Tennessee Williams filled the tinderbox. Marlon Brando ignited it.
Williams’ hothouse scenario – in which down-on-her-luck Southern belle Blanche DuBois moves into the seedy, sweaty New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley – took Broadway by storm from 1947 to 1949. Brando followed his stage director, Elia Kazan, to the screen, where his Stanley became one of the Method immortals. Don’t name your girl Stella unless you want her to be screamed at a lot.
Yet even after decades of parody, the performance works. Despite its gritty milieu, Streetcar is a heightened facsimile of real life in nearly every way – except for Brando. There’s something guttural about him that can’t be “acted.” Distrustful of Blanche, just smart enough to know that he’s not smart enough to ever be accepted by her, his Stanley is a roiling force of honest sweat, class envy and animal urges. He’s more dangerous than Williams’ soapy scenario knows what to do with.
Vivien Leigh (who was part of the London, not Broadway, production) goes equally big as Blanche, and if she isn’t as effective as Brando, there’s really only one moment that you could call camp (her final crack-up). Otherwise, it’s a remarkable performance in the way Leigh brings a sense of fragility to every moment, whether she’s handing passive-aggressive compliments to Stella (Kim Hunter), raging against Stanley’s brutishness or batting her eyes at Karl Malden as a potential suitor. (Malden can’t look away, even if those eyes are dripping with mascara and insecurity.)
A Streetcar Named Desire works itself up into a hurricane of emotional chaos, yet ironically, as these final scenes give in to hysteria, Brando starts dialing down. Depending on your reading, that makes Stanley either remorseful or sinister. Either way, he’s riveting. If Brando is calm at the end of Streetcar, that’s because he’s the center of the storm.