Movie Night With Urbaniak: A Streetcar Named Desire

Mr. [info]urbaniak came over to borrow my copy of Numbers, Season 2 and stayed to talk about A Face in the Crowd, which I had just watched earlier in the day, and then watch this earlier Kazan picture, A Streetcar Named Desire, solely for its landmark, breakthrough performance by Marlon Brando.

This movie is so bad.

Elia Kazan made some wonderful, wonderful movies.  Just a couple of weeks ago, Urbaniak and I watched his Viva Zapata, which was interesting all the way through.   And as I say, I watched his scathing, vivid, propulsive satire A Face in the Crowd just today.  Feels like a completely different director.  Streetcar is desperately uncinematic, directed with a leaden hand, terribly lit and hampered by one of the worst lead performances of all time by Vivien Leigh.

The plot involves Leigh’s character, Blanche, having her mind annihilated by Brando’s Stanley, but let’s face it, the movie’s true subject is Brando’s style of acting annihilating everything that Leigh’s generation stood for — show-offy, self-conscious, grandstanding, fake, ungenerous emoting.  She doesn’t stand a chance against Brando, who finds something interesting, unexpected, real, truthful and uninflected to do with every line and gesture he has.  Tennessee Williams’s dialogue is as purple as the day is long, and Leigh leans into the purpleness, wringing each of her long, tedious speeches dry with swooping, keening, whispering “drama,” while Brando just kind of takes the language at face value and plays against all the high-flown poetry, coming up with something much more interesting and vital.

Brando, of course, has ruined Stanley for every other actor who would choose to play the role — to take it on at this point is to invite catcalls and hoots of derision.  Blanche offers no similar forbidding challenge — Leigh is about as awful as an actress could be in this role.

In a way, I find every role in the movie miscast.  I don’t believe for a second that any of the actors are from New Orleans, new South, old South or any other kind of South.  They all seem to be either New York or Hollywood people to me, and one of the things Urbaniak and I did to keep ourselves amused while watching the movie was to think who we could cast today in the various roles to make a watchable movie.

We had a hard time coming up with a Blanche until I hit on the idea of Holly Hunter.  Holly Hunter would be fabulous in this part.  We spent a long time talking about how great Shirley Maclaine was in The Apartment and how she played a variation on Blanche in both Terms of Endearment and Postcards From the Edge.  Frances MacDormand would make a great Blanche — she and Holly Hunter could play Blanche and Stella in repertory, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did in True West a few years back.  Urbaniak nailed the best possible Mitch by offering John C. Reilly, which I countered by suggesting Philip Seymour Hoffman as Stanley.  I couldn’t figure out why Bette Davis wasn’t playing Blanche in the movie — as long as you’re casting Scarlett O’Hara as a faded Southern belle, why not Jezebel?  Because Davis ended up playing something very close to Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? anyway.  Which brought us to Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Julianne Moore, or for that matter Jessica Tandy, who was in the Broadway production with Brando.  By the end of the evening Urbaniak was saying that any living actress would be better in this part than Leigh, then amended that statement to include all living women — “the girl at the counter at Barnes and Noble on the Santa Monica Promenade would be better than Vivian Leigh in this movie.”

Don’t get me wrong — Blanche is a great part and should, by all rights, make for a moving, heartbreaking performance.  But Leigh is an irritating bore from the second she walks onscreen, all tics and effects and calculated gestures designed to call attention to how “good” an actress she is — “Look how hard I’m working!  Aren’t I a great actress?”  She wears out her welcome fast and you can’t wait for her to get carted off by the loony-bin folk.

Next we’re thinking of watching Zodiac.
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