If you’ve ever seen a videotaped interview with Tennessee Williams, you have heard him snicker. Like a gay bayou warlord. It’s a menacing, gothic chuckle. You remember it.
You can hear that chuckle resonating throughout A Streetcar Named Desire. In his most famous work, Williams seems to be reveling in the movie’s tense shifts between mannered melodrama and hormonal anarchy. The movie adaptation is half-drenched in shadows, half-drenched in sweat, and as we celebrate Vivien Leigh’s 100th birthday this week, we should remember Streetcar for the assets that remain dewy and ripe today: two gigantic performances thrusting together from two opposing, but similarly cruel worlds.
Here are five reasons A Streetcar Named Desire may be the Best. Movie. Ever.
1. Marlon Brando is UNNNFFFFF.
In case you need a refresher on the movie’s plot, here’s as quick a synopsis at it gets: Mississippian Blanche DuBois flees to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella after she loses her teaching job for dubious reasons, and Stella’s husband Stanley thinks Blanche’s affected, woozy demeanor is a strong indicator that she’s a dishonest, freeloading lunatic who wears too much costume jewelry. Sorry, Stanley, but there’s no such thing as too much costume jewelry. That’s the secret problem here.
Uh, look at this man, in case you needed that instruction. He is just sex. That’s all! And rage and grunts and temper and fists and yells and just sex. Just sex! Just sex.
We had sexy movie stars before Marlon Brando changed acting forever with his work here, but we never had movie stars who really seemed unaffected enough for immediate sex right then and right there. Brando’s unintelligible groans are sexy. His erratic changes in volume are sexy. His anger-pumped arms are even sexier. His limp lips are the sexiest.
My favorite scene of Stanley’s is the first time he lays eyes on Blanche; his lingering nonreaction is the proper prelude to a movie’s worth of resentment and, of course, Genghis Khan-like wrath.
It’s fun to pretend like you have crushes on other old movie stars, but there’s only one who seems personally in charge of every drop of sweat unleashed on screen since 1951, and that’s Brando. Polishness has never been naughtier. Sorry, Lech Walesa!
2. Kim Hunter is on fire, and Kim Hunter is also us.
I’m reduced to sentence fragments when it comes to describing Stella Kowalski. Where to start? For beginners, she’s usually smiling. Warm. Calm. Propping up her sister, a sobbing ghost of a woman, with a close hug and a giggle. Compassionate. Energetic. Soft. And then a plate soars over her head, crashes into a wall, and then she’s a horny unapproachable sorceress.
Before you know it she’s sauntering down a staircase, preparing to launch her whole body into the throbbing arms of her maniac husband. She clings to and claws at his glistening back. She’s an animal too. And she knows it.
Kim Hunter looks like a hybrid between Lena Dunham and Jean Stapleton in this movie, and her performance is just as much of a bizarre dichotomy: As Blanche’s attentive, sympathetic sister, she gains our trust. As Stanley’s carnally charged plaything, she gains our terror. And when she’s not convulsing with sexual desire, she’s puttering through her ramshackle apartment with the busy, furrowed-blow flair of, say, Laurie Metcalf. She’s a knockout in all of her wild and womanly extremes, and she’s also gay viewers everywhere — torn between sympathy for a driven, tragic diva and libidinous submission to a grunting man. We all know that dilemma.
Except Stella’s also sort of terrifying. “He ran about the place smashing all the lightbulbs with my slippah,” she brags in ecstasy about her husband’s violent tantrum the night of their wedding. Uh? Whaaa? For Stella, Stanley’s rage is hypnotic, and you’re always wondering what crazy thing she’ll do next in her somnambulatory, sexed-out state. She practically barks like a dog whenever he’s around anyway, you know? Could it get worse? Sometimes it does.
3. You have to laugh at Blanche DuBois’s dialogue. Before it shatters you.
I don’t know why you’d ever suggest that Blanche is just a stand-in for Tennessee Williams himself! Ever! Except for the fact that she’s a ridiculous, babbling spectacle who monologues at random like a gay bumpkin playwright. There is that.
“I don’t want realism. I want magic!” she caws at a dope suitor (Karl Malden, who is easily the least effective player in the movie). Earlier she sputters -in true Blue Jasmine delirium, “How do I look? Wait ’till I powder. I feel so hot and terrible.” And when she insists on controlling the lighting in the room like a dimestore Joan Crawford, you have to shriek in delight and fear. “I bought this adorable little paper lantern at a Chinese shop on Bourbon! Put it over the light bulb! Will you, please?”
The airiness of her delivery is worthy of drag imitation (namely by Jinkx Monsoon), but something is so off about Blanche that it mainly just unnerves you. She’s so self-absorbed that she can honestly coo a line like “Here I am, all freshly bathed and scented and feeling like a brand new human being!” in front of a fiery blowhard like Stanley and not realize she’s infuriating him. Her delusions are maddening most of the time, but they’re also nervous-making when she’s in the company of the beautiful horrible ape man.
4. The weirdest scene in the movie: Blanche professes her love to a stranger with a decent haircut.
I mean, I get it, Viv. He’s cute. But when Blanche can’t even contain herself long enough not to seduce a boring paperboy stopping by the house, you realize that she literally can’t handle the sight of youth without trying to snatch it up. “I want to kiss you softly and sweetly on your mouth,” she tells him while hiding between cascades of light like a crazed serial killer. Blanche is unmasked as something of a pedophile in the movie, but this scene still feels like the most insane moment. It’s horror! Get out of there, kid! You have years left before you wither into a paper lantern with a smile drawn on it! Go! Go!
5. And of course: Vivien Leigh is the greatest movie actress ever.
For Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire is what Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was to Elizabeth Taylor: a vehicle to transform into an entirely new movie presence, shirk the comeliness of past roles, and stun us with grimness. Unlike Martha from Virginia Woolf, Blanche is never fully aware of how dire her situation is. Yes, her eventual breakdown is the result of direct trauma, but it’s still couched in denial.
Obviously Streetcar is hailed for jumpstarting the “method” acting trend that began with Brando, continued with Montgomery Clift and James Dean, and trickled on down to Jack Nicholson. But the biggest revelation in the movie is still Leigh, whose performance turns up endless complications even when she’s breathily dictating dialogue in imitation of old-school movie stars like ’30s Bette Davis or Joan Fontaine. The genius thing is that Leigh always establishes that affect is part of her characterization of Blanche, and not an incidental (or accidental) part of her portrayal. In a way, Vivien Leigh’s work indicts actresses of the ’30s and ’40s for their breezy, unreal line-readings, since Blanche ultimately turns out to be a basket case whose soul is irrevocably lost. Whether you prefer Scarlett O’Hara or Blanche, one thing is clear: Vivien Leigh craved depth in roles, and in Streetcar, she and Blanche become one in the same, making for a performance that is intriguing and provocative in every single frame. And not just because Blanche picked out the cinematography herself, though also that.