Vivien Leigh (best actress, Venice; BAFTA, Oscar, New York critics) is brilliant as Blanche DuBois, whose layers of theatricality attempt to bury a tragic memory, which she is doomed to revive periodically by re-enacting the original event in a masked form.
Why is Leigh so much greater in Elia Kazan’s absorbing film of A Streetcar Named Desire, which Tennessee Williams adapted from his magnificent play, than is Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, the brutish brother-in-law who rapes her while his wife, Blanche’s sister, is at hospital giving birth to their baby? Leigh is the better actor? In truth, Leigh and Brando both are fairly unreliable—good somewhere, not-so-good somewhere else. Three explanations fit better. One, Leigh is perfectly cast. Although Brando’s remark that Leigh and Blanche were identical is inaccurate and self-serving, it still seems incredible to us that Olivia de Havilland was both his and Kazan’s first choice for the part. (Thank goodness de Havilland turned it down!) It is also the case that, while Brando’s Kowalski was also directed by Kazan on Broadway, Leigh undoubtedly had superior direction, by spouse Laurence Olivier, when she first played Blanche on the London stage, and this she was able to bring to the film. Finally, there is something we simply have to admit, as crazy as it sounds: Williams was far better at writing female roles than he was at writing male ones. Williams’s women have richness and complexity, and even a kind of reality; his men, by contrast, seem like pencil sketches. They have a hand in the plot and a certain moodiness, but little else. Brando’s onstage tantrums as Stanley electrified, deflecting attention from how little substance there was to the character; watching the film, we cannot help but notice this meager substance close up—compare Brando in Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952)—and tend to blame Williams at least as much as we do Brando.
Vivien Leigh’s Blanche is one of cinema’s great savaged and scarred souls—along with, among others, Vanessa Redgrave’s Isadora (Karel Reisz, 1968) and Keanu Reeves’s barfly in The Last Time I Committed Suicide (Stephen Kay, 1997). Hers also is a descent into haunting sadness and emotional wreckage.
We ache to extend kindness. Standing up for her always, we feel to the bone she is just passing through.
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