“Stella! Hey, Stella! Hey, Steeelllaaaaaaa!”
A lot of viewers today probably forget that the Academy nominated WB’s 1951 film version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” for twelve Oscars, winning four. They probably forget the filmmakers based the screenplay on the popular and influential stage play by Tennessee Williams. They forget Elia Kazan’s brilliant direction. They forget the equally brilliant music and set designs. They forget the stunning performances by Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Why? Because there’s Brando. Maybe this new 60th Anniversary Blu-ray Book edition of the movie will help people remember something more than the lead actor.
Anyway, Marlon Brando had starred in the Broadway production of “Streetcar,” and he made his mark in Hollywood after just one film, “The Men,” establishing himself as a Tinseltown icon with “Streetcar,” and cementing it forever with films like “On the Waterfront,” “The Wild One,” “The Young Lions,” and “The Fugitive Kind.” For a time during the 1950’s, people considered him America’s greatest actor. Of course, we know his star faded more quickly than most, as his temperamental personality and poor movie choices (he turned down the lead in “Lawrence of Arabia”) got the better of him; but in the early 1970’s he experienced a resurgence of popularity with “The Godfather” and “Last Tango in Paris.” Then he pretty much hung it up for tropical islands and junk food.
How good was he? When he was performing in the Broadway production of “Streetcar,” the director had to re-block his scenes to put him closer to the other actors because the audience couldn’t keep their eyes off him, and it was distracting them from everyone else. Opinions vary as to how Brando managed to be so convincing in his roles. Some said it was his “method” acting training, drawing upon his own experience to create a character; some said it was hard work and careful preparation; while still others said it was pure instinct, gut feeling, and improvisation. Maybe it was a little of each. Whatever it was, it influenced a whole generation of actors that followed him, folks like James Dean, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson.
The fact is, “Streetcar” should have been Vivien Leigh’s picture, she’s the main character, but it’s Brando who steals every scene he’s in. He plays a brute named Stanley Kowalski, a man described in the story as a kind of Neanderthal. When he’s drunk, Stanley is a positive thug. Yet, the way Brando portrays him, no matter how crudely he behaves, he seems to gain our sympathy. This was not exactly what playwright Tennessee Williams intended when he wrote the thing, but he and everybody else loved it, and who could deny Brando’s power to persuade? Ironically, of the four lead actors in the movie, it was only Brando who did not win an Oscar. Go figure; the Academy’s always been goofy.
“Streetcar” is the story of a woman, Blanche DuBois (Leigh), a fading Southern belle, who is clinging to a fantasy, a threadbare illusion of beauty and respectability, who is now looking for a safe haven to live out her dreams. As the movie opens, we see Blanche stepping off a train from Mississippi to go and live with her sister, Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter), and Stella’s husband, Stanley, in a tawdry section of the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche takes a streetcar to her sister’s apartment, a streetcar named “Desire” (which turns out to be the actual name of a New Orleans streetcar that always fascinated the author).
Ms. Leigh’s performance is almost the dead opposite of Brando’s in style. Brando is all mumbling naturalism and animal magnetism; Leigh is all preening, affected, theatrical mannerisms. Yes, the story intends us to see Brando’s character as the “natural” man and Leigh’s character as all phony facade, yet the differences do make a startling contrast, one that may be rather difficult for modern audiences to accept. Put it another way: If you found Ms. Leigh hard to take as Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” you’ll probably not care overmuch for her Blanche DuBois.
Blanche and her sister grew up on an “aristocratic” Southern estate, where their family taught them to be refined ladies. It shocks Blanche to see Stella married to a crude commoner and living in a dumpy two-room apartment. She feels it is beneath their dignity, a dignity we soon learn Blanche lost many years before but to the last remnants of which she is still clinging, at least in her own mind. Blanche explains that she is a former English teacher on leave because of her nerves, having to come and live with her sister because of the loss of her property. Stanley, not bright but extremely intuitive, knows better and sees through the charade at once.
Tensions arise from the first minute Blanche and Stanley meet. It is clear that Blanche is suffering from far more than fragile nerves. She is mentally unstable, and Stanley does everything he can, knowingly and unknowingly, to drive her over the edge. Blanche tells Stanley that “a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion,” but he sees her as entirely illusion. He mistrusts and dislikes her from the very beginning, just as he repulses her (although she finds herself strangely attracted to him). Stanley feels Blanche will come between him and his wife, and he’s protecting his home against this perceived intruder. She is also clearly a woman with a past, and he determines to find out just what it is. The tension between them builds over the coming months, and it only increases when Blanche begins dating one of Stanley’s poker buddies, her one hope, a seeming gentleman named Mitch (Karl Malden), in reality a mama’s boy. Everything comes to a head in a penultimate rape scene only hinted at in the film.
Although Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship laws in 1951 required any number of changes in the play when filmmakers translated it to the screen, there is still a raw sexuality about the story communicated in the characters’ actions, their looks, the squalid setting, and the steamy music. The movie was quite forward for its time and retains a degree of heat even today, especially in the present edition with several minutes of restored cuts.
On a trivia note, John Eastman writes in “Retakes” (Ballantine Books, New York, 1989) that “Almost any Tennessee Williams play that has emerged on screen is a gutted, sanitized version, a situation that Williams himself bore with bemused tolerance. In the case of ‘Streetcar,’ some sixty-eight script changes from the Broadway staging were required by production code censors; and negotiations with the Catholic Legion of Decency resulted in further cuts, most having to do with homosexuality and rape, the key elements crucial to the behavior of Vivien Leigh’s character Blanche…. She (Leigh) thought Marlon Brando affected, and he thought her impossibly stuffy and prim–but they soon became friends, and the cast worked together smoothly. Brando’s role as the crude Stanley Kowalski was only his second film appearance. Though he purportedly detested the character, the film brought him instant stardom…. Even Tennessee Williams liked this expurgated version of his play.”
Warner Bros. do a good job reproducing the 1.37:1 ratio, black-and-white film on Blu-ray using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode. The image is clear and clean, with reasonably deep black levels and fairly decent object delineation. There are no signs of age deterioration anywhere in sight. The picture is a tad soft, true, and because the filmmakers intentionally wanted dark scenes, we don’t get the best contrasts. Still, the high-definition transfer probably looks pretty close to the original print.
The audio engineers reprocessed the monaural soundtrack in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0, and while there is nothing spectacular about, it is just as clean as the image transfer. Since the sound is virtually all dialogue, and since Brando often mumbled his delivery, you can understand how important it was to clarify the midrange. It comes across better than ever, and all of Brando’s words ring out distinctly. Needless to say, there is virtually no background noise whatsoever, and what little dynamic range there is (in shouting, for instance) comes through realistically.
First, forget about the fact that this is a “60th Anniversary” Blu-ray Book appearing sixty-one years after the movie’s release. It’s close enough. What we get as extras are principally those items that appeared on the two-disc DVD edition several years earlier. These bonuses begin with an audio commentary by co-star Karl Malden and film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young, each of whom appears to have recorded his comments separately because they appear in turn and have no interaction. Often their comments have little to do with the action on screen, either, being mostly reminiscences, observations, and historical perspective. So it isn’t your average audio commentary but more like a long lecture on the playwright, actors, and director.
Next, we get several background treatments on the movie and its filmmakers. First up, we find a 1994, seventy-five minute, feature-length profile of the director, “Elia Kazan: A Director’s Journey,” divided into sixteen chapters. After that, we get five newly made documentaries. “A Streetcar on Broadway,” recounts the history of the play; it’s twenty-one minutes long and contains comments by director Kazan, costars Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, film historian Rudy Behlmer, and author Richard Schickel. “A Streetcar in Hollywood,” recounting the making of the film version, is twenty-eight minutes long and features the same group as above. “Desire and Censorship” recalls how Kazan tried in the movie to hide or merely hint at some of the things in the play that the Catholic Church and Hollywood’s self-imposed censors objected to. It also contains some fascinating comparisons of the original 1951 theatrical release and the 1993 restored reissue. “North and the Music of the South” is a nine-minute segment on Alex North’s musical score, and “An Actor Named Brando” is eight minutes on the famed performer, along with a few outtakes from the movie. The bonuses conclude with a four-minute Marlon Brando screen test for “Rebel Without a Cause,” and about fifteen minutes of video outtakes and sixteen minutes of audio outtakes from “Streetcar.”
The extras conclude with twenty-eight scene selections; theatrical trailers for the 1951 movie and the 1958 and 1970 re-re-releases; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Romanian, Swedish, and other subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired. Then, because this is a fancy Blu-ray Book edition, the disc comes housed in a handsome, forty-four page, embossed, hardbound Digipak book filled with pictures and text. It’s all quite attractive and informative.
As I’ve said, the Academy nominated “A Streetcar Named Desire” for twelve Academy Awards; they were for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Best Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, Best Music, and Best Sound. The winners were Vivien Leigh, Best Actress; Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actor; Kim Hunter, Best Supporting Actress; and Richard Day and George James Hopkins, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.
“Thank you for being so kind. I need kindness now…. Whoever you are, I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”