April issue 2013
Woman in the Shadows
Elia Kazan brought Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning stage play A Streetcar Named Desire to the big screen in 1951. Williams was known for exploring themes of class, the diminishing status of the American south, the burden of appearance and human nature’s proclivity for cruelty through a cast of eccentric, yet vulnerable, female protagonists. These flawed women, often objects of ridicule and contempt, are also laid bare as sympathetic figures who are intelligent, sensitive and who often battle to maintain a facade of strength.
Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), despite what her name may suggest, is a woman in the shadows. A Southern belle obsessed with her appearance and once high social status, she has a penchant for long baths and luxury.
The film begins with Blanche moving into her sister, Stella’s (Kim Hunter) home. Blanche straightaway looks down on Stella’s working class “Polack” husband, Stanley (Marlon Brando), questioning her sister’s choice of a man who is “common,” “vulgar” and “a bit on the primitive side.” Stanley is a menacingly handsome yet brutish young man who says and does what he wants, never veiling his words or intentions. He yells, smashes plates against the wall and even beats his wife in one scene, only to turn into a weeping mess soon after, begging her to return to him. He sees Blanche as an intruder who is sabotaging his relationship with Stella. Blanche’s hypocrisy, delusions and sense of superiority infuriate him. He raises suspicions as to how Blanche can afford such ‘luxuries’ (not quite, as the fur is fake and the “tiara for an empress” is made of rhinestone) on a meagre teacher’s salary.
Mitch, Stanley’s friend who wants to marry Blanche, tranforms from a bumbling and infatuated suitor to a vicious opportunist upon discovering her less than chaste nature. After condemning her as “not clean enough” to introduce to his mother, he proceeds to make advances on her.
As flawed as Blanche may be, audiences are sympathetic towards her. We realise that she is a victim who cloaks the realities of her life with innocent and almost child-like fantasies in order to survive in a male-dominated, judgmental and harsh world. Stella, enamoured by Stanley’s rough and callous ‘masculinity’, but loyal to Blanche, remarks, “Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change.”
The final scene, where Stanley rapes an intoxicated and exposed Blanche, is the ultimate act of humiliation and brutality that leads to her mental breakdown. As she is being escorted by an old doctor (presumably to a psychiatric ward), she addresses him with a broken smile saying, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” — her final words in the film.
In her Oscar-winning role, Vivien Leigh proved that she was by far one of the finest actresses to grace the silver screen. It is difficult to imagine anyone else play the neuroticism and fragility of Blanche more convincingly. Brando, who also got an Oscar nomination for this film, shot to fame with audiences and critics alike with his powerful breakthrough performance.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.