Friday 7 February 2020

Trouble down south: "A Streetcar Named Desire"

The return of 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire to our screens prompts me into a confession: this is one of the handful of canonical cinematic texts about which I remain almost entirely indifferent. This week marked the third occasion I've sat down before the film, and I realised around the halfway mark that I've got less and less out of it each time: I can see the historical value, and the thin residual slivers of daring, but its musty, gabby theatricality persists in being a major turn-off, and as someone who never quite gulped down enough Kool-Aid to join the cult of Brando, the rest is increasingly lost on me. Prevailing critical orthodoxy insists that one of these elements cancels the other out; that the director Elia Kazan was savvy enough to freshen up the archaic set of attitudes set out in Tennessee Williams' play with whatever shock of the new Brando represented as the Fifties came around. My feeling remains that it would take a whole lot more than that to make this text in any way relevant to the world beyond its author's head. It now looks as if Williams was conducting a flawed experiment with extremes: he establishes Brando-as-Stanley as None More Man (butch, domineering bordering on the cruel) and Vivien Leigh-as-Blanche as None More Woman (twittery, hypersensitive bordering on the hysterical), before putting the heat of New Orleans underneath them both (the first act is a masterclass in writing climate) and setting them to collide so as to see what truths pertaining to the state of play between the sexes this collision might throw up. Trouble is, these characters only ever stand as unrepresentative extremes, and the rigged set-up generates fewer authentic human truths than big, clumsy gestures, noisy false notes: Brando-as-Stanley tossing a transistor radio through a windowpane, or bellowing at wife Stella (Kim Hunter) while standing right outside her door. Dude, do you have to be so loud?

The most truthful acting in the movie - conjuring up figures who feel closer to flesh-and-blood human beings than escapees from a playwright's fevered imagination - comes from Hunter and Karl Malden (as Blanche's gentleman caller), but the play regards them as the dull centreground, broadly functional normality serving to throw Stanley and Blanche's eccentricities and peccadilloes into sharper relief. We're not really supposed to be interested in them - they're the undercard for the big fight, mere bystanders or passing catalysts - but Kazan is, I think, if only for how they might present as hostages to the toxic weirdos looming out of the fringes. Nothing Brando does registers quite as forcefully as Hunter's post-coital stretch and revelation that Stanley's nutso idea of foreplay is to stamp out all the lightbulbs in the house ("I was sort of thrilled by it"). Here, the film approaches something fleshy and chewy about the kinks that drive even normies wild, and moves in the direction of the perverse black comedy that makes Kazan's far juicier Baby Doll a more enduring Williams adaptation. (Why doesn't some enterprising distributor yank that underseen movie out of the archives? Everything here is too arid, too straight.) And then there's Brando. Some very good friends and colleagues of mine continue to look at the actor, or Stanley Kowalski, or the actor-as-Stanley Kowalski, and see an ideal of sorts, and it is true that Kowalski would be a far tougher sell to audiences (then, and especially now) with a less overtly attractive man in the role. This really was one of those instances where casting was all, and it's fair to say Kazan nailed the assignment: people swooned as Blanche swoons, and people continue to swoon today. I look at him, however, and see only trouble waiting to happen: the overacting, the scenery chewing, the willingness to stomp over not just the lightbulbs, but everything else in sight. If you have developed a Brando fetish, Streetcar remains the movie you go to - and heaven knows you won't be alone there. But desire remains the strangest and least explicable of earthly forces.

A Streetcar Named Desire returns to selected cinemas from today.

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