Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #57

57. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

In 1947, playwright Tennessee Williams had written a new play about greed, passion, secrets and rape. It was called A Streetcar Named Desire and from its debut performance it was a theatrical legend. The play opened on Broadway in late 1947 and was directed by Elia Kazan, who simultaneously was garnering praise (and courting controversy) as a film director with Gentlemen's Agreement. The original Broadway cast was full of virtual unknowns. Jessica Tandy, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter had all had brief roles in plays both on and off-Broadway. The leading man was hand-picked by Kazan out of Lee Strasberg's famed Actors Studio, a 24-year old Marlon Brando. He brought an intense, carnal nature to the role of Stanley Kowalski so much so that Williams himself was purported to be in love with him. The story of the faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois, her manipulation of Stella (her sister) and her descent into madness (driven their by her brother-in-law Stanley) resonated with audiences. The play was a massive success on Broadway (and subsequently on National Tour and in London) that Hollywood soon came calling.

In 1951, the Warner Brothers studio purchased the film rights to the play and insisted on retaining the same director (as Gentlemen's Agreement had swept the Oscars in 1948). In casting, Kazan fought for his entire Broadway cast, but only Brando had made a film between the Broadway opening and the beginning of filming (Brando starred in The Men in 1950). So, to obtain "name value" for the film, the studio decided that Oscar winner Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind) should play tragic heroine Blanche DuBois (as she had in the London production directed by her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier). Both Karl Malden and Kim Hunter were asked to repeat their stage triumph while Jessica Tandy (who had won a Tony Award for her role) was left in New York. Vivien Leigh does, however, bring a charm and fervor to the role of Blanche and is just perfect in this film (the final scene is one of her best moments onscreen). Brando brings the same power and intensity he must have brought to his stage rendition of Stanley. Kazan and Williams do their very best to stay faithful to what had been done on stage (though because of Production Codes, Williams was forced to change a couple aspects of his script). Leigh, Malden and Hunter (the latter two are just as amazing in their respective roles) each won Academy Awards for their performances. And Brando's performance, though it did not win an Oscar, is full of iconic moments (Hey Stella!!!!!). It is a perfect film adaptation of one of the greatest American plays.

Next Post: #56

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