In honor of the thick, physical, downpouring heat of the August Summer nights upon us, the sorts of nights where (quoting Thelma Ritter) rain doesn’t cool anything down, but simply makes the heat wet, I decided to tackle two films from the all time literary master of making the heat feel so wet you can drown in it: Tennessee Williams.
It is easy to get lost in Marlon Brando’s barbarous turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, so easy that one can accidentally forget that a film lies around him. Brando here epitomized a new style of acting, “the Method”, long championed for realism but which is as unrealistic, in its own way, as the pure composure and restraint of classic Hollywood. Method acting is vastly easy to overrate, to excuse its somewhat belabored formality and emphasis on ticks and mannerisms and presentation and inhibition at the expense of impulsiveness and even the accidental successes of acting that let’s itself go with the moment. It is an acting style that has, over the years, turned into an ego-stroking talking point more often than not, often mired as heavily as “classical acting” in the conventional tools of the trade. For lack of a better term, it can be too studied, too educated, and too literate to even bring the realm of acting forward in time.
Thankfully, Brando was one of the few Method actors to move beyond the formalism and let himself go (pardon the pun), turning to anxiety and impulse and worry and almost carnal bouts of self-destruction and engorgement. He was, after all, a man, and a flawed one at that, and his bouts of imperfection and struggle slipped into his actorly persona; his hushed diction and attempts to find performance and perfection, in this light, become more than mere displays of too-carefully honed craft. They become windows into a lost, wayward human who found alter egos in film that could cope with his depression for him, even when he, in his personal life, could not. Brando adopted identities in the Method to hide himself from his own impulses, and we are able to glimpse in his characters the various facets of his own being. Unlike most future Method actors, he was not simply becoming the character; the character was becoming a little bit of him.
It is thus no secret why Brando was drawn to Stanley Kowalski, the role of a braggart alpha-male without a pack struggling to fit into the rigid barriers of mainstream society. The role bleeds together character and performance such that Brando’s animalistic turn moves beyond mere reality and toward a portal into his own failing, flailing soul. In Kowalski, we see the dark impulses of a man torn to unforgiving, blind allegiance to his own id, a man given fully to an inability to control himself. We don’t see something a curated, manicured assemblage of ticks and tricks like so many Method actors to perform after Brando. We don’t the same old “get into the soul of the human” performance carted out by every Method actor; it seems, instead, that Kowalski is simply Brando’s inner demons unleashed, more like a whirlwind of destruction than a human. Indeed, Brando seems not to be emulating humanity at all; he seems to be emulating an idea of the male id and slathering it all on to the screen, not so much giving us a “real” person as an idea in human form.
But, again, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name is not merely a performance with a camera pointed at it. For one, it isn’t only, or even primarily, a film about Kowalski. It is not even really about characters so much as it is about types,with Stanley a hashed-out pile of fury and rage, a new-school working class stiff partnered with Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter), whose sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh) comes to visit after struggling with her life in Mississippi as a teacher. Blanche, it is revealed, harbors illusions of classical aristocracy, serving as a pale, white beacon struggling to stay alight amidst the tattered remnants of an old Southern family now dwindled with the progression of time. Upon seeing that Stella lives with Stanley, a marker of the grungy working class that could only be so pure and primal in a city like New Orleans, Blanche harbors instant disregard toward him. Stanley returns the favor, and Stella is caught in the middle of boiling temerity and interpersonal tension. All of which is beckoned on by the punishing humidity of a city that is so hot with the pressure of changing times that no one seems to be able to keep their head straight.
At its heart then, A Streetcar Named Desire is a tale of misbegotten, forlorn Southern culture at a crossroads, a tale as effusive as Flannery O’Connor, as grimly acerbic and lurid as Faulkner, and as woebegone as Poe and with the same functionally grotesque quasi-nihilist view of the human condition. The hate stews in Streetcar, which bridges the gap between low and high art, in the cinematic field as well as the literate one, like any good melodrama does (and all Tennessee Williams was fundamentally proud of its low-brow melodramatic potboiling habits). With deliberately overstated emotions to evoke the theatrical world of Southern life – ever torn between public social roles and private doubt – very little about Streetcar is meaningfully hushed or realistic.
The heart of Streetcar’s theater is really Blanche though, and the key performance is really Leigh’s. While Brando is sublime, it is Blanche who bears the weight of hundreds of years of Southern life and culture on her back, and it is Blanche who proves unable to dissociate from them and adapt to a new way of life. The film’s dusky chiaroscuro and jungle-like blocking and framing depict a city that is out to get Blanche with its lurid, lusty passageways and back-alleys; the film adopts her perspective, her dissociated mind as she struggles to repopulate her mind after the genteel facade of Southern hospitality has eroded. Stanley, who emphasizes the unmasking of the masked brutality the Old South had been built on, is a reflection of the South as it was actually lived, the South as it had been revealed to exist due to years of poverty and disaffection, and not the South that Blanche thought she knew.
Leigh, a more classical actress than Brando, uses her highly modulated, perfected theatrical stylings – in a performance that is the polar opposite of Brando’s unvarnished pig – to evoke, heartbreakingly, how the theater of Blanche’s life had been destroyed. She becomes a character who had defined her internal identity as a concoction of theatrical ticks and mannerisms, a character who had internalized the Southern tradition of pageantry and public performance of social roles and mores. The hyper-refined nature of Leigh’s performance, and particularly the ways that Leigh cracks through the theatrical visage throughout the film with harsh baths of naturalism, reflects a character who had “acted” her whole life, and who now has no role left to play.
Stanley’s brute nature isn’t purely a sort of classism on the part of the film; it is a reflection of the animal energy of the South, not simply the poor South, and as Blanche’s identity comes undone throughout the film, he asserts power over her as a mirror for how the brutality of the South revealing itself over the false patriarchy of the Old South. In the end, neither figure – neither the falsely gentle paternalism of the Old South emphasized by Blanche nor the barbaric human id of the masculine new South – can move the region forward toward genuine humanism, which is why Stella, primarily a passive observer and a placeholder for the audience until she asserts agency at the very end, cannot accept either of them.
Which is where most reviews might stop; tackling an Elia Kazan film is an also-ran in the 2010s. Write a little about plot, expound paragraphs on acting, and finish up with a bow as though a camera or a cinematographer never got involved at all. The appeal of a great Tennessee Williams play is the appeal of a lusty, sticky melodrama in the heated style of Southern, sometimes Gothic, literature. Realism can check itself at the door in his lurid plays of human souls drawing fangs at one another like slobbering drunks at a live-wire theater piece. The best interpretations of Williams play like the realities of our unconscious given life in people unguarded by social convention.
The appeal of Kazan’s film, and the appeal of any worthwhile Williams adaptation, is finding a visual, cinematic patois for Williams’ haughty writing. This is not a film of people who hide their feelings, least of all Stanley. Streetcar is loaded with internally combative, combustible consciousnesses released untamed on the world, and Kazan and cinematographer Harry Stradling focus on the only American city that could expound upon Williams’ “stewed in the plantation, ripped from the headlines” writing style: New Orleans, essayed in this film as a menagerie of cagey, leering eyes and seedy, shadow-stricken chiaroscuro. There’s a toxic decadence revealed in the visual framing which emphasizes the clutter and the collared containment of the city. People are framed with the walls and the ceilings of city life all around them, drawing them toward each other’s problems when they can’t even address their own. They becomes animals trying to get out of the cage of Southern history.
This New Orleans is an illusion of reality, a pendulum that goes back and forth indefinitely between dream and nightmare as it captures characters occupying the small, claustrophobic spaces and sweat-drenched heat. It is a fable location, essentially, a world of pure primal human rawness and anger left out to boil for too long, threatening to overflow. When the sweat does overflow, when it moves off the characters and onto the screen, onto the viewers, that’s the film’s reality for you, simmered like a fine gumbo, for your pleasure.
Now, Kazan’s somewhat stagebound, welterweight delusions of film noir are limited compared to the great films of this style (one of which is a Williams adaptation, and it wouldn’t come until the end of the ’50s). Kazan’s habit of batting for realism and forgetting the nastier realms of extra-realism so fluently understood in noir cinema keep his film from ever plunging into the psychotic fantasy of The Night of the Hunter, the film most capable of transforming the Southern Gothic writing style to a distinctly visual art form. Kazan does not do as much as Joseph Mankiewicz would go on to do in his Williams film to fully explore the potential of swampy, sweltering, wet-heat Southern mugginess (and if there is one true common ground that provides kinship among all Southern folk, it is the crawling anger and discomfort of a humid Southern day, where sweat is palpable and inter-human strife and malice is even more so). If Williams’ writing was ultimately more “melodramatic allegory” than “realism”, Kazan could have done well to delve further into the fable-like histrionics of further, better Williams adaptations. His film is a little too realistic, a little too sane, a little too composed for its own good. A little more of Brando’s animalism would have been appreciated in a film that desperately needs to feel like it is losing its mind.
But A Streetcar Named Desire is more of a toe-wetting journey into the oily Southern subconscious and the exploration of theater and public identity in Southern life (the most theatrical and publicly performative of all American life). It is also a toe-wetting descent into noir as an appetizer, a way to break into the mold so you can move on to more vividly cinematic motion pictures from the time period (see Nicholas Ray, John Huston, Samuel Fuller, Jacques Tourneur). There are better films in the style then (like Woody Allen’s 2013 slantwise update of the play, too much of the energy is given over to the prodigious performers for the rest of the film to prove as startling as it wishes to be). But A Streetcar Named Desire is, if somewhat deterministic, conservative tale as far as style goes, a plenty alchemic film nonetheless.