The tiniest of innocuous details, ones that pass by without notice are the crema of legends. Neither are all-time events and figures borne from a single gigantic event; nor more likely is a mythologized film shot in a single take. Every event you’ve heard about has a history in the small, snowballing events that lead up to it. Most films are lucky to have been made but for a perceived slight toward the executive production team. A single turn – not casting Marlon Brando in the lead as Stanley Kowalski – might have doomed A Streetcar Named Desire to an important, but ultimately indexed footnote to film history. As is the case, however, it is monumentally important.
What makes A Streetcar Named Desire odd, right away, is that the streetcar in question, yes named “Desire,” bears almost no weight on what this film tackles. It is a small, innocuous detail, whose point, if there is one, is to usher in the story medias res. The Kowalskis have a life of tumult, so as playwright Tennessee Williams does so featherlike, he drops in a complete mess of a personality via a perfectly normal streetcar. The detail (the name of the car), while tiny, is not extemporaneous or thoughtless. It is a clever and worthwhile misdirection. Blanche is an imbalance, waiting without delay along a fixed path toward disaster. We know this almost immediately and we wait without delay, along a fixed path, to see how this disaster unfolded. It is manifest in American, human experience and we watch this movie to chase the fixed path, deeply arcing toward disaster. Are we meant to look inward? Do we…desire it?
Tennessee Williams was a master playwright. Not only did he understand the confines of stage space and a reasonable parallel to action, he understood, somehow, the capacity of humans to deal with a rotten tomato tossed haphazardly. Sometimes it hits an actor in the face, and she has to wipe it off and keep performing; sometimes it misses completely and shatters the papier-mâché stage behind him; sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. A the cherry bomb is metaphor without being overwrought. How Williams was able to understand the intricacies of the human experience, process them, eulogize them, and repackage them as a confined statement, bold and indirect, is astonishing. This play was built for the screen, too, in an era of limited budgets and a restless postwar America.
Expanding it on-screen could have failed, spectacularly, had Elia Kazan sought to inflict upon it his own thoughts. A Streetcar Named Desire requires a shaken beer held shut for two hours. Each character, from Brando’s uberclever, misanthropic Stanley Kowalski, to Vivien Leigh’s neurotic, destroyed Blanche, and Kim Hunter’s Stella (“Stella!”), a meek, trapped woman needs to operated around eighty per cent capacity for the majority of the play/film. The behavior cannot dip below or Desire loses its urgency and can’t escalate or the tomato is thrown back at the audience in contempt. Williams doesn’t treat his audience like dolts, and Kazan doesn’t need to do anything more than let the happening unfold, as if carried forward by the neverending, constant crawl of a streetcar named “Desire.”
Small details were changed from stage to screen in-line with a moral conservatism that has always backboned entertainment. Homosexual overtones were edited out and somewhat suggested within Code confines. The play’s ending tried to clean up the mess by allowing the Kowalski’s to reconcile; the film flairs up the dramatic by separating the couple. (As an aside, this period in American history saw a determined spike in marriage and divorce rates, which would soon cool off, until the 1980s. Both have been declining since.) Ultimately, A Streetcar Named Desire is a bottle episode without the bottle – the life of a couple, a trio, in three acts of flowing decarbonated Budweiser beer.
A Streetcar Named Desire did not win Best Picture in 1951, despite pushing the boundaries of stage-to-screen adaptation, breaking Marlon Brando (who would go on to have a storied career with his performances in On The Waterfront and most notably, The Godfather, Parts I and II), and honoring Tennessee Williams’ legacy for audiences of all ages and Ages to enjoy and ponder. An American in Paris, a wonderfully dapper homage to George and Ira Gershwin, captured eyes and ears for a generation and is probably a worthy follow-up to All About Eve, perhaps the best movie to win Best Picture of all of them. Other nominees like Quo Vadis, A Place in the Sun, and A Decision Before Dawn rounded out the nominees and surely have not had the same impact as either of the other films.