A nearly shirtless, svelte young Brando screams the now famous line to the top floor of a New Orleans home. What intensity, what sexiness, what...holy shit, he was a wife-beater in this movie?
I am well aware that this admission makes me seem an uncultured rube, but: Going into A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew absolutely nothing about Elia Kazan's adaptation of the Tennessee Williams' play, except that Brando was once sexy, and in this movie he played a guy named Kowlaski who yelled "Stella" for some reason. Certain movie images, whether or not we've actually seen the specific films to which they're attached, are so indelibly ingrained in our collective memories, that they exist as entities unto themselves. I was shocked, shocked to learn what led to this scene.
Stanley Kowalski, an abusive drunk, upset that his wife Stella's (Kim Hunter) crazy sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh) has moved into their unhappy home, flies into a drunken rage and mercillesly beats Stella one night after she and Blanche interrupt his poker game one too many times. Blanche races with Stella upstairs to a sympathetic neighbor to hide from the feral animal downstairs. When the drunken Kowalski realizes he is alone, he runs outside and yells for his wife, who submits and returns to him.
Divorced from the context of the movie (meaning, just the image of sexy Brando yelling "Stella"), Brando's Kowalski here seems of a type with many of the heroes of romantic films we've been trained by Hollywood to root for. To someone not familiar with the movie, it would seem that a woman named Stella broke this fella's heart, and now the scorned man is trying to get her back. Obviously, however, this scene is a depressing example of a woman stuck in an abusive relationship, who returns to her abuser because she has no other options. Although Brando was going for terrifying, feral beast in this scene—as in much of the rest of this movie—divorced from the context of the film, he comes off as brooding and passionate cool.
Now how can I state this in an intellectual manner? Kowalski is a piece of shit. How had I always been so wrong in my assumption of this character? Perhaps it's because of the Brando I had come to know and disrespect from my youth: the "fuck it, I'm a let myself go; I'm the king of awesome-town" ego-out-of-control, batshit Brando. The Brando I became acquainted with in my lifetime was the ego-maniac who ruined otherwise great movies (The Missouri Breaks, Apocalypse Now), with his batshit acting choices and disregard for direction. In that context, when I first saw the famous "Stella" clip, I thought Brando looked kinda cool once upon a time. Because, if hollywood has taught us anything it's that glistening hardbody in a tight ripped t-shirt = sexy, super fucking awesome. Why would a cool looking person be not awesome?
[I'm sure had Kowalski looked like one of these guys, my Pavlovian-trained brain would have reacted to the "Stella" scene more appropriately—it certainly would have made for a more cathartic end for the character.]
Perhaps my miscalculation of Brando's Streetcar character was borne of the mythos that had developed around the young Brando (that is, in addition to my never having seen the movie). It is easy to forget what a revelation his acting technique was when unleashed on the world. The Method-trained Brando brought a hyper-naturalistic quality to the picture, introducing audiences to a sort of acting realism theretofore unknown.
And indeed, even after all these years, and subsequent honing of naturalistic techniques by numerous acting descendants, Brando's performance here is still stunning. Whereas most of the other performers in Streetcar turn in theatrical—though no less riveting—performances, Brando seems to be in another movie. It is a completely unself-conscious performance that conveys a sort of heightened reality. Though Brando's style would later become the norm, here it was the exception.
Whenever I had previously seen the clip of Brando yelling "Stella," it was always in the context of scholars and actors (rightfully) fawning over the young actor's technique. I guess I had always gotten the wires crossed and transferred this fawning over the actor to fawning over the character. When Richard Safarian named the outlaw rebel hero of Vanishing Point Kowalski, he wasn't so much hearkening back to Brando's character in Streetcar as to the Brando mystique. (If he actually did mean to romantisice the Kowalski character, however...fuck you Safarian; that's all I'd have to say about that.)
I should probably introduce y'all to this little Blind Spot series of mine—that is, if you haven't already seen my previous post introducing the series. When I decided to tackle this project, I picked reviewin' movies that, obviously, I felt I should be ashamed to admit I'd never seen. Now, some of these flicks had been on my to-see list for some time and I just never got around to them, but the majority were films I thought would be chores. Such was A Streetcar Named Desire. Before folks berate me, let me explain: I ain't a play person. Well, that entirely true. More accurately, I ain't a movies-adapted-from-plays person. What works on the stage rarely translates well to the screen. Sure, you can call me a sub-literate chimp, but me no like the talk so much when movies should be action more of.
Now, Elia Kazan's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire almost avoids the pitfalls suffered by other play-to-movie adaptations. Almost. There's still too much dialogue here for my taste, but the actors (Brando in particular, as mentioned before; did you read all the previous paragraphs?) give such powerhouse performances that I sometimes forgot I was listening to characters talk and talk and talk. But yeah, this movie...real good.
I realize I haven't discussed the movie much but fuck it. Others folk have already critiqued Streetcar to death. That's not what I'm here for. I'm just hoping to elucidate for y'all what it was like for me to lose my Streetcar cherry.