DIRECTOR: Elia Kazan
KEY ACTORS: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh
IMDB SCORE: 8.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 98%
SEX SCORE: 3/5
✔️ I definitely want to fuck the cast. Marlon Brando is my ultimate movie star crush, particularly because of this film. His Stanley is an awful, angry man but, damn, no one looks as good in a tight t-shirt. He is stunning.
✔️ So I need to give it a mark for inspiring fantasies as I’ve definitely fantasied about having angry, violent, furniture breaking hot hot sex with Stanley…
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test, and does so without difficulty.
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. It’s really quite difficult to watch – it’s intense and upsetting and hard work. I might just watch it for Brando but there are gifs for the best bits so…
❌ And it’s not sex positive. Blanche is literally spoiled and ruined by her promiscuity and ends up in an asylum. I’m not doubting that she’s unwell by that point but it made me uncomfortable how her sexual choices were included among her symptoms.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: sexual, domestic and emotional abuse, mental health crises, homophobia, trauma and suicide]
I may have taken on too much with this one.
A Streetcar Named Desire was originally a play written in 1947 by Tennessee Williams and was adapted for the screen a few years later in 1951 with much of the hugely successful Broadway cast following it to Hollywood. And it’s been the subject of much feminist study since then! A google of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire feminism’ produces a wealth of essays and publications about objectification and patriarchy and feminism, and that was just the first page!
But I chose to write about this movie for much baser reasons. I chose to write about it because of this gif.
I chose this movie because this is a blog primarily about sex and I have had a crush on Marlon Brando ever since I saw this movie. I know his character, Stanley, is a truly terrible person – toxic masculinity personified – but I had never seen such raw sexuality and heat on screen before and I could not tear my eyes away. The Guardian were right to call him ‘brutally sexy’ and Roger Ebert goes further, catching my eye with descriptions of torn T-shirts that reveal ‘muscles and sweat.’
Brando is and I suspect always will be my number one movie crush. He’s my answer to every question about which famous person I’d like to fuck or who I’d want to have for dinner or who I’d want a threesome with (although my real answer to that question is that no threesome is as hot as the fabled but apparently real threesome between Eartha Kitt, James Dean and Paul Newman so I don’t want a movie star threesome – I want to watch that one!). I originally watched A Streetcar Named Desire as it was high on my list of movies that every movie nerd needs to watch, but I didn’t remember the story or the drama or even the feminist issues or the ever present weight of the patriarchy pressing down on Blanche and eventually destroying her. I remembered Marlon Brando in a tight t-shirt, glowering and angry and just so fucking hot.
A Streetcar Named Desire tells the story of Blanche DuBois (Leigh), a fading Southern belle who has lost her home and has to move in with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley (Brando). Throughout the months that she lives there, Blanche’s mental health deteriorates and her secrets are revealed – how her husband took his own life after she humiliated him, how she had been having a lot of sex with a lot of strangers while living in a hotel until she was literally run out of town, how she flirted and dated and dressed like a debutante because she was terrified of losing her youth and her power and her personal value, and how she was nothing without them. Desperate to have Blanche out of his house, Stanley exposes her, assaults her and rapes her, and Blanche is so destroyed that she is committed to an asylum. Wow…
For me, this is a film about sex. Hot, sweaty, powerful, angry, destructive sex. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, sex is the cause of and the solution to all of the problems in this movie.
I was perhaps focussing too intently on it but I was really interested in Stanley and Stella’s sexual relationship, and how their entire marriage was completely unbalanced when their sex life is restrained:
‘God, honey, it’s gonna be sweet when we can make noise in the night the way that we used to and get the colored lights going with nobody’s sister behind the curtain to hear us!’
Stella and Stanley used to have a lot of noisy, angry sex, and that seemed to keep them together but Blanche’s appearance as a third wheel means that they can’t fight and make up in the same way. They can’t release their passion and energy in a consensual way and it ends up leaking out as aggression and violence.
I am not in anyway condoning this type of relationship as there is nothing healthy about the cycles of anger, violence and sex that are portrayed in Stella and Stanley’s marriage, but I was fascinated by them. Particularly when I realised that I had watched the 1993 restoration cut of the movie, rather than the original release that was held back by the Hays Code. As Roger Ebert discussed in his review of the re-release, only 5 minutes of footage was added but it shows ‘how daring the film really was.’ He describes one key cut that, for me, provides such a significant window into Stella and Stanley’s relationship:
‘Look at the early scene, for example, where Stanley plants himself on the street outside his apartment and screams, “Stella!” In the censored version, she stands up inside, pauses, starts down the stairs, looks at him, continues down the stairs, and they embrace. In the uncut version, only a couple of shots are different – but what a difference they make! Stella’s whole demeanor seems different, seems charged with lust. In the apartment, she responds more visibly to his voice. On the stairs, there are closeups as she descends, showing her face almost blank with desire. And the closing embrace, which looks in the cut version as if she is consoling him, looks in the uncut version as if she has abandoned herself to him.’
Stella likes it. She doesn’t go back to Stanley after he has torn up their apartment because she is scared of him or because she is just being a dutiful wife. She is turned on by it – whether directly by his raw expression of anger or by his desperate remorse – and she goes back to him because she cannot resist him.
The morning after their reconciliation makes this desire more obvious; Stella is in bed, looking happy and utterly satisfied, and their house is still all smashed up around them. Was that just the havoc Stanley wrought the evening before or did their make up sex add to the destruction? (*swoon*) Stella then tells Blanche about how Stanley had smashed all the light bulbs in their house on their wedding night. When Blanche looks shocked, Stella simply says that she was ‘sort of thrilled by it!’ She loves it. She fucking loves it.
Blanche DuBois: You’re married to a madman.
Stella: I wish you’d stop taking it for granted that I’m in something I want to get out of.
But I still worry about Stella. As I mentioned above, even if she does love it and even if she is turned on by it, they do not have a healthy relationship. With the passion and excitement, Stella also has to deal with the violence and anger. Stanley is not in control of himself and no amount of apology or great sex is enough to forgive the way he behaves towards his wife and to other people in general. I also particularly worried about their future now that they have a baby – if the disruption of having Stella’s sister staying for a few months was enough to completely unbalance Stanley, I dread to think what having a child around will do.
Much of the literary criticism that I read about this film mentions how Williams used Stella and Stanley’s neighbours, Steve and Eunice, to demonstrate how the oppressive patriarchal nature of their marriage was universal. Like Stella and Stanley, they too fight and make up; they too display moments of ugly public violence that are forgotten the next day because they happen all the time. This ‘uneven male-female power balance’ was simply how life was for women in the 1940s. But Williams is clearly critical of this old-fashioned and misogynistic power structure – Stanley and Steve could never be described as the heroes of the story and the ‘unsympathetic depiction of their brutality’ highlights Williams’s discomfort at their attitudes.
But it exactly this emphasis on the control of the patriarchy that creates the setting for the rest of the story. Stella, Blanche and to a lesser extent Eunice are all shown to be ‘victims of social conventions over which they have no control.’ The men were allowed to treat their women like dirt because the women had no other choice – they can’t easily leave. What would their life be without a man to provide for them?
Which, of course, brings us to Blanche – a character whose demise seems almost entirely linked to the fact that she is unable to survive life as a single woman. Not because she is lonely or yearns for the comfort of a relationship; she literally cannot survive life without a man. By the time she arrives in New Orleans, she has lost her job and her home, and she has nowhere else to go.
Watching A Streetcar Named Desire in 2020, I have been unable to decide if I think Blanche really did have a mental health disorder or if she was simply a victim of the patriarchy in a much more significant way than her sister. The flashbacks and responses to triggers do suggest that she’s got PTSD, but I couldn’t help but feel that the sources of her traumas were buried deep within the expectations of women in the 1940s and not only would she have been treated more sympathetically now but the events in her life that have caused her so much pain should not have been so deeply traumatic.
Blanche’s life seemed to start spiralling out of control following her husband’s death. After Blanche had caught him with an older man, she had taunted him and tormented him until he took his own life. The shame associated with each part of this is the crux around which Blanche’s mental health crisis revolves – her regret at her own cruelty, her shock at being so misled by a man who had claimed to love her, her isolation once she had become a widow. Of course, Blanche’s disgust at her husband is hugely homophobic and horrific but, for me, this fits into the same category as Blanche being slut-shamed – both are outdated attempts to restrain our true sexual freedom and neither are attitudes that are acceptable anymore.
I do feel a lot of sympathy for Blanche. She’s torn between what she wants, who she thinks she’s supposed to be and what she needs to survive. On one hand, she is as horny as fuck and an incorrigible flirt, literally charming the pants off the men around her, but on the other, she knows that in 1940s, women who fuck around aren’t marriage material. She knows that she is a whisker away from ruin – her looks are fading and her past is catching up with her. She can’t support herself alone and she needs a husband to take care of her. The sweet Mitch who almost proposes to her really is her last chance!
And it’s desperately sad how aware Blanche is of the precariousness of her situation, struggling with a battle that is still familiar to women today – the balance between being free and sexy and willing, and being respectable and proper and, well, innocent:
‘He hasn’t gotten a thing but a goodnight kiss, that’s all I have given him, Stella. I want his respect. And men don’t want anything they get too easy. But on the other hand men lose interest quickly. Especially when the girl is over—thirty. They think a girl over thirty ought to—the vulgar term is—“put out.”’
It’s not clear whether Blanche had sex with all those men in the hotel because she simply enjoys sex or if it’s a form of sex work, paying for dinner and clothes and everything that she can’t afford with her body – as the famous line states, she has ‘always depended on the kindness of strangers’ – but I do think she enjoys the attention. How else is she supposed to feel valued? She objectifies herself, drawing attention with her fake jewels and cheap furs, because she feels she has nothing else to offer.
Of course, the final price that the patriarchy claims from Blanche is that she can’t be a sexual woman without risking assault. If she’s the type of woman who likes fucking strangers, she’s not the type of woman who can say no. Stanley’s assault is the story’s ‘inevitable climax,’ building from the moment Blanche flirts with him as she doesn’t know how else to handle such a sexually aggressive man through his discovery of her past until he thinks he can take from her exactly what he wants. And sadly, such is the influence of the rape culture, that her assault is inevitable.
But what really breaks my heart is Stella’s response: ‘I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley!’ She’s right – if her husband really did rape her sister, how could she stay with him? The difficulty, of course, is that to leave him would place her and her new baby is as vulnerable a position as Blanche. Where would they go? Who would support them? And as Blanche really does now need treatment following this further horrific trauma, accepting her husband’s version of events becomes more understandable. Awful and cowardly, but understandable.
‘I’m the king around here,’ Stanley told Stella earlier in the movie, ‘and don’t you forget it!’ And she doesn’t. She can’t.
When writing about Dracula, I’ve talked about the attraction of the Bad Boy; the dangerous man who we want even though they will hurt us, and I can’t deny that I still fancy the fuck out of Marlon Brando in this movie. When it comes to fantasy sex, his raw brutality and animalistic passion remains really hot, but there is a world of difference between the fantasy and reality – ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic’ says Blanche and that sums up Stanley. The reality is an absolute fucking shitshow and A Streetcar Named Desire doesn’t shy away from exposing the awful reality of a future with that type of man.
2020 is not 1947; the women’s movement and feminism have changed our opportunities and expectations, but the patriarchal hell depicted in A Streetcar Named Desire isn’t so alien that we can’t still learn from it and isn’t so old fashioned that we can look back with smugness. Slut-shaming still exists; the rape culture still exists; and too many women remain trapped in relationships they can’t escape. Stanley keeps harping on about the ‘Napoleonic Code,’ emphasising how long the patriarchy has been in control, and we still aren’t free.
So let’s look at A Streetcar Named Desire as the cautionary tale that I like to think Tennessee Williams meant it to be. The magic may be incredible but we can’t avoid reality forever…
Next week – American Beauty