A Streetcar Named Desire review – Marlon Brando sets fire to the screen

Elia Kazan's stately classic is elevated by its lead star's revolutionary performance - one that changed Hollywood forever

About as influential as an American film has ever been, A Streetcar Named Desire returns to screens almost 70 years after its initial release. Retaining, for the most part, the shocking power that landed it an X rating back in 1951, Elia Kazan’s iconic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ seminal play feels both intriguingly modern and archaic viewed here in 2020.

From the moment Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois steps into New Orleans, you know you’re in for a mythic, larger-than-life tale. Riding the “Desire” streetcar through to the Cemeteries before arriving at Elysian Fields, Blanche is doomed long before she’s even made her dangerous, toxic connection with her sister Stella’s (Kim Hunter) volatile husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Though they’re handled with a Hays Code-friendly remove, the film’s themes – undiagnosed mental illness, long-term trauma, sexual assault – ensure that Streetcar remains timely, whilst Stanley and Blanche’s verbal and physical brutality towards one another has lost none of its power.

Sexual tension smoulders and class resentment festers in the small home where Blanche quickly begins to wear out her welcome. Stanley and Stella’s apartment becomes a ticking bomb, one that Stanley seems dead set on setting off. Decades later, Brando’s iconic performance retains all of its lustre. Glistening with sweat and itching to get shirtless, it’s a performance of swaggering physicality and naturalism that instantly turned Hollywood acting on its head. It’s not hyperbole to say that his Stanley is one of the most important pieces of screen acting ever delivered, dragging the art away from the theatrical and closer to what is considered “great acting” today.

Brando is magnetic, of course, and he’s what makes this version of Streetcar great, but his dominance of the screen comes at a cost. Most of the supporting cast barely make an impression, paling in comparison to their leading man. Only Leigh’s performance comes close to being as memorable, and that’s not entirely meant as a compliment. She gives a incredibly mannered display, full of obvious, loud affects – never quite convincing when viewed aside the explosively real Brando. This carries over, even, into the scenes that Leigh shares with the other actors, roadblocking any sympathy we’re supposed to feel for the character as suggested by Williams’ magnificently layered writing.

With some notable flashy exceptions during Stanley and Blanche’s climactic showdown, Kazan’s direction is mostly understated, meaning it’s left mostly to Brando to move Streetcar from the stage to the screen. We almost never leave Stanley and Stella’s apartment complex, and there’s nothing in the way of grand set pieces, making for a faithful if not particularly ambitious translation. But you’d never find a leading man performance like this on the stage. Brando figured out some strange alchemy with Kazan’s camera that struck Hollywood like lightning. Whenever he’s on screen, the years between 1951 and 2020 simply seem to fade away.

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