16th 06 - 2016 | 5 comments »

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951/1984)

Directors: Elia Kazan/John Erman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

During an interview about her recent appearance on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Gillian Anderson said that for actresses, the character of Blanche DuBois is the equivalent of King Lear for actors—the most demanding of roles. Vivien Leigh, who put an indelible stamp on the role in the 1951 movie version, said Blanche “tipped me over into madness.” Ann-Margret, who played Blanche in a 1984 television movie version, acknowledged it as the hardest role of her career, commenting rather drolly: “I play a character who is a nymphomaniac, an alcoholic, and a psychotic. It’s not a musical.”

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A musical it certainly is not. A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the bleakest, most primal works ever created, pits the illusory world of a desperate, half-crazed Southern belle against the brutal reality of a modern-day caveman in the heat-drenched squalor of a New Orleans slum. And yet it teems with a kind of music—the lyrical dialog of Williams, the great modern poet of the stage descended from a grand Tennessee family as reduced in circumstances in the 20th century as the fictional DuBois clan that spun Blanche and her sister Stella out as its tired, last remains.

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Streetcar is my favorite play, one I’ve seen several times on stage and in two film productions—the famous Oscar-winning prestige picture from Warner Bros. and a made-for-TV production that aired on the ABC Movie of the Week. The former earned its lead actress, Vivien Leigh, an Oscar, and the latter garnered Ann-Margret a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination. Comparison may be beside the point, as it is, I believe, the text itself that indelibly brands everyone who comes to Streetcar for the first time and colors their view of the best interpretation. Nonetheless, although many people may think I’m crazy to class a TV movie with a film made by the mighty Elia Kazan and starring two bonafide movie stars—as uneven a boxing card, they may think, as that between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois—Ann-Margret, Treat Williams and their director, John Erman, more than hold their own.

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Little is different in the set design and costuming from one version to the other, though the TV version eliminates the wrought-iron elegance from the Kowalskis’ apartment building, helping to identify it more properly as a tenement. A basic, but not insignificant, difference between the two productions is that the earlier one is shot in black-and-white and the later in color. Harry Stradling, a cinematographer whose career began in the silent era and who could shoot anything from musicals (Easter Parade [1948], My Fair Lady [1964]) to high drama (Suspicion [1941], A Face in the Crowd [1957]), opens Kazan’s film in a bustling train terminal that tees off a gritty, restless style that has more than a hint of Manhattan to it. Bill Butler, whose major claim to fame is lensing Jaws (1975), shot the color Streetcar with a gauzy, nostalgic look that opens with Blanche’s sun-dappled trip through the genteel Garden District and gradually dims as she moves into the heart of darkness that is Elysian Fields, the rough quarter where Stella and Stanley live. There is a languid, moist quality to the look that suggests the damp heat of a New Orleans summer and more closely matches the action and dialog indicated in the script.

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Both films take liberties with the play. Both are shortened, but choose different elements to eliminate. Importantly, Williams collaborated on the Kazan screenplay with Oscar Saul, so the choices were largely his; the TV movie credits the adaptation to Oscar Saul alone. I love that the Kazan version retains Stella’s revealing and image-rich speech about Stanley’s first act on their wedding night (“Why, on our wedding night—soon as we came in here—he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it. … I was—sort of—thrilled by it.”), but the Production Code demanded that the reason for Blanche’s disgust with her young husband was his lack of ambition, not the discovery of him having sex with a man. Stanley’s rape of Blanche is represented by her face reflected in a suddenly smashed mirror. In Erman’s version, the homosexual text is restored and the rape made explicit as Stanley straddles Blanche on the bed and tears her clothes.

Of course, the most important differences can be found in the performances of the actors as guided by their directors. It is here that I will part company to a large degree with the consensus opinion that Leigh, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch comprise the ultimate dream team for this work. In many ways, I prefer Ann-Margret, Treat Williams as Stanley, Beverly D’Angelo as Stella, and Randy Quaid as Mitch. Here’s why.

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Let’s start with Kazan’s version. Brando originated the role of Stanley on Broadway, under Kazan’s direction, to great acclaim, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the film version employing both men is the definitive version. Brando, of course, was one of the most electrifying actors of any generation, and his beauty and physicality work perfectly to explain why the refined Stella DuBois would throw over her aristocratic, but impractical heritage when offered the reality of the best sex of her life for the duration of her life. It seems, however, that Brando has taken literally Blanche’s description of Stanley’s animalism: “There’s even something sub-human—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Maybe he’ll strike or maybe grunt and kiss you!” For much of his performance, he mumbles flatly, crossing other players’ dialog in a jumble of semi-coherence. Brando’s early confrontations with Blanche seem disconnected; he has far more to say to Stella about Blanche’s wardrobe than to Blanche herself, reflecting the strong connection between the pair.

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Leigh plays Blanche as a hysteric from the get-go. She talks so fast that no one statement gets more emphasis than any other. Now, I have known mentally unstable people with logorrhea, and so this choice is not out of place. It renders Blanche something of a ghost, drained in many ways of personality, a waif we really can believe has to depend on the kindness of strangers. As the hard knocks continue, especially living with the contemptuous Stanley, Blanche’s desperation and growing lunacy overtake more everyday matters. It is in these latter stages of the film that Leigh really shines. She embodies Blanche’s delusions with the conviction that it’s a blessing to tell “what ought to be real.” The weariness of facing the world and her fading fortunes—“God love you for a liar,” is her ironic retort when Stella tells her how well she looks—slips briefly during her last hurrah as she attacks Stanley with a broken bottle, but crumbles immediately in his grip.

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My favorite line reading from Leigh is during her flirtation with the young newspaper boy (Wright King) who comes to the door when Stella and Stanley are out. She has flattered him by guessing he was smart enough to avoid being rained on by ducking into a drugstore for a soda. “Chocolate?” “No, ma’am. Cherry.” “Cherry! You make my mouth water.” The sly double entendre of that last line hits the ear like a bell because of the fleetingly expressive, somewhat offhand delivery of someone who is trying to keep control of herself and assert her power and desire at the same time—very fitting for a schoolteacher turned sexual predator. In this instance, she completely bests Ann-Margret’s nakedly sexual line reading.

Stella and Blanche

Kim Hunter has to play Stella like a cockeyed optimist to give weight to her relationship with Blanche. I was struck by her upbeat offer to put a shot of whiskey in a glass of Coke when Blanche asks, “Is it just Coke?” By this point in the drama, it’s clear that Blanche has been hitting the bottle pretty hard, but Hunter’s Stella seems utterly unconcerned, perhaps lost in the delusions Blanche spins to maintain her tenuous grip on a home, a future, and her sanity. Nonetheless, if this was Hunter’s and Kazan’s intention, it undermines the “happy” ending when Stella chooses to face reality and leaves Stanley (perhaps to return?). Otherwise, Hunter works extremely well with Brando—it can’t have been hard to express desire for a man as charismatic as Brando, but she is also very convincing as a wife who loves her husband and isn’t afraid of him or of expressing her opinions.

Karl Malden in A Streetcar Named Desire

Karl Malden is, in my opinion, almost a complete misfire as Mitch, Blanche’s awkward, mama’s boy of a suitor. He seems to have entered the Quarter by way of Hell’s Kitchen, adopting neither a proper Southern accent nor bearing. He looks like he’s trying to compete with Leigh when he should be overwhelmed by Blanche’s practiced seduction. Oddly, when it’s time for him to hold his own with her after learning of Blanche’s sordid past, he just seems to fall out of the scene as Leigh reflects back at Mitch with pride and venom his own fantasies of Blanche as a spider luring her victims to the Hotel Tarantula.

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This brings us to the John Erman production. Erman directed some of the best older actresses in the business in TV movies, including Sylvia Sidney, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, and Lee Remick. In addition to Streetcar, he directed Ann-Margret in three other TV movies: Who Will Love My Children (1983), the marvelous The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987), and Our Sons (1991). Erman helps his leading lady harness her natural sensuousness and use it to give Blanche more grounding and substance than Vivien Leigh’s Blanche. Ann-Margret fills her line readings with meanings that reveal Blanche’s state of mind, from a subdued, quizzical “Can this be her home?” upon her first look at Stella’s building to her genteel, slightly coquettish response to Mitch asking to kiss her: “Why do you always ask me if you may? Why should you be so doubtful?” Indeed, she brings out the Southern gentleman in this quiet man who seems a very unlikely comrade of Stanley’s.

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Ann-Margret’s physicality works in her favor as well. When she emerges from Blanche’s frequent hot baths, she luxuriates in a sense of refreshment and a reinvigorated body. She puts on a dress like a woman caressing her beloved: “Clothes are my passion,” she says as she flicks and examines a fur on her arm. Ann-Margret said that when she went at Williams with the broken bottle, she told him to be prepared for a real fight. Blanche makes several passes at him, with Williams making an interesting game of pretending to take her threat seriously. She never had a chance, of course, but her determination makes her madness in the final scene all the more heartbreaking.

D'Angelo

Quaid is, to my mind, the perfect Mitch, soft-spoken and kind when allowed to be himself, driven to rash and cruel behavior when he’s drunk and disillusioned. He’s like the male version of Blanche with less breeding. Beverly D’Angelo is a terrific Stella. Her performance shows the troubled relationship she has had with Blanche and the DuBois clan, deflecting Blanche’s criticism of the way she left the family and Belle Reve with a firm, “The best I could do was make my own living, Blanche.” Later, her response to Blanche’s “Is it just Coke?” is a resigned and slightly disgusted “You mean you want a shot in it.” I didn’t feel the connection between D’Angelo and Williams as strongly as with Hunter and Brando, but they had some nice, familiar moments, such as the girlish, wheedling way Stella asks Stanley for some money to take Blanche out during Stanley’s poker night and her playful greeting and full-bodied hug after he returns home the morning Blanche implores her sister to leave him.

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Will Treat Williams make anyone forget Marlon Brando? Probably not, but he’s a sexy man in his own right who actually gets to bare his well-toned torso during his first encounter with Blanche, allowing viewers to share in her carnal stare. His violence doesn’t explode like an inferno the way Brando’s does, but he keeps an undercurrent of menace through most of his performance. To see him play a seducer and likely murderer of a teenager in 1985’s Smooth Talk is to understand this aspect of his persona at its most extreme, and I enjoyed that he didn’t make Stanley such a simian dolt, but rather invested him with an intelligence Blanche would like to ignore.

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Erman maintains a leisurely pace, allowing us to sense the passing of time from Stella’s first revelation that she’s pregnant to her baby’s birth and imagine the building tension in the Kowalski home. He gives his actors room to explore their characters’ moods and actions in this way as well. While both versions of A Streetcar Named Desire are fine works, if you only know Kazan’s, you’re missing out on a real treasure.

The John Erman Streetcar is available here on YouTube.


24th 04 - 2009 | 4 comments »

Ebertfest 2009: Trouble the Water (2008)

Directors: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Trouble the Water, a highly honored documentary from 2008, is nothing if not a reminder that continuing to listen to the movers and shakers, the flaks and apologists, the stooges and blind faithful of the Bush Administration is to continue the national shame that Administration soiled us all with by its craven indifference to the suffering of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. If you believe what former First Woman (she’s certainly no lady) Barbara Bush said about the evacuees (“And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them.”), Trouble the Water should disabuse you of that notion. No one’s better off dead, no one’s better off homeless and living on the field of a football stadium, no one’s better off living in their attic to avoid being drown in their bedrooms because the government failed to keep the levees that protected their homes in good working order.

Kim and Michael Rivers, two residents of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, captured the horror of Hurricane Katrina at ground zero. Too poor to afford to evacuate—archival footage of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordering residents to leave the city is followed by a title card informing us that no public transportation out of the city was arranged—the Rivers hunker down for the brewing storm. Kim walks the streets of her neighborhood talking to neighbors, going to the convenience store to stock up on food, encouraging a drunk passed out on a front porch to seek cover, filming him slowly awaken and stagger across the street, and then heading home to watch the clouds gather and the rain start to fall.

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The footage is as inside and harrowing as it gets: the Rivers and the neighbors they shelter in their attic running out of food, a large man from the neighborhood wading in the shoulder-high water to catch people who might be floating helplessly down the street, the urgent phone call Kim makes to request rescue being met by a woman on the other end saying that no rescue teams are being sent out. Eventually, the houseful of survivors find a boat and get to higher ground. By the time the Rivers make contact with Deal and Lessin, the aftermath story is developing into the nightmare the rest of the film chronicles.
Michael Rivers tells of going to a military base 10 blocks from their home with other survivors from his neighborhood. The base has been closed by the Bush Administration and is empty except for a skeleton crew of guards; there are homes and rooms that would accommodate 200 families. When the survivors ask for shelter, even if only for one night, they are turned away at gunpoint.

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The Rivers revisit the school the school where they finally found some safety; Michael says with more than a touch of irony, “I have a dream,” while pointing to a picture of Rev. King on a classroom wall. The school is now occupied by National Guardsmen; one guardsman, referring to the mess inside the school, says, “I’m sorry, but civilians just don’t know how to take care of themselves.” The stink of condescension and lack of feeling of these “peacekeepers” is worse than the drunk Kim warned to take cover who is found dead in the living room of one of the houses on their street.

We watch the Rivers leave New Orleans in a “borrowed” truck carrying 30 people; homeless people littering the roadways beg to be taken with them. When Kim reaches her uncle’s home about 200 miles from New Orleans, she learns that his mother—her grandmother—was abandoned at Memorial Hospital during the storm. He was told the hospital had been evacuated, but he, like all the poor of New Orleans, was lied to. Kim arranges to bail her brother out of jail so that he can attend their grandmother’s funeral. “Wink” has his own horror story of being abandoned in the lock-up by the guards and having to ride out the storm: “Hard men, they was crying,” he says to communicate the desperate conditions.

Lessin and Deal intersperse the storm footage Kim shot with both heir own footage following the Rivers odyssey to some semblance of normalcy, as well as Katrina news coverage. We see an idiotic reporter sheltering next to a mailbox to show how fierce the winds are; I laughed in sadistic glee when he ran for cover and was blown off his feet, but really, it wasn’t his fault he was out there. The producers of those shows had long given up making anything but a mockery of citizens’ right to know anything of substance—a hurricane was just another reality TV opportunity. One journalist who found her voice again was Paula Zahn, who blistered FEMA director Michael “Brownie” Brown for his agency’s complete failure to do its job. It was a highlight of the Katrina coverage that I’m glad Lessin and Deal included.

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Putting one’s life back together isn’t easy. The Rivers plan to resettle in Memphis, but can’t find work. Michael sells 10 puppies from his dog Baby’s litter to raise the money to return to New Orleans. (Baby is later shot by National Guardsmen for reasons unknown.) He was an admitted drug dealer who decided this do-over chance in his life was an opportunity to start things the right way. He now is being trained to work in the construction business by a generous employer and is rebuilding his city. Kim, a rap artist, started her own record label. We are treated to an obscenity-strewn rap of Kim’s life that probably set many of the white heads in the Virginia Theatre audience on edge. I’m not a rap fan, but her story and the truth of her words struck me as incredibly inspirational.

God is mentioned many times in this film. When Kim, Michael, and the other survivors talk of their faith, we can recognize it as both genuine and the last refuge of the desperate. When archival footage shows us President Bush asking the nation to pray for the victims of Katrina, we recognize it as the only help he’s willing to offer them. This remarkable film should make you mad, should make you stand in awe of the incredible will of a downtrodden people, and should make anyone who continues to remain indifferent to the suffering of others in this country very, very afraid.

There is a way for you to take action to support Gulf Coast recovery. Go to the Trouble the Water site and be part of an email petition. Host a screening. Learn talking points. Make a difference. l

Trailer


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