#230. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Having watched Streetcar Named Desire now in the same week as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard I’m in this weird enchanted headspace about the whole Project, how gratifying it is, cuz I’ve now seen two of the greatest movies of all time in the space of a few days, each for the first time, without knowing the premise of either one, so they were both blissfully new to me. On toppa that, I discovered in the last few seconds of each film the origin of a famous quote (“I’m ready for my close-up,” in Sunset and then, in Streetcar, “I always have depended on the kindness of strangers”r). And finally, capping off those first two pleasures, I’ve discovered two of the best performances by female actors to appear in the List so far: Gloria Swanson’s washed-up Norma Desmond and Vivien Leigh’s nerve-shattered Blanche Dubois.

Vivien Leigh fucking kills it here but I’m pretty sure Streetcar is best remembered now for Marlon Brando, his second big-screen appearance; mostly just for that one shot of him clutching his head, tortured with longing and guilt, screaming for his pregnant wife, Stella, to come down from the room of an upstairs neighbor to whom she’s fled after he beat her up. It’s a good scene, emotional and kinda sexy in a weird way. Brando’s handsome and explosive and vulnerable at the same time and his wife, played by Kim Hunter, is sultry and slow and wielding a surprising power in the whole situation.

But the movie belongs to Leigh.

I’m wondering if the reason she so captivates me, and perhaps occupies a deluded bigness in my recollection of the movie, is that I know so many people just like Blanche — well-intentioned, dealt a bad hand in life, forever at odds with their past and consequently strutting about town with airs of greater refinement than they can rightly claim. Earnest people who ignore or distort the truth because they prefer, as she so touchingly puts it, “magic.” Prefer to lead a life in which things aren’t as they are but as they ought to be.

I’m also obviously captivated cuz she’s gorgeous. It’s twelve or thirteen years since her last appearance on the List, in Gone with the Wind, and while there’s a good bit of cosmetic wizardry going on int hat movie to make her look, first, like a girl of sixteen and, finally, like a somewhat defeated woman of thirty, here in Streetcar Leigh looks like an adult woman trying to look like an innocent teenager. It’s an interesting effect. The makeup, like that of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, is heavy, and in certain angles of light looks a bit like cake. The eyeliner is meticulous. The lips conjured by paint.

I’m wondering if these two portrayals of beautiful middle-aged women (Norma Desmond and Blanche), weathered by disappointment and trying desperately to reclaim the eminence and potential of their younger selves, isn’t a reflection of some kinda postwar sensibility. Like yeah, the war’s over and, five years removed, the world is sliding into a new normalcy, but maybe those who lived through it can’t help but feel there’s been some perversion of their lives, something stolen?

I can’t get over this performance.

Or my attraction to Blanche, whose phony southern delicacy is seductive as hell — even while there’s this gnawing voice in my head calling me a sexist for it and saying that yeah you like that because you want a woman who’s perpetually deferential and hides her true self so’s not to inconvenience you—

Ahdunno.

I may’ve told you about this earlier but I’ll mention it again: a few months ago I went and got coffee with a family friend. I grew up with her kids. She’s in her 60s now, still married to the father of her kids, but she’s unhappy. Maybe miserable. She attributes her marriage’s turbulence to her husband’s mood disorder. Her daughter has recently fallen in love and moved in with a guy who’s routinely bedridden with clinical depression and the woman I’m getting coffee with, the mom, apparently caused a rift through the whole family by sitting her daughter down and telling her, point blank, “Run.”

A friend of mine named Amy is in her mid-thirties now and well into her third serious relationship of the past ten years. She’s got bi-polar disorder and says that she mostly just had casual sex in her 20s, no relationships, because her incestuous network of friends (she doesn’t live in a big place) labeled her, if not undatable, at least unstable enough that any attempt to forge a lasting relationship would be like trying to build a tree house in an earthquake. Her last two relationships ended with the guys calling her crazy and cutting her off. She’s a confident person but she’s built up a pretty thick shield of scar tissue and legitimately freaks out and gets angry at herself whenever she develops feelings for a fuckbuddy.

I’m only 27 and so the peers among whom I guess I’d be looking for prospective partners aren’t necessarily laden with baggage yet, though it’s increasingly common that I meet a single person my age who’s divorced with a kid, and lots of them have already been through the ringer of substance abuse, domestic violence, deaths of friends and relatives, traumatic injuries, arrests, professional failures, cataclysmic heartbreaks — we’re all beginning to bring a personal history to the table. I’m pretty mercurial myself. Not so easy to deal with.

Where am I going with this?

Anyway, listen. This movie is a masterpiece. Total delight.

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