“I don’t want realism. I want magic!”
One of the greatest plays of all time was successfully adapted into film: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) is exemplary and even if you’ve seen a production of Tennessee Williams’ drama, the movie version is indispensable for multiple reasons. It has the direction of Elia Kazan who steered Streetcar’s first appearance on Broadway. Three actors – Kim Hunter, Karl Malden and Marlon Brando from that production reprise their performances on the screen (something that is rare since most plays get transferred with bigger names). Kazan was the co-founder of the Actors Studio – which influenced the style of acting with their teaching and promotion of Method Acting. Built on the techniques from Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski, it was a form of training that strived to achieve a higher sense of realism in the performer. Marlon Brando typified the dominance of this technique and is credited for being one of the first actors to bring attention to it. This was his film acting debut, and it’s electric. Any true film lover needs to at least see his entrance. He’s just come in from the bowling alley and is wearing a fitted jacket. The camera closes in on him in a slight low angle – increasing his stature – and his eyes and lips greets us with coolness and disdain. He slurs his words – takes off his jacket, starts scratching the sweat on his chest and back. “Hey, do you mind if I make myself comfortable,” he says as he defiantly takes off his t-shirt to reveal his toned torso. His work was a rebuff of classical dramatic training – and changed the course of cinema acting. And seeing Vivien Leigh – as Blance DuBois – in her battle royale with Brando is a major indulgence. Jessica Tandy had famously created the role on stage. She was the only original cast member not to make it to the film version. Leigh had starred in the London production – directed by her husband Sir Laurence Olivier. Kazan was not enthused at first with the casting but went on to be won over by Leigh’s determination. Williams declared that Leigh as Blanche was “everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of.” The film was the first time in history that three of the four nominated actors grabbed the Oscar – Leigh (her second for Best Actress), Hunter (Best Supporting Actress) and Malden (Best Supporting Actor)
The version you can see now it’s the director’s cut which was made available in 1993. In order to conform with the Hollywood Production Code, changes were made to the script. The homosexuality of Blanche’s husband who committed suicide had to be implied instead of being addressed directly. After filming was done certain scenes had to be snipped to become less suggestive. Warner Brothers found the lost footage which was restored for a video re-release. Most significant is the transfixing descent of a staircase done by the character of Stella – Blanche’s sister – who earlier that evening had a violent altercation with her drunk husband – Stanley (Brando). She’s taken refuge in the upstairs apartment and her husband is clamoring for her to return – shouting to the heavens the famous line “Stella!” She decides to listen to his cries – and there’s a sexual force that is luring her to return to him. Watch the sinewy way that Kim Stanley takes every step going down the staircase. And the look that she gives her husband. Her look is explicit and lustful. The other censored moment that was reinstated is equally alluring. It entails a scene where a young man shows up for donations while Blanche is alone in the house – and she moves in on his lips saying, “Come here. I want to kiss you, just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth!” It shows a perversity to Blanche that I guess it was too salacious for the censors.
Some people and critics state that it feels like a staged play. Kazan had made plans to open up the film and make it more cinematic. He changed his mind and decided to close things in. I disagree with the assessment that it’s too literal and feels stagy. He definitely keeps things tightly framed and contained – for the most part – to the small dingy apartment in which the Kowalskis live, but Kazan utilizes techniques – close-ups and angles that are innately cinematic. It is the containment of the visuals that creates a sense of the character of Blanche of feeling trapped – and the range of emotions and desires to get to a boiling point. Kazan is able to create an unparallelled sense of passion and immediacy. And no matter how many other theatre versions and interpretations of Williams’ classic tragedy are created, this documentation is as close to the original as we can get. There are some flourishes that remain startling, like the sight of the old lady selling flowers for the dead – and a shot from overhead as Blanche is fully vanishing into madness – she’s literally upside down.
It dramatizes the experiences of Blanche DuBois, a delusional Southern belle who, after losing her inherited plantation, moves into a shabby apartment in New Orleans that her younger sister and brother-in-law have rented. He’s animalistic and representing a modernity that clashes with her put-upon gentility – and may even crush her. Blanche DuBois is one of the defining roles in American theatre. It’s a counterpart to Hamlet – and Leigh owns it.
Blanche: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can stand a rude remark or a vulgar action.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, DIRECTV and Watch TCM and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Adapted by Oscar Saul.
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden
Bringing “A Streetcar Named Desire” to the Screen
Tennessee Williams was brought in to write the screenplay for A Streetcar Named Desire” in collaboration with Oscar Saul. Because of the Production Code that was still very much in effect, concessions and compromises had to be made in terms of the play’s sexual content…If the suggested cuts were not made, the Catholic Legion of Decency threatened to sink the box office prospects for “A Streetcar Named Desire” with a Condemned rating. Elia Kazan made a last ditch effort to get his un-cut version of A Streetcar Named Desire seen by the public. He asked Warner Bros. to try releasing the film in both his director’s version and the edited version, with each clearly marked so audience members could choose for themselves. Warners said no. Kazan then campaigned for his director’s cut to be screened at the Venice Film Festival. Again, Warners refused, since the Legion mandated that only their approved version could be released, and the studio didn’t want to risk earning a Condemned rating which would hurt the film at the box office. As a result, Kazan’s version would not be seen until Warners restored the film in 1993. Director Elia Kazan worked closely with the production designer to create the authentically sordid look of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” They had the walls of Stanley and Stella’s home built in small sections that could be removed, so that as Blanche feels more constricted and threatened inside the Kowalski home, the walls could literally move in and create a claustrophobic tension within the space. (tcm.com)
The Making of “A Streetcar Named Desire”
There were clashes on the set between Vivien Leigh and her fellow cast members. Besides being the only major cast member not to have come from the Broadway production, Leigh was a classically trained actress, whereas most of the other actors studied under the “Stanislavski Method,” also known as Method acting. But Leigh was determined to make a good picture and create a great performance. She reportedly could not wait to get to the set every day, and was often the last lead actor to leave at day’s end. There was some bad blood between Leigh and Marlon Brando at the beginning of the shoot, but these conflicts had nothing to do with acting style. Brando was simply annoyed at Leigh’s typically British manners and stuffiness. The two acting giants eventually became friends as the shoot progressed. Brando’s dead-on perfect imitations of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V did much to break the ice between him and Leigh…To prepare for the part of Stanley Kowalski, Brando began a daily workout routine at a local gym where he exercised with weights to build up his chest and biceps. Prior to this role, the actor was not known for his muscle-bound physique and when Truman Capote first observed Brando’s transformation, he said “It was as if a stranger’s head had been attached to the brawny body, as in certain counterfeit photographs.” Brando was paid a sizable $75,000 for his work, partially because of the insider scoop that hailed Brando’s acting style as the most revolutionary thing to hit Hollywood since the Talkies. Vivien Leigh received a $100,000 salary, making her the highest paid English screen actress of the day. (tcm.com)
Casting “A Streetcar Named Desire”
For the Broadway production, several Hollywood stars were considered for the role of Stanley Kowalski, including John Garfield, Burt Lancaster, Van Heflin, Edmond O’Brien, John Lund, and Gregory Peck. Marlon Brando, still a relative newcomer to the stage, was originally rejected for the role because he was considered too young and too handsome. It was only because of Brando’s agent, Edie Van Cleve, that Brando got a chance to read for the play’s author, Tennessee Williams, who came away from the audition with the assurance that Brando was perfect for the part. Elia Kazan directed the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” in New York, and when Hollywood knocked, he and most of the Broadway cast went with him, including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter (who was almost replaced by Anne Baxter), Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, Peg Hillias, and Edna Thomas. Jessica Tandy, who had been an absolute smash as Blanche DuBois on Broadway, was replaced with Vivien Leigh. (Olivia de Havilland was offered the role first, but she ended up turning it down.) Studio executives did not think Tandy was a household name outside of the New York stage, so her role went to Leigh, who was famous for having played another colorful Southern belle in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). Leigh, in fact, was starring in a London presentation of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier, when she got the call from Hollywood to appear in the film version. (tcm.com)
About Screenwriter and Playwright Tennessee Williams
Playwright Tennessee Williams was born on March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. After studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia and Washington University in St. Louis, he earned a BA from the University of Iowa in 1938. He then moved to New Orleans, one of two places where he was for the rest of his life to feel at home. The production of his first two Broadway plays, “The Glass Menagerie” (1945) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), secured his place, along with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, as one of America’s major playwrights of the 20th century. Critics, playgoers, and fellow dramatists recognized in Williams a poetic innovator who, refusing to be confined in what Stark Young in the New Republic called “the usual sterilities of our playwriting patterns,” pushed drama into new fields, stretched the limits of the individual play and became one of the founders of the so-called “New Drama.” Praising “The Glass Menagerie” “as a revelation of what superb theater could be,” Brooks Atkinson in Broadway asserted that “Williams’s remembrance of things past gave the theater distinction as a literary medium.” 20 years later, Joanne Stang wrote in the New York Times that “the American theater, indeed theater everywhere, has never been the same” since the premier of “The Glass Menagerie.” Four decades after that first play, C.W.E. Bigsby in “A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama” termed it “one of the best works to have come out of the American theater.” “A Streetcar Named Desire” became only the second play in history to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Eric Bentley, in “What Is Theatre?,” called it the “master-drama of the generation.” “The inevitability of a great work of art,” T.E. Kalem stated in Albert J. Devlin’s Conversations with Tennessee Williams, “is that you cannot imagine the time when it didn’t exist. You can’t imagine a time when Streetcar didn’t exist.” More clearly than with most authors, the facts of Williams’s life reveal the origins of the material he crafted into his best works. The Mississippi in which Thomas Lanier Williams was born was in many ways a world that no longer exists, “a dark, wide, open world that you can breathe in,” as Williams nostalgically described it in Harry Rasky’s “Tennessee Williams: A Portrait in Laughter and Lamentation.”
The predominantly rural state was dotted with towns such as Columbus, Canton, and Clarksdale, in which he spent his first seven years with his mother, his sister, Rose, and his maternal grandmother and grandfather, an Episcopal rector. A sickly child, Tom was pampered by doting elders. In 1918, his father, a traveling salesman who had often been absent—perhaps, like his stage counterpart in “The Glass Menagerie,” “in love with long distances”—moved the family to St. Louis. Something of the trauma they experienced is dramatized in the 1945 play. The contrast between leisurely small-town past and northern big-city present, between protective grandparents and the hard-drinking, gambling father with little patience for the sensitive son he saw as a “sissy,” seriously affected both children. While Rose retreated into her own mind until finally beyond the reach even of her loving brother, Tom made use of that adversity. St. Louis remained for him “a city I loathe,” but the South, despite his portrayal of its grotesque aspects, proved a rich source to which he returned literally and imaginatively for comfort and inspiration. That background, his queerness, and his relationships—painful and joyous—with members of his family, were the strongest personal factors shaping Williams’s dramas. During the St. Louis years, Williams found an imaginative release from unpleasant reality in writing essays, stories, poems, and plays. A recurrent motif in Williams’s plays involves flight and the fugitive, who, Lord Byron insists in “Camino Real: A Play” (1953) must keep moving, and his flight from St. Louis initiated a nomadic life of brief stays in a variety of places. Williams fled not only uncongenial atmospheres but a turbulent family situation that had culminated in a decision for Rose to have a prefrontal lobotomy in an effort to alleviate her increasing psychological problems. (Williams’s works often include absentee fathers, enduring—if aggravating—mothers, and dependent relatives; and the memory of Rose appears in some character, situation, symbol or motif in almost every work after 1938.) He fled as well some part of himself, for he had created a new persona—Tennessee Williams the playwright—who shared the same body as the proper young gentleman named Thomas with whom Tennessee would always be to some degree at odds.
In 1940, Williams’s “Battle of Angels” (1940) was staged by the Theatre Guild in an ill-fated production marred as much by faulty smudge pots in the lynching scene as by Boston censorship. Despite the abrupt out-of-town closing of the play, Williams was now known and admired by powerful theater people. During the next two decades, his most productive period, one play succeeded another, each of them permanent entries in the history of modern theater: “The Glass Menagerie” (1945), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), “Summer and Smoke” (1948), “The Rose Tattoo” (1951), “Camino Real” (1953), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955), “Orpheus Descending” (1957), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1958), “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1959), and “The Night of the Iguana” (1961). Despite increasingly adverse criticism, Williams continued his work for the theater for two more decades, during which he wrote more than a dozen additional plays containing evidence of his virtues as a poetic realist. In the course of his long career, he also produced three volumes of short stories, many of them as studies for subsequent dramas; two novels; two volumes of poetry; his memoirs; and essays on his life and craft. His dramas made that rare transition from legitimate stage to movies and television, from intellectual acceptance to popular acceptance. Before his death in 1983, he had become the best-known living dramatist; his plays had been translated and performed in many foreign countries, and his name and work had become known even to people who had never seen a production of any of his plays. The persona named Tennessee Williams had achieved the status of a myth. (poetryfoundation.org)
About Oscar Saul
Oscar Saul was a screenwriter, playwright and novelist who frequently adapted popular works for film and television. Working well into his later years, Saul won critical praise for his adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” in the 1984 ABC television movie starring Ann Margret as Blanche DuBois. In 1990, Saul was awarded the Morgan Cox Award by the Writers Guild for his service over the years teaching in the Writers Guild Open Door School. He published one novel, “The Dark Side of Love,” in 1974. He co-wrote plays, including “The Revolt of the Beavers,” first produced at the Federal Theatre in 1937, and “Medicine Show,” which appeared on Broadway in 1940. Among the screenplays he wrote or co-wrote were “Once Upon a Time” in 1944, “Road House” in 1948, “The Helen Morgan Story” in 1957 and “Major Dundee” in 1964. (latimes.com) Saul passed away in 1994.
About Director Elia Kazan
Kazan was born in Istanbul in 1909 and he arrived in New York in 1913 as the son of a rug merchant. He was smart, hugely ambitious, drawn to women, and an inspiring conspirator (and betrayer) with guys. He went to a good school, Williams College in Massachusetts, but felt looked down on by the upper-class white girls. So he slept with them, and he excelled at every competitive urging. In the early 30s he apprenticed to the Group Theater as an actor, a possible director and a handyman who could fix physical problems – chairs, plumbing, cars that wouldn’t start. So they called him “Gadget”, and the nickname “Gadge” stuck. He was a member of the Communist party for just over a year, but could not endure its discipline and secretive hierarchy. Gadge needed to run things. So, in the 40s, he started to direct plays and discovered his own phenomenal, seething intimacy with actors, a way of getting to smothered psychological truths that had been buried in the gentility of previous theatre. He established himself with the first productions of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942), Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947), Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) and Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (1949), with Lee J Cobb in the lead. His influence went far beyond the credits. On “Streetcar,” for instance, he took the play (a metaphor for gayness) and made Stanley Kowalski as important but more vital on stage than Blanche DuBois (the central character on the page). In doing this, he boosted the career of one of his discoveries, Marlon Brando, and caused a theatrical sensation with a new level of sexuality, of hot, ugly life being lived, and a kind of acting that left audiences aware of feeling close to dangerous people. In the same year as “Streetcar,” Kazan helped found the Actors Studio, the centre for this new psychological realism in acting, which linked the teachings of the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky with carrying the hesitations of life into Hollywood close-ups…Though Kazan was into movies as much as theatre, at first he was frustrated by the Californian art because he knew he wasn’t getting his own passion and needs on to the screen in the way he had forced himself as an author on Streetcar. Those early films look decent but ordinary now – “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “The Sea of Grass,” “Boomerang,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” (which won the best picture Oscar), “Pinky,” “Panic in the Streets,” and the film of “Streetcar,” which was reduced by censorship’s anxiety but remains the living record of how Brando felt as Stanley and won an Oscar for Vivien Leigh as Blanche.
In 1952, as an ex-communist, desperate to make more personal movies, he came under pressure to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee. This was a curse of the age, and the ruin of many careers. But Kazan mattered to HUAC because he was so prominent. The screws were tightened: he was told that if he did not name names he might not be allowed to make more films – for the pernicious compromise in what we now call the “Black List” was that the studio system bowed to the Committee’s pressure and agreed to enforce the boycott. So Kazan testified. If you read his 1988 autobiography, “A Life” – one of the great books written about American show business and directing – you will feel his agony, you will hear of the old friends who never spoke to him again, and you realise how Kazan was haunted by the incident as long as he lived. But if you look at the films that followed – “On the Waterfront,” “East of Eden,” “Baby Doll,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Wild River,” “Splendor in the Grass,” “America, America” – it is hard to deny the argument that testifying and being rebuked matured Kazan’s creative vision. The way he identified with Cal in “East of Eden” (the effective movie debut of James Dean) is what drives the emotionalism of that film. It is a defence of the spirit of Cain, and an unfair dismissal of the good brother “Abel”. For 10 years up to 1952, Kazan had had unmatched success. But he was the kind of guy who knows success can kill you – in America this is an essential paranoia. So in a way, he engineered his own moral downfall – where he became hated among his own people. And he thrived on the contempt. It’s an open question whether he became a great artist or just the most natural, ruthless and successful director of actors. The Actors Studio style produced more than Brando, Dean, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Rod Steiger and Lee J Cobb. It is the basis for the work of Warren Beatty (he was in Splendor in the Grass), Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Sean Penn. Mostly guys, you might note, though Jo Van Fleet, Eva Marie Saint and Ellen Burstyn are actresses within the Method tradition. The Actors Studio is also the tomato sauce in which the meat of “The Godfather” films is cooking. Kazan died in 2003, but his importance has not faded… (theguardian.com)