They told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetaries. –Blanche DuBois
I first read A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams when I was in high school. Back in the day, it wasn’t a part of the reading curriculum. Probably because the subject matter was a bit too racy for the average 10th grader. The story centers around the gentile southern belle Blanche DuBois who always depends on the kindness of strangers and also has a lustful affinity for young men–very young men.
The movie stars Vivien Leigh as Blanche, Marlon Brando as Stanley and Kim Hunter as Stella. If you’ve never sat down and watched this movie, you simply must. Even though it was released in 1950, this lusty, urban drama set in steamy New Orleans is still very relevant today. The performances are epic. The tension between Blanche and Stanley has never been re-created on film. A close second would be Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. But that is a subject for another blog post!
When you watch the movie, be sure to look for the moment when Blanche and Stanley first meet. OMG. Superb directing…yes. Superb cinematography…yes indeed. But the tension between Blanche and Stanley in that moment is just plain ol’ great actors doing what they do best. I get chills thinking about it. In that moment, they are sizing each other up and each knows that one of them will be destroyed by the other. Poor Blanche represents the fate that every aging woman fears. She lives in the land of “has been”. She was a beautiful young woman. But her future was destroyed when she mentally tortured her young husband to the point of his suicide. She was a woman who had her whole life ahead of her but gave it up to care for her aging relatives at the beloved yet burdensome plantation called Belle Reve in Oriole, Mississippi. Blanche is caught between her conflicting desires. On one hand, she suppresses her sexual desires and appears to be a dutiful daughter and loyal school teacher. And on the other hand, she wants to recapture her youth and be a woman who is driven by her uncontrollable lust and desires.
Stella, Blanche’s younger sister, is not conflicted at all. She lives her life as she pleases. And her greatest pleasure is Stanley. Stella’s man Stanley is a basic man. Uncomplicated. He cares about good lovin’, good liquor, good food…and in that order.
Blanche and Stella are sisters. But in name only. They are different creeds. Blanche is sensitive, tortured and guilt-ridden about her lustful desires. While Stella is lustful and embraces it without apologies. While Blanche gave her life to the care of sick relatives and attending the Belle Reve plantation, Stella took off and never looked back.
How can two sisters have such different outlooks on their desires? Blanche, secretive and guilt-ridden about her sexuality—Stella, overt and unapologetic about her sexual romps. It’s hard to believe this movie was produced in 1950. It sounds like a perfect plot for an episode of The Good Wife.
Another thing to watch for in the movie is Blanche’s obsession with her looks. She desperately seeks compliments from strangers, her sister and even her nemesis Stanley. To attract her suitor, Mitch, she ensures the room’s lighting is always dim to hide her age. One could also argue that the dim lighting also hides the scars of her past in Oriole.
Blanche is eventually exposed and all of her secrets serve as ammunition for Stanley. He destroys her and then has her committed to a mental institution.
As the male doctor prepares her for her “trip” to the institution, Blanche utters those famous words — Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
Blanche is entranced by a man who she sees as another romantic admirer. Although in reality, he is simply a doctor who knows he can get her under control if he pretends to be entralled by her beauty. Whenever I see this scene, I look ahead and wonder what must have become of Blanche. I wonder if she was doomed to spend the rest of her days pretending to be the innocent young southern belle pursued by handsome young suitors. Or did she finally learn to accept her own reality and desires?