CATEGORIES Movie NewsHey, Stellaaaaa! Fire up the Blu-ray player! 1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire" marked the 60th anniversary of its release last September. Now, seven months later, fans will have the opportunity to relive the classic flick with a special-edition Blu-ray release. That's as good an excuse as any to revisit this landmark film, which opened up Hollywood to movies with strictly adult content and -- thanks to Marlon Brando's legendary performance -- Method acting. The film forced the medium into a new, raw, emotional, mature kind of expression, and, six decades later, it has lost none of its power to shock and astonish.
Of course, what went on behind the scenes of the steamy Southern story was nearly as dramatic as the on-screen tale. Read on for more about the film's casting (can you imagine Bette Davis as Blanche?), Vivien Leigh's witty takedown of director Elia Kazan, and the filmmakers' epic battle with censors that changed forever the way films are made.
1. Director Elia Kazan had first mounted Tennessee Williams' play on Broadway in 1947 with a cast of little-known actors: Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, Karl Malden as Mitch, and Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois.
2. Despite the play's decidedly adult themes, its Broadway success meant interest from Hollywood. Initially, William Wyler wanted to direct the movie as a vehicle for Bette Davis at Paramount. However, the censors at the Production Code office were expressing their doubts that the play could be made into a film that would abide by the code, so Wyler passed. (He ended up battling the censors anyway on his next film, the realistic crime drama "Detective Story.")
3. Kazan didn't want to direct the movie. "It would be like marrying the same woman twice," he said to Williams. "I don't think I can get it up for 'Streetcar' again." But Williams persuaded him that the movie needed Kazan's orneriness; without it, he feared that the studio would water down the movie, maybe even give it a happy ending. That argument, along with a $175,000 fee, persuaded Kazan to take the reins.
4. Producer Charles Feldman sold the production to Warner Bros. as a talent package, with everyone behind the success of the Broadway production on board. Besides Brando, Hunter and Malden, Kazan imported six other members of the Broadway cast. Only Tandy didn't make the transition, since the studio insisted on having at least one star with name recognition.
5. Leigh landed the role after having played Blanche on the London stage, under the direction of her husband, Laurence Olivier. In movie terms, it was apt that Kazan would cast the actress who had played Scarlett O'Hara a decade before in "Gone With the Wind" as an older Southern belle trapped in her dreams of a rosy, genteel past.
6. Kazan knew that viewers would come for the sex as much for Williams' artistry. In fact -- as he noted in a memo to studio chief Jack Warner -- the art would provide cover for those viewers secretly more interested in the sex. "What made it a Pulitzer Prize-winner -- the poetry -- must be kept in, untouched," Kazan wrote, "so that it will appeal to those who don't want to admit that they are interested in the moist seat department. (Everybody, of course, is!)"
7. Still, Williams toned down the language of the screenplay somewhat, in order to appease the censors. Nonetheless, there were three elements in the script that the censors insisted must be changed: the suggestion that Blanche's husband had been gay, Blanche's promiscuity, and the rape scene.
8. Kazan didn't mind changing the first two. The finished screenplay has Blanche referring to her husband as weak, suggesting impotence (though a canny viewer might infer that his actual issue was homosexuality). And references to Blanche's past were altered to suggest that she had sought male attention out of a need for romance and love, not just sexual pleasure. (Again, smart moviegoers might still infer that her past was wilder than she painted it.)
9. The rape scene, however, remained a point of contention. Williams insisted that it was essential to the theme of the story, which he described as "the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society." At a meeting with Code officials in May 1950 in Jack Warner's trophy room, Kazan threatened to quit (and hinted that Williams would walk as well) if the rape scene were removed.
10. At the time, the Code office was still smarting from having been outplayed during the brouhaha surrounding 1948 Italian import "The Bicycle Thief." Rather than trim offending content from the completed film in order to get a Code certificate, its distributor simply released the film unrated, and it went on to be a box office hit. If a major studio ever tried that, it would be the end of the Code. In this case, the censors feared that, if Kazan and Williams left, Warner might make the picture anyway, with another director and screenwriter, and try for a "Bicycle Thief"-like end-run around the Code. So they relented and allowed the rape scene, as long as it could be done tastefully, and as long as Stanley was punished in the end -- by losing the affection of his wife.
11. Kazan and Williams came up with a revision that seemed to satisfy the censors, one where (as with the other major changes) the true meaning was not explicit but would be apparent to a grown-up audience paying close attention. The rape was implied in Stanley's smashing of the mirror (the ultimate fragmentation of Blanche's self-image), and his alienation from Stella was implied by her announcement that she was moving out (though she only moved upstairs to a nearby apartment, suggesting that she and Stanley wouldn't be separated for long).
12. Script changes approved, Kazan shot the picture and ran into few obstacles. True, Leigh's classical training sometimes clashed on the set with Brando's newfangled Method acting, but that was a clash that Kazan only encouraged, since it made the pair's on-screen chemistry more volatile. Leigh praised Kazan's toughness even while tweaking him for affecting the pose of someone who didn't care about anything but his art, quipping that the director sent his clothes out to be "cleaned and rumpled."
13. The sailor who helps Blanche onto the streetcar at the beginning of the film was played by Mickey Kuhn. As a child actor, Kuhn had worked with Leigh on "Gone With the Wind," playing the five-year-old Beau Wilkes, son of Melanie and Ashley.
14. Kazan also played up the claustrophobia of Stanley and Stella's apartment by literally having the walls close in on the characters; that is, he moved the walls closer to each other from one scene to the next.
15. Years later, Geoff Shurlock, the No. 2 man at the Production Code office, reflected that "Streetcar" had marked a milestone for the censors. "For the first time we were confronted with a picture that was obviously not family entertainment," he said. "Before then we had considered 'Anna Karenina' a big deal. 'Streetcar' broke the barrier."
16. After earning approval from Code censors, Kazan thought his troubles were over. But the movie ran into trouble with the Catholic Legion of Decency. Usually, the Code officials, who were mostly Catholics themselves, effectively ran interference for the studios, and their approval ensured that the Legion of Decency would approve as well. This time, however, the Legion slapped Kazan's cut of "Streetcar" with its dreaded "Condemned" rating, which would have strongly discouraged Catholics and other Christians from buying tickets.
17. Without Kazan's knowledge or approval, Warner Bros. exercised its contractual right to make further cuts. Some 12 scenes, amounting to about five minutes of screen time, were cut in order to win the Legion's less restrictive "B" rating. (Those scenes have been restored in prints and home video releases in recent years, including the new Blu-ray.)
18. A furious Kazan railed against the studio for prioritizing box office concerns over artistic ones, as well as for its hypocrisy in not wanting the movie to contain anything that would repel a family audience even while making sure that it was dirty enough to appeal to those with prurient tastes. (Apparently, he'd forgotten what he wrote in his own memo to Jack Warner about art and sex.)
19. The censorship squabbles did not hurt the theatrical release of the film, which became a big hit among critics and audiences alike. It earned 12 Academy Awards nominations, more than any other 1951 film. All four of the stars were nominated for Oscars, and three of them won, a feat equaled only by "Network" in 1976.
20. The only loser was Brando, despite giving one of the pivotal performances in the history of the medium. He would team up with Kazan twice more, in "Viva Zapata!" and "On the Waterfront," for which he'd finally win his first Oscar at the 1955 ceremony.
21. Kazan and Williams went on to challenge the censors again with 1956's "Baby Doll." This time, they got around the Legion of Decency and released the salacious movie over the Legion's "Condemned" disapproval.
22. Malden worked with Brando again on "Waterfront" and starred in the 1961 western "One-Eyed Jacks," the only film Brando ever directed. He enjoyed late-career fame as a 1970s TV cop in "The Streets of San Francisco" (opposite a young Michael Douglas) and pitchman for American Express travelers' checks ("Don't leave home without it.")
23. Hunter remains best-known today for a role in which no one saw her face: as the compassionate chimpanzee Zira in the "Planet of the Apes" movies of the late '60s and early '70s.
24. Leigh made just three more films after "Streetcar." One of them, "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," was based on a novel by Williams. She died in 1967 from chronic tuberculosis.
25. This spring sees a revival of "Streetcar" on Broadway, with an all non-white cast. Blair Underwood is Stanley, Nicole Ari Parker is Blanche, Daphne Rubin-Vega is Stella, and Wood Harris is Mitch. The play opens April 22 at the Broadhurst Theatre.
A bibliography for this article is published at Gary Susman's tumblr.