AFI 1998 #45 Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Tenessee Willliams
Staring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
SHORT TAKE: A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most critically well received plays of all time, with students all across the country reading it for their theater classes. This story, focusing on Blanch DuBois, is a delicate tale where the audience starts to take everything that is said at face value, but quickly learns that she often omits truths and rather talks about the fantasy of her life, than the sad reality she lives in. Combine this a placating sister, Stella, brutish and prossive brother-in-law Stanley, and overly accommodating new beau Mitch, and Blanche's frail hopes and dreams fall apart entirely, until she ends up receding into her delusional fantasy completely. This film, based on the play, is rather well handled and succeeds largely in doing most everything that the play could do, even while restricted by the censorship code at the time.
DRINK PAIRING: Brandy, but just a glass. I barely touch the stuff.
FAVORITE LINE: BLANCHE - "Lover Letters, yellowing with antiquity, all from one boy."
ICONIC LINE: BLANCHE - "Whoever you are - I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
HOW LONG THE MOVIE WOULD BE IF IT ENDED WHEN THE TITLE WAS SAID: 2 Min, 13 sec
So if memory holds up, I've had to read this play for school 4 times, and written likely 3 papers on it. My first time was back in 2011, taking a summer course on dramaturgy with Michael Chemmers, which is still one of my favorite classes I've ever taken and really laid the basis for how I look at scripts. Now every time I've had to look at this piece, I've had to piece apart Stanley's Napoleonic code and how it informs basically every choice he makes throughout the show, why Stella would be willing to go back after getting beat, or why the flower lady is in the script. If you want to piece apart any of that conversation, talk to me later, but today I feel like pulling apart why the piece is called "A Streetcar Named Desire," and what that means to a piece as a whole.
So first lets look at Blanche, which desire is here general motivation for action throughout the play, and its more than the obvious sexual desire, but desire to be able to go back to the past, and to be taken care of. All three of these wants jumble up together in an action that she repeatedly takes throughout the piece, which is avoiding direct light. In the film, she and Stella sit a booth, and while talking she reaches out and adjusts the booth light so that its pointing at the wall. She then also adjusts or avoids direct lighting the rest of piece as best she can, even buying a paper lantern for the exposed light bulb in the apartment. So this constant avoidance of harsh light accomplishes her want for sexual desire in her mind, as it makes her look more alluring, using the old adage of how people look better in the dark or shadow. This darkness also allows for her to never really look in the mirror properly, allowing her to accomplish the desire to pretend that she is younger than she is (effectively taking her mentally into the past). The first two points then couple into her mind that if she can keep up this act of being young and alluring, she can attract a man who will treat her the way she thinks she should be.
For my favorite scene in the film, Blanche shows pretty explicitly that her desire to be wanted and seen as young and desirable trumps pretty much everything else. When a Young Man comes into the apartment, has a pretty immediate sense of desire for him. We can see this as she continues to ask him to come back into the apartment, and come closer, coming up with every reason she can to get him to come back in. In the end she very puts the teenager into the position where he basically is just left with this older woman pushing herself onto him for a kiss before he could accept or deny. She even goes as far as to thank him for the kiss, thus further deluding herself into thinking that he was the one that desired her. This whole interaction establishes more of Blanche continuing to live in this fantasy and trick herself that she's actually getting the first two of her desires, to be wanted sexually, and to be perceived as young.
This scene between Blanche and the Young Man is very intentionally put next to the scene between Blanche, and her beau Mitch, who Blanche has placed all of her hopes and desires into for getting to be taken care of. So in the movie version, the Young Man is actually walking out the house and past Mitch as he comes to get Blanche, and this is rather well done as it allows for the audience to see a little bit of a battle of Blanche's desires. We can actually see the embodiment of Blanche's want to be young and beautiful again leaving, while Mitch, the embodiment of a safe passionless romance enters, almost showing that Blanche is attempting to just accept something that is going to keep her safe in the end. This is the closest we ever see Blanche coming to just accepting what might be an average but okay life instead of the glorious fantasy she has in her head about Belle Reve and society life.
We do get the sense thought that Blanche's desire for past grandeur however does somewhat supersede her sensible life with Mitch. In the film during the scene where they're out on the pier for a date, and essentially tells him that he's silly, and he need not ask every time to kiss her. This statement is however directly conflicted by her shying away from him minutes later when he does try to kiss her without permission. This conflicted action demonstrates that Blanche wants more of the youth and spender of the past, and that wanting to be wanted by someone young is far more appealing to her than the safety of being held by someone that is just exceedingly mediocre, albeit a caring person.
So we've covered to some extent that desire is the driving force of our main character Blanche DuBois, but what about the rest of the title? Well the streetcar are not about the actual object, but rather about what the object represents. So a streetcar, is literally a mode of transportation that people can get on and off of at whatever stop a passenger may life. The route of the streetcar however is set from one end of the line to the other, and so there's no way to adjust the course. So as I tend to find with most symbols that have a forward time progression to their nature, the streetcar most likely represents life itself, and where our desires will result in our eventual "end of a line. This is pretty well well supported in the
actual dialogue of the play itself too though, as Blanche's direction are to ride "a streetcar named desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at - Elysian Fields." This line is pretty heavy handed symbolism by Williams, as it shows that Blanche's above stated desires are just going to lead her to the cemetery, and then to Elysian Fields, which is the final resting place of some souls in Ancient Greece. So there can be no doubt that once this play is over, Blanche will be in a state rather unrecognizable from the beginning of the play.
So in summary, the title of the play, coupled with the line from the play shows Williams intent for the character of Blanche rather early in the piece. These desires to be sexually wanted, to go back to the past, and also to be cared for, which sometimes all motivate her actions, and are sometimes in conflict end up with Blanche putting herself . These actions that sometimes endear, and sometimes aggravate the people around her, end up left at the end of the line, hers desires pretty much quelled, but still just hanging onto the past as best as she can.
COOL THINGS TO NOTICE:
- How Stella and Stanley's relationship is paralleled by the couple that live in the upstairs
- The use of mirrors in the film, and how its almost only ever Blanche that's seen in them. When she is in them, its because her back is usually to the camera.
- There's a whole subtext that I barely touched on about how Blanche is caught between her want for sex, but also still presenting herself as the gentile lady
- The sound design of the movie is great. The score is really solid, but also the sound effects that show the little bit of psychotic breaks that Blanche is having are superb, and help to show how absolutely remorseful she is about leading to her husband's suicide
- Its much more subtle in the movie, but is very explicitly stated in the play that Blanche's husband killed himself after coming out as gay. This was an extremely early reference to anyone LGBT in popular media.
- The ending of the film is rather open ended with Stella seeming to run away from her husband that caused her sister to have a complete break from reality. It leads you to believe that she's never coming back, but that's also exactly what you believe when she runs away after getting beat up. The fact that she runs upstairs leads me to believe that she'll likely forgive Stanley in time. Also the play is much more upsetting of an end, as it end with Stanley comforting her while also groping her chest.
- The mirror shattering in the bottle scene with Stanley and Blanche is pretty great.
- Its pretty interesting to note that while they live in pretty terrible conditions that Stanley specifically has silk pajamas for special occasions.