Frazzled, worn-out schoolteacher Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) visits her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) in New Orleans on a leave of absence. Despite having come from a family of considerable reputation, Stella has married Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) — a proud brute of a man — and settled in a crummy two-room apartment in the low-rent district where drinking and violent outbursts are the order of the day. During Stanley’s weekly poker game, she draws the interest of Mitch (Karl Malden), but as they begin their romance, Stanley begins to question aspects of her story. The more he hears, the more he begins to believe that Blanche may be lying or mentally unstable or both.
Winner of four Academy Awards, including three for acting alone, A Streetcar Named Desire is commonly referenced as one of the pinnacles of film acting. Led by Vivien Leigh’s quintessential portrayal of Blanche DuBois and one of Marlon Brando’s earliest displays of his unique brand of animal magnetism, Streetcar feels more alive than most adaptations of plays dare dream.
Leigh plays DuBois as a wounded animal constantly fearing the next brutal attack, and she has that ability to make your heart break, but as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that she’s not entirely a victim, that she’s got a few ulterior motives and dubious schemes. And that makes her a dangerous woman to get close to, but she’s in many ways more dangerous to herself. Her increasing state of mental instability means that she’s drifting further and further from the classy innocence she’s striving to maintain, and her past choices have required a facade that’s eventually just lies built on lies built on an illusion and good looks. But her looks are fading, and with it her entire persona is crumbling. And that can lead a woman to desperation.
To be sure, it is a difficult role. Some have called it the most difficult female role in existence. And Leigh is perfect. She gives the character more layers and nuances than the audience can process, but she does it all so convincingly that she gets lost in the role.
Marlon Brando, in only his second film, brings an explosiveness to the screen that few actors have ever been able to match. His impassioned cries of “Stella!” may just be one of the most popular audition selections for the struggling method actor, but what defines any great Brando performance isn’t the rage, but the humanity.
There’s a real duality to Brando where he can be brutal one minute and decidedly feminine the next, as the “Stella!” scene so aptly shows. My grandmother loves to tell me stories of Brando’s effect on the women of his day, and one of the things she’s constantly pointing out is just how gentle he was. The prime example is his handling of the pigeons in On the Waterfront, but it’s also visible here is how he interacts with Stella. While he’s prone to fits of rage, it’s obvious that he loves and adores his wife and would never intentionally harm her. He’s a violent man with a tender heart, and that tenderness is the primary source of his appeal.
It also helps that he was an immensely talented actor with a range and dynamism that’s hard for us to fully comprehend because it redefined film acting. Seen through the lenses of history, this is a great, groundbreaking performance, but I imagine that in 1951 it was nothing short of a revelation.
Not to be forgotten are the performances of Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch. Both received well-deserved Oscars, but both are overshadowed by the leads. Hunter is torn between her allegiance to her fragile sister and her husband, and is able to toe that line effectively. Malden, character actor du jour, gets a rare opportunity to play a character pursuing romance, and he takes full advantage of it.
Beyond the acting achievements, it’s worth noting Tennessee Williams’ screenplay, which comes off as natural and organic, despite being adapted from his own play. A lot of that is performance-based, but Williams gives the film a strong backbone from which to operate.
Elia Kazan’s direction moves the film at an efficient pace that essentially just keeps the action moving and lets the actors build their performances. He doesn’t impose on the story, instead letting it develop and ensuring the characters are foremost. Ultimately it’s a wise decision because the performances are some of the greatest in all film history. When you have two talents like Brando and Leigh, a great director helps them as needed, then gets out of the way.
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden
Written by: Tennessee Williams, from the adaptation of his play by Oscar Saul
Directed by: Elia Kazan
NR, 122 min, 1951, USA
 It won: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Karl Malden), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Vivien Leigh), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Kim Hunter), and Best Art Direction. In total it had 12 nominations, including: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Marlon Brando), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Music, Best Picture, Best Sound, and Best Screenplay.