Friday, 6 May 2016

Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire" – The Gender Game

I recently saw a stage production of Tennessee Williams’ memory play The Glass Menagerie and it was interesting to see this film version of his next great play, A Streetcar Named Desire, fairly soon afterwards.


There are some obvious thematic links between Menagerie and Desire, such as the dilemma of a sibling as to whether to stay or leave a dysfunctional family, and the desire of a mentally unstable woman to marry in order to save herself from a world that she is not capable of living in on her own.

Gender roles are very prominent in Desire.  Stanley (Marlon Brando) is the ultimate macho man, fighting, rude, card-playing, wife-beating, shrewd and money-focused in his role as the ultimate breadwinner.  Blanche (Vivien Leigh) plays a role herself as the ultimate Southern belle, and Stella (Kim Hunter) the little wife who keeps coming back for more (although the film does diverge from the play in having her leave her violent husband at the end).

The skill of the play and the film is the slow release of information about Blanche’s character and background, which drives the plot from beginning to end, and Vivien Leigh pulls this off superbly.  All three of the leads leave a strong memory of a character created in this film, which is no doubt why it has remained a classic since its release in 1951.  Brando in particular is a huge presence on the screen.

It’s hard not to think of Judith Butler’s 1988 essay "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution" when watching this film.  If the performance of gender leads to the creation of gender in real life, the character of Blanche self-consciously performs the actions of that most stylised of female models, the Southern belle.  And Stanley – who is referred to as coming from the Stone Age in the script – is the stereotypical hard man, his macho armour no doubt hiding a sensitive soul underneath and we do see signs of that sensitive side breaking through at various points in the play.

The film does not refer to the homosexuality of Blanche’s husband.  We’re told he killed himself but the reasons are more generalized than in the play.  The British artist Grayson Perry’s currenttelevision series about male gender roles, "All Man” shows a similar preoccupation with Williams in his simultaneous fascination, awe and fear of the macho working class male.  Both Perry and Williams have well documented macho fathers who disapproved of their effeminate ways.  (In Perry’s case, a macho father and a macho step-father.)

Personal Score: 8/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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