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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19 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: A Streetcar Named Desire”
  1. craigjclark says:

    If you want to see more Kazan, I heartily recommend Panic in the Streets, a film noir he shot on location in New Orleans in 1950 which stars Richard Widmark as a public health official trying to track down two criminals (played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel) who are unwittingly carrying the plague.

  2. curt_holman says:

    Didn’t John C. Reilly play Stanley in a big recent production?

  3. eronanke says:

    I saw Leigh recently in “The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone”. Her and a young Beatty are magic.
    I’ve never *seen* Streetcar, but I am sorry to hear you don’t like her performance – it’s hard for me to imagine she can’t shine in everything…

    That being said, I just happily watched “Demolition Man” again, so I have no right to critique anything!

  4. Anonymous says:

    stage versus screen

    I sort of agree with you on Leigh’s Blanche.

    But it’s possible that her performance suffers from having been directed in the role on stage by Olivier. He was after all the original ham English actor.

    From what I gather, she couldn’t “remove” the Olivier-isms and stage tics for the screen. Even though Kazan begged her to tone it down and Brando hated her… The studio made Kazan cast her cuz she was a star.. but she never even seems like she’s in the same movie as Brando.

    Compare Leigh’s Scarlett and Mrs Stone from Roman Spring performances to her Blanche. And I think you can see when she’s not under the spell of Lord Larry of Hamshank Manor she is much much better.

    Also she’s great in Ship of Fools.

    • Todd says:

      Re: stage versus screen

      I detected the hand of Olivier in the performance, but didn’t want to speak from ignorance.

      David Mamet spoke for a whole generation of film-watchers when he wrote: “I can’t stand Laurence Olivier’s acting. He is stiff, self-conscious, grudging, coy, and ungenerous.” All these adjectives apply, in spades, to Leigh’s performance in Streetcar.

    • urbaniak says:

      Re: stage versus screen

      As I said to Todd, one only has to see the threatened pride and weird vengefulness that Jessica Tandy brings to the role of Rod Taylor’s aging beauty of a mother in “The Birds” to imagine how subtle and human she must have been as Blanche on Broadway. But alas she wasn’t famous enough for Hollywood.

  5. moroccomole says:

    Haven’t watched it in a while, so I can’t say that I totally agree, but I remember thinking that Streetcar wasn’t as “great” as I’d always been led to believe.

    But yes, A Face in the Crowd kicks ass. It seems to get more eerily relevant with each new generation of media.

  6. I wasn’t as impressed with Streetcar when I saw it a few years ago, either. I do remember feeling Leigh was overacting, overacting like she was on a stage and was trying to make sure everyone could hear her in the back row overacting, but I do remember Brando’s screen presence was striking, whether he felt southern or not.

    I really enjoyed Zodiak, and while I didn’t feel it was a perfect movie, parts of it were absolutely thrilling and unforgetable. I won’t say any more, but I look forward to hearing what you thought of its suspenseful episodes.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I can’t even think of Streetcar without conjuring up The Simpsons‘s take on the play. Even Marge Simpson did a better job than Leigh.