Movie Review – A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Written by Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, and Oscar Saul
Directed by Elia Kazan

Things are terrible in the States and getting worse. Every day there’s another story about someone making an honest mistake and getting shot, typically being killed. People are like snarling dogs, mistrustful of others, and ready to snap at anyone who gets too close. I would argue things have always been pretty bad, and it’s just that more people are awake & aware of the situation now. Despite the American media’s vociferous attempts to lay on the myths & the fairy tales, American society has often been cruel in a downward direction. Tennessee Williams captured this mundane inhumanity in his incredible stage play, adapted here by himself & others. It’s the story of people caught up in pain and unable to connect with each other meaningfully.

Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh) arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) indefinitely. This is complicated by Stella’s husband, Stanley (Marlon Brando), immediately suspicious of Blanche’s intentions. Doesn’t Blanche own the family’s estate? Did she sell it? If so, where is the money? Isn’t Stella (and by association Stanley) owed a piece? A cloud looms over Blanche; her job as a high school English teacher ended unceremoniously, and now she shows up on the doorstep with barely a dime to her name. It’s a humid, sweat-drenched summer, and tensions boil over in this cramped tenement apartment. Blanche finds solace in a new lover, Mitch (Karl Malden). But the dark secrets of her past come to light thanks to Stanley’s inability to let things go, so poor Blanche is sent spiraling even further into madness.

Thanks to good ol’ Hollywood censorship, a significant element of the stage play had to be obscured. But you can find it if you squint hard enough. That would be the fact that Blanche’s husband from decades earlier killed himself because she discovered he had been having an affair with a man. This element in the plot would, of course, cause some audience members to sympathize with a homosexual, and therefore, that couldn’t be allowed in 1950s America. I can imagine this play is getting banned as something on a reading list for high school drama classes right now. It is such a raw yet stylized distillation of being human in this society, the sheer cruelty of it all, and the way there’s solidarity between no one. It’s too real for the censorious “concerned moms for freedom” and chud dudes cosplaying in tactical gear to handle. 

The sheer complexity of this film puts so much modern film & television to shame. I would love to have seen a standard 1950s American audience reaction to this picture. The sexuality is so palpable but not just a surface-level form of objectification. Stanley is immediately presented as an object of desire as he goes shirtless in his first scene. Blanche can’t help but look. However, that surface-level allure crumbles quickly to reveal a vulture of a man, a craven hateful person whose exterior beauty hides the truth. Yet, he’s not entirely unsympathetic. He is referred to derisively as a “pollack” and spoken about when he’s in the room as being too dumb to understand things. That’s the complexity I’m talking about. Williams writes his characters in a manner that prevents the binary idea of good/evil from dominating the story. Everyone feels multi-dimensional and truly alive, so the audience will inevitably find themselves conflicted about them. That’s a good thing. It makes you think about what you are watching. 

Blanche is not a protagonist who works easily as a “heroic” character. She blames herself for her husband’s suicide, and I think she is correct to an extent. She did ravage him with scorn & hate, likely making him scared she was going to out him, and at that time in America, it would have ruined his life. Suicide sadly remains one of the most commonly chosen ways LGBTQ people deal with the hatefulness of friends & family. Blanche has also remained in the town she grew up in, watching her family die off one by one while her younger sister Stella ran off and met Stanley. We eventually learn that Stella became sexually promiscuous, and word got around in her small hometown. It’s revealed she struck up an ongoing thing with an underage boy, which ultimately ended her teaching career, though he wasn’t a student of hers. Blanche’s actions in that regard are not excused by the film, but they also help us understand that this person has been dealing with extreme mental illness for years. Nothing about the situation she walks into in New Orleans will do anything but drive her deeper into madness.

There’s also a reading of the film where Blanche represents the Old South while Stanley is the new, post-War change coming. It still doesn’t frame one as the hero and one as the villain; instead, they can be seen as opposing forces that we can understand the perspectives of. However, horrible things happen when they interact because of the dissonance between them. Blanche presents herself in a very genteel manner, with a traveling chest full of clothes, furs, and perfumes. She pretties herself up despite having a marred interior. It’s very much like the South with its “hospitality” that doesn’t extend to everyone and masks what is said behind people’s backs. Stanley is rough, an outsider who believes that you have what you have in life because you’ve taken your share, whether it was given or not. This results in the modern state of hyper-individualization; he takes on an extremely masculine pose, just as false as Blanche’s performance of feminine seduction. 

A Streetcar Named Desire is a perfect film. When I saw it in my 20s, a homeschooled bubble brain at a private Christian college, it was yet another that I wasn’t ready to understand. Now that I’m double the age I was then, I can see so much more there. It’s a movie that makes me feel extremely sad for the working-class people & poor back in the States. That way of living isn’t sustainable when you are constantly at each other’s throats. If they made this today, Blanche would be the type of woman people label a “Karen,” while Stanley would be a member of the Proud Boys. They are unfortunate people so far from where they should be in life that it seems impossible to save them. All they can do is hurt each other.


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