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ILLUSIONS ARE as central to the works of Tennessee Williams as they are to the life of Blanche DuBois, but there is nothing illusory about the appeal of A Streetcar Named Desire and its faded heroine. Only a very few pieces of American theater retain their power and excellence as does Streetcar, now nearly twenty-five years after its premiere, and it is, moreover, the rarity--a vehicle for actors which actually goes somewhere, propelled not by the air of its histrionics but the pull of its emotion. All of which makes especially regrettable the collision between the play Streetcar and the people responsible for its adaptation to the screen: while Elia Kazan, directing a film for the first time, was distorting Streetcar by introducing realistic elements which Williams scrupulously avoided, the nameless censors from the Production Code office were removing almost all hints of improper behavior--a damaging process for a play which features a libertine as the heroine and an antagonist who ultimately rapes her.
There was a time in Williams' career when he thought of himself as a disciple of D.H. Lawrence, so it is probably no accident that the opening paragraph of Lady Chatterley's Lover should share some of the mood of Streetcar:
Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.
Streetcar offers an echo of that with Blanche's attempt to discover a reason for being and a way to go on in a time and a place which seem to provide neither hope nor comfort. Blanche arrives for her summer's stay with her sister and her sister's husband by riding a streetcar named Desire, transfering to one called Cemeteries and getting off at Elysian Fields--directions which Blanche recites with some appreciation of their import and which put pretty well up front precisely what point in her life she has reached. Unable to accept implication in the death of her husband (she says deliberate cruelty is the one thing she cannot forgive and of which she has never been guilty, but it was her own deliberate cruelty which killed her young poet-homosexual husband), unable to cope with other deaths in the family--"the long parade to the graveyard"--or the loss of the plantation, Blanche was impelled by each new bewildering occurrence into escapes of blind desire, only to recoil at her own immorality. Each circuit from reality to illusion to reality has ground her down, left her more debauched and bereft of hope, until she arrives, quite seriously ill, at Elysian Fields, a pathetic figure devoted to romantic melodies, Chinese lanterns and ritualistic bathing, desperately clutching after some final saving grace.
BUT STREETCAR has a larger scope than that of a character study. Blanche's ultimate tumble into psychosis is Williams' way of shedding a tear for the modern world, for her fall is caused by Stanley Kowalski, her brutish, sensual brother-in-law, and it is the Stanleys, Williams believes, who are taking over the world and leading it on a "dark march" toward atavism.
Kazan should have done better by the play he directed. The film is too much composed of short, jerky cuts and reaction shots and transparent attempts to "open it up" by using many scene locales rather than the single two-room set of the play, a style which does nothing to enhance the fluidity and concentration of the original. By far the worst sin of the film can be attributed to the censors, who apparently disliked even the idea of Stanley attacking Blanche, let alone its graphic illustration. So the climatic rape scene is not climactic but ambiguous, which leaves the close of the film, wherein Blanche is shown completely psychotic, highly unsatisfactory. Unless it is clear that there is a rape, one of Streetcar's themes is subverted and its resolution arbitrary rather than inevitable and tragic.
There are, however, two very good reasons for seeing the film: Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. After years of watching the sad products of a dissipating career, it is almost shocking to see Brando young again, so intensely attractive and commanding. Casting Vivien Leigh as Blanche is one of those very occasional instances where a film star assumed a stage role and did it more than justice; she is superb. Williams put Blanche through quite a lot--probably too much to be credible--yet Leigh somehow conveys her tired, neurasthenic hopelessness, her mania for illusion. The errors which were made in translating Streetcar to the screen aren't really forgivable, but Leigh and Brando make them easy to forget.
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