcar in trouble with the Catholic Legion of Decency, which required a number of edits in order to lift the “Condemned” rating. Whenever Stella isn’t furious with Stanley, she’s clearly enthralled with him (“I can hardly stand it when he’s away for a night…”). His animalistic intensity and lack of pretension (not to mention his tight, tight t-shirts) make for one of the sexiest characters in screen history, but there’s also something terrible there. As the film goes on, Kazan uses a subtle visual trick involving the color of Stanley’s shirts, which go from white and dirty when he’s merely annoyed with Blanche to stained with oil when he first considers her as an object of lust to black when the film reaches its climax. Stanley may despise Blanche, but there’s something in him that wants her, though that gives way to a need to assert his dominance over both her and Stella’s soul. Williams, Kazan, and Brando play with the idea that Stanley is an instinctive, sexual animal, but they also know when he’s expressing his base instincts (his relationship with Stella) and establishing a horrifying power (his rape of Blanche).

Of course, Stanley’s not the only sexualized character in the film- the censors also took issue with Stella’s clear desire for her husband (seems absurd to be, but whatever), not to mention her post-coital bliss the morning after the “Stella!” scene. More to the point, many were up in arms with Blanche’s troubled past. Kazan and Williams had to nix the play’s overt references to her dead husband’s homosexuality, but the hints towards his lack of desire for her remain. More overt is her own troubled history, first with gentleman willing to lavish expensive gifts for her sexual favors, then with a 17-year-old student Blanche had an affair with. Her brief kiss with a teenage newsboy serves as a painful reminder of her past misdeeds just as she’s trying to get away from the past. Mitch takes offense when he learns she wasn’t as proper as she pretended to be, but it’s less out of condescension than her desire to find someone who genuinely loves and desires her and will stay with her. When Stanley reveals the truth, that all falls apart.

There’s a level of alienation and family conflict in all of Williams’ major works, not to mention Kazan’s, but it might be at it’s most heated for the former in Streetcar. Blanche certainly picks away at Stella for her abandonment of their old home, Belle Reve, and for her relationship with a commoner, but she ultimately worries for her sister and battles for her soul. Of course, her airs of nobility don’t take well to the Stanley, who’s not one to give out compliments. Her every action undermines his authority over Stella and his home, and her every pretension serves as a reminder for all the things he’ll never have. Even when Stanley tries to hold back from picking on Blanche, he can only hold back for so long as she picks at him, calling him a Polack and a pig. He does soften towards Blanche after Stella goes into labor, but it can only last for so long, her lies and exaggerated fears grating on him to the point where he loses whatever sense of balance he might have had.

The “desire” of the title certainly points towards sexual desire, but it’s also desire for something that makes sense, something that either Stanley or Blanche can hold on to and keep with them forever. Blanche’s beloved Belle Reve (with a hilariously Americanized pronunciation of Belle REEV) is a wonderful symbol for Blanche’s past. Translated as “beautiful dream”, it speaks to her dream of sexual fulfillment, of happiness, and of security. In those few moments where she drops her pretentions around Mitch, she reveals bone-deep exhaustion that comes with the disappointments of life and aging. Blanche deserved better, and her breakdown is the tragedy of the film.

Kazan’s formal mastery compliments Leigh’s own neuroticisms and imbalances, heightening them to an unnerving fever pitch. Buildings and people menacingly tower over Blanche only to back her into a corner, whether Kazan makes the walls close in or traps her in a tight close up and space with Brando. When the rain starts up after Stanley accuses Blanche of certain sexual affairs, it’s a clear sign of her slowly falling apart. When the carnival music in North’s score starts up and the other characters’ voices start to echo, Blanche is haunted by the ghosts of her past.  Her line “I don’t want realism, I want magic” shows the impossibility of her situation, and as she’s exposed first to Mitch then to Brando as a mad dreamer, Leigh’s performance reaches a new height in theatrical mannerisms, emphasizing just how much she’s retreated from the rest of humanity. Kazan knew how to get into his characters’ heads as well as any other director who ever lived, and his work with Leigh on Blanche ranks as one of his crowning achievements.

The rape scene is the final crack in her façade, and Kazan stages it as a point where she finally has nowhere to run. There’s a shot/reverse shot of the two in deep focus that emphasizes his advance to her futile retreat, and then, in a moment of expressionistic horror and beauty, a cracked mirror as the deed is done. In the film’s final scene, Blanche has retreated totally to fantasy, and she can no longer handle any sign that what she says might not be true. The film has a brief sour note as a Production Code-imposed ending forces Stella to leave Stanley for what he’s done (in the play, Stella stays with her husband), but it doesn’t linger nearly as long as the film’s true ending, a haunting moment where North’s score swells as Blanche is taken to be shut away in a mental hospital, away from her beloved sister and any hope of happiness, under the delusion that she’s being taken away by another admirer. “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”.
Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on Letterboxd.