A Streetcar Named Desire: Elia Kazan’s American Masterpiece

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ – Elia Kazan

One of the most famous relics of the 1950s, A tram named Désir is emblematic of the artistic apotheosis of American cinema. For modern viewers watching the film for the first time, the production will come across as a powerful perspective on paper, featuring Elia Kazan’s dreamy combination of directing, Tennessee Williams’ poetic writing, and method devastating actor of Marlon Brando. However, at the time, Brando was a relatively unknown actor and Kazan was slowly emerging from the world of theater, adapting to the unique demands of the film medium.

With Vivien Leigh as the complex figure of Blanche DuBois – an aristocratic woman from Mississippi – A tram named Désir is an intense document that tells of the ugliness that boils under the constructions of civil society. Although major elements of Williams’ flagship play had to be censored due to the strict production code of the time, Elia Kazan manages to elevate the visual narrative by contextualizing it in different backgrounds (as opposed to the play) and conduct fascinating experiments with light and shadow.

Located in the run-down French Quarter of New Orleans, Kazan creates a carnival setting with flashing lights and a vibrant nightlife in which two estranged sisters greet each other after a long time. Taking a ride in a streetcar named ‘Desire’, Blanche arrives in New Orleans to meet her sister Stella (played by Kim Hunter) only to find herself in a constant battle with her husband Stanley Kowalski (Brando). Unable to tolerate his elitist charms or superficially precious possessions, Kowalski takes it upon himself to completely erase Blanche’s already destabilized ego.

Speaking of Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick once said, “Without a doubt, the best director we have in America, [and] able to work miracles with the actors he employs. Even if A tram named Désir is not the best collaboration between Brando and Kazan (this goes to At the water’s edge), Kubrick’s words are undeniably true when we witness the nuanced mastery displayed in Tram.

Kazan obviously brings out the best in Brando, who ends up delivering one of the definitive acting master classes of the 20th century as a deeply problematic child, tragically trapped in pernicious constructions of masculinity. Additionally, Leigh keeps pace with Brando’s incendiary talent and delves deep into the crumbling psyche of a deranged woman (based on Williams’ full sister). By their collective brilliance, A tram named Désir turns into a timeless meditation on death, desire and moral poverty that overshadows the grim socio-economic reality.

The characters created by Tennessee Williams are unforgettable, utterly imperfect and deeply human. As viewers, we oscillate between feelings of empathy, sympathy, disgust, rage and even deep sadness but never apathy. While Stanley is a patriarch who beats up his wife who rapes a mentally ill woman and has regressive ideas as well as deep-rooted anger issues, Blanche is a pedophile who sexually raped a 17-year-old boy. Blanche pleads: “I don’t want realism, I want magic! but Williams does not hear his cries. Instead, it focuses on the gritty social realism that forms the heart of the play as well as the film.

A tram named Désir destroys the illusions of the human condition with such force that it destroys everything and everyone in sight, leaving us to wonder in stunned silence whether human depravity has replaced conventional ideas of morality for good. Despite the fact that some of the most relevant themes in Williams’ play, like the oppression of homosexuality, were removed due to Hollywood’s conservatism, Kazan’s masterpiece remains an indispensable part of cinema. American who continues to access the hearts and minds of new audiences with magical ease.

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About Bernice D. Brewer

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