Movie: 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Release Date: September 18, 1951
How It Got Made: As a medium that originated in the late 1800s, film was still very much a Victorian art form well into the middle of the next century. 'Streetcar,' perhaps more than any other movie, dragged the medium kicking and screaming into the 20th century and forced it to grow up. The attempt to adapt Tennessee Williams' landmark play for the screen met with epic censorship battles in Hollywood. Even in its tamer, abridged form, however, the movie version of 'Streetcar' became Hollywood's first movie that was strictly for adults. And Marlon Brando's raw, emotional performance in it forced a new kind of maturity into screen acting, which was never the same again.
'Streetcar' had taken Broadway by storm when it opened in 1947, in a production directed by Elia Kazan and cast with relative unknowns Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. The play's adult themes meant that few in Hollywood wanted to touch it. Nonetheless, Kazan tried to import the production wholesale to the screen, with the same cast, director, and writer. Warner Bros. felt it needed at least one proven star in the cast and called for Tandy to be replaced in the lead role of Blanche DuBois.
Kazan found his Blanche in Vivien Leigh, who had played the role on the London stage, under the direction of her husband, Laurence Olivier. The part seemed a perfect fit for the actress who had played Scarlett O'Hara in 'Gone With the Wind' a decade earlier. Blanche was like an older Scarlett, a Southern belle who had a tendency to use and discard men and who maintained a romantic obsession with a vanished past that was never as genteel and refined as she'd imagined it to be.
Leigh's mannered, classically-trained performance style clashed with Brando's more raw, unfiltered Method technique, but then, that clash fit the characters of Blanche and her brother-in-law, the crude, brazen Stanley Kowalski. As Stella (Stanley's wife and Blanche's sister), Hunter would give a brashly sensual performance, making clear through facial expression and gesture the carnal attraction that kept her tied to Stanley. And Malden found plenty of layers to play in Mitch, the hapless suitor caught in the crossfire between Blanche and Stanley.
Most directors would try to open up the play for the screen, so that it wouldn't feel stagebound in a medium that could give the characters more room to move and breathe, but Kazan wanted to maintain and even increase the play's sense of claustrophobia. Most of the movie, therefore, was shot in the set representing Stanley and Stella's two-room apartment in a seedy New Orleans neighborhood, with Kazan moving the walls ever closer together from one scene to the next, as if to force the eventual confrontation between Stanley and Blanche.
The shoot was the easy part; getting the script past the censors who ran the Production Code was not. The code office demanded 68 script changes, centering on three objectionable areas. First, it would not permit any reference to homosexuality, relevant in Blanche's admission that her young husband killed himself over her taunts after she discovered him in bed with an older man. Second, it would not allow any suggestion that Blanche was a woman who sought sex for its own sake and not out of romance or loneliness. Finally, it would not allow any hint of rape in Stanley's final attack against Blanche.
Kazan was willing to give up the first two; in the final script, Blanche refers to her husband as weak, suggesting his problem was impotence, though an astute viewer reading between the lines might infer homosexuality. Reference to Blanche's sexual past was made similarly vague. But Kazan and Williams stood their ground on the rape scene, arguing that the film wouldn't make any sense without it, and they threatened to walk if they didn't get their way.
Eventually, the censors worked out with Kazan and Williams a way to play the scene in the most oblique and symbolic way possible (with Stanley's smashing of the mirror as a metaphor for the figurative and literal destruction of Blanche's self-image that follows). Also, because Hollywood morality demanded that Stanley be punished for his violent act, the movie would end, not as the play did (with Stanley and Stella's apparent reconciliation), but with Stanley losing Stella, who takes their infant and moves in with neighboring tenants. (Although, again, an astute viewer might interpret the fact that Stella doesn't move more than a few feet from Stanley as an indication that they'll eventually get back together.)
The code office, whose censors were generally Catholics, had long served as a buffer between filmmakers and the Catholic Legion of Decency, which issued its own film ratings that might discourage Catholics and other Christian moviegoers from seeing a proscribed movie. Having worked out compromises that earned the approval of the Hollywood censors, Kazan and Williams figured they didn't have to worry about the Legion of Decency. They were wrong.
Legion officials raised their own objections to Kazan's cut of the film and said if it were released as is, it would earn their dreaded "Condemned" rating. Fearing a boycott, Warner's exercised it's contractual right to final cut and trimmed about 12 scenes, amounting to five minutes, without Kazan's knowledge or permission. The recut 'Streetcar' earned the Legion's milder "B" rating.
Kazan was furious. He recalled later,
How It Was Received: The censorship brouhaha seemed to make no difference to the public, which made the film a huge hit. It was a critical success as well, earning rave reviews and 12 Oscar nominations, more than any film that year. All four of the stars were nominated, and three of them won, a feat since repeated only by 1976's 'Network.'
Warner's just wanted a seal. They didn't give a damn about the beauty or artistic value of the picture. To them it was just a piece of entertainment. It was business, not art. They wanted to get the entire family to see the picture. They didn't want anything in the picture that might keep anyone away. At the same time they wanted to be dirty enough to pull people in. The whole business was an outrage.
Despite giving one of the difinitive performances in the history of movies, Brando was the lone 'Streetcar' star snubbed on Oscar night. Nonetheless, with just his second movie (his first was the war drama 'The Men' in 1950), Brando had become an instant star. Kazan cemented his A-list reputation in Hollywood and immediately went to work on 'Viva Zapata,' the second of his three film collaborations with Brando.
Long-Term Impact: 'Streetcar' was a high watermark in the careers of all involved. Leigh made only three more movies in her career, including 'The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone' (based on a novel by Williams), before her death from chronic tuberculosis in 1967. Hunter would spend most of the 1950s on Hollywood's blacklist but returned to fame as Zira, the compassionate chimpanzee scientist in the 'Planet of the Apes' movies. Malden shone in 'On the Waterfront' (opposite Brando and under Kazan's direction) and in the western 'One-Eyed Jacks' (the only movie Brando ever directed) before settling into late-career fame as a hard-boiled TV cop ('The Streets of San Francisco,' opposite the young Michael Douglas) and an American Express pitchman ("Don't leave home without it").
Williams would continue his run as one of America's greatest playwrights, and Hollywood would continue to adapt his work throughout the 1950s and '60s (including 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' and 'Sweet Bird of Youth'), albeit often in watered-down form. For the next decade and a half, Kazan remained a top director on both Broadway and in Hollywood, where he directed such landmarks as 'On the Waterfront,' 'East of Eden,' 'A Face in the Crowd,' and 'Splendor in the Grass.' He proved as instrumental in launching the film careers of James Dean, Eva Marie Saint, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Andy Griffith, Natalie Wood, and Warren Beatty as he had with Brando.
Brando, of course, went on to enjoy one of the most spectacular -- and spectacularly squandered -- careers in the history of film. He finally won his first Oscar for his iconic performance as stevedore Terry Malloy in 1954's 'On the Waterfront.' His second came nearly 20 years later for 'The Godfather.' For half a century after 'Streetcar,' he'd deliver a series of indelible performances that were alternately brilliant, harrowing, maddeningly self-indulgent, sometimes downright bizarre, but never boring. Still, nothing he ever did erased the rebellious spirit evident in his Stanley Kowalski, a performance that popularized the Method and blew away for all time the stuffy, stagy, superficial acting styles of the past. Brando's example inspired countless performers who followed, starting with fellow Method performers like James Dean and Paul Newman, and continuing through this day with stars like Johnny Depp who, even if they didn't follow Brando's technique, still emulated him by following their own eccentric muses.
But 'Streetcar' didn't just change screen acting. It changed screen storytelling by expanding the range of what was permissible. 'Streetcar' showed that the censors could be flexible, even on such once-core principles as a refusal to depict rape. Throughout the next decade and a half, a rising tide of foreign films with adult subject matter would push Hollywood to catch up, while at home, bold directors like Kazan, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols would push the censors even further until the system finally broke down. Kazan would finally break the power of the Legion with the release of 1956's salacious 'Baby Doll,' while Nichols would all but sweep away the last vestiges of the old Production Code with 1966's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Replacing the code was the ratings system we still have today, which acknowledges that there are some movies that simply aren't suitable for kids. 'Streetcar' was the first movie made with that thought in mind; it was only a matter of time before the rest of the industry caught up with it.
How It Plays Today: Kazan's director's cut was restored in 1993. It contains a few lines of dialogue that make more explicit Stanley's attraction to Blanche, Stella's sexual arousal over Stanley's brutishness, and Blanche's own carnality. Also, the scene where Stella silently responds to Stanley's famous cry ("Hey, Stellaaaa!") with an alternating mixture of contempt and surrender is longer and more nuanced. But even without these restorations, in its diluted form, 'Streetcar' is still dripping with desire, with a frankness that seems astonishing even today. And 60 years have done nothing to diminish the power of the ensemble's acting, especially Brando's turn. If you know only the later, bloated Brando, you owe it to yourself to see the 27-year-old, not-yet-famous Brando burn a hole in the screen as he explodes with white-hot intensity, charisma and sensuality.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.