Yesterday, I finally cracked. I was on my way home from work and I passed the DVD rental place, wandered in and, well, somehow A Streetcar Named Desire was just what I felt like seeing. I’d been holding off for a while. I had my reasons.
I saw a stage production of The Glass Menagerie a few months ago. It was incredible. We don’t study Tennessee Williams in high school over here. Shakespeare, sure, every year at least once, and if you don’t hit Steinbeck there’s a good chance someone’ll hand you To Kill A Mockingbird, but Tennessee Williams isn’t on anybody’s radar for exam fodder. So I think it was somewhere around the point in Tom’s opening speech where he refers to the fiddler in the wings that I became aware of -- became awed by -- the autheticity of the voice. It was intimate. It was elegantly constructed. It had a rough edge. It was incontrovertibly American. This was poetry created from the surrounding voice. It couldn’t rely on literary conventions to mark it out as art. It was the real deal.
I was so glad I had never had to write English assignments on it.
Of course I wanted more. Still, I was wary of watching Tennessee Williams on film. Having seen The Glass Menagerie in the theatre, I honestly couldn’t imagine how you could possibly make a film out of it. The way it uses the stage setting is too beautiful, the way it doesn’t entirely pretend to be real. It’s nostalgic -- it’s a stage, an illusion -- it’s intimate, but it doesn’t pretend to be entirely real. How could you possibly capture that on film? Why would you want to?
I didn’t know if his later plays had anything of the same effect. But I couldn’t help worrying that film really couldn’t capture Tennessee Williams, and that I might be spoiling a future opportunity to see the real thing on stage. When it came to Streetcar, there was the plus side that Tennessee Williams had had a hand in the screenplay. If he thought it was okay, maybe it would be! On the other hand, though, there was the censorship issue. Did I really want to see a version that might have had its teeth pulled by prudish fifties industry watchdogs?
(Spoilers follow because I can’t shut up about important plot details.)
Well, I’ve seen it, no going back now, and I think it was probably worth it. The censorship does pose problems, but the actors are brilliant. It’s the film that made Marlon Brando’s name, of course, and Vivien Leigh is as good as you’d expect, but I was actually particularly impressed by Kim Hunter as Stella. She deserved that Oscar. She was a great contrast to Leigh’s pale waif-like Blanche, and I loved the complexity of emotion in her sulky mouth. I was watching the director’s cut, which meant we had the nice close-up in that scene where she goes back down to Stanley after he has hit her -- really, it’s a crying shame the League of Decency forced them to change that scene at the last minute. It was one of the most impressive sequences in the whole film, central to portraying Stella and Stanley’s relationship.
I’m glad I knew already that Blanche’s husband was homosexual. You could see perfectly well how the stuff she said about him applied to that situation (“He came to me for help, but I didn’t know that”). I’d have hated to be confused into thinking he was just oversensitive enough to kill himself over nothing.
It’s the end that I regret. When I saw Stella say to
They suckered me. I am ashamed of myself.
Those stuffy, long-dead bastards! See what they’ve done? I’ll never get that moment back. For, of course, in the original play, Stella doesn’t leave
I wasn’t so much glad that Stella had left
Perhaps they did endorse that. Stupid bastards.