Mad Love

I am very lucky to live in a town, Tucson, Arizona, that has a number of options to see classic films projected in 35 mm onto the big screen. I try to attend these screenings as often as I am able to do my part in keeping classic films alive and well in the movie theater.  The Loft, an independent art house theater, has many terrific programs to help prevent classic films from becoming an extinct cinematic species. This month The Loft is featuring the Southern Discomfort and screening films by Tennessee Williams. The series opened with a brand spanking new 35mm print of Streetcar Named Desire which includes 5 minutes of footage that was cut by the studio and the censors back in 1951.

I have to admit that Streetcar has never been on the top of my list of favorite movies. My memory of the movie was pretty much limited to what most people’s knowledge of it is – Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski shouting “STELLA” from the bottom of the stairs in his New Orleans apartment. Certainly this scene is an iconic moment in cinema and has provided no end of parodies and camp interpretations.

Let me say something that I firmly believe in. Seeing a movie projected on the big screen can change everything. There is a huge difference between how a film is experienced on the big screen in a theater and how it is seen on a television set. On the big screen, not only is the film physically large, but when it is projected via transparency film, every little nuance and detail is brought to the surface. We are able to see things we could never see on the digitally distorted image emitting from a television screen. Add the atmosphere and the ambience of the movie theater (the sound of the projector running and the light streaming from the projection booth to the screen), and there is no comparison between projected film and a film seen on the television.

Seeing Streetcar Named Desire projected onto the 40 feet wide and 20 feet tall screen of The Loft sure changed my perception of this film and made watching the movie one hell of a fun experience. The movie has so many things to love. It has sexual perversion, fucking, drinking, love, insanity and class all wrapped into a torrid little love story between the brutish working class Pole Stanley Kowalski and the former Southern Belle Stella (Kim Hunter). Their happy little domestic life full of fighting, fucking, and loving is interrupted by the arrival of Stella’s sister Blanche played by Vivian Leigh with insanely compulsive attention to Blanche’s insanity. Vivian Leigh’s Blanche is a sight to behold. She absolutely consumes the role and portrays a complicated mess of sexuality gone awry, genteel class gone tawdry, and a battle between tradition and perversion. Vivian Leigh actually became so obsessed with playing the character Blanche, that after filming the movie, she insisted that people call her Blanche. Yes,Vivian followed Blanche down the streetcar named Insanity.

Streetcar Named Desire is indeed a movie about the madness of love, and the furious ride and strange trip that mad love can take you on. The film has the insanely combustible relationship between Stanley and Stella, which, for the record, is one of the hottest love affairs on screen. Being able to see the cut footage in the restored print (which is also available in the “Original Director’s Version”on DVD) allows us to see full throttle that this couple’s intensely explosive love runs on a two-way street. Sure, the film is notorious for Marlon Brando’s performance of the hot tempered Stanley.  Stanley smashes things up, has tantrums and then comes pleading to Stella for 
mercy (and a good hot make-up fuck), but Stella also provokes Stanley. She also initiates the explosions and smashes things up to goad Stanley into “losing it.” In one scene she stomps into a poker game and begins slamming things on the table just to get Stanley riled up. It is clear that “losing it” is also a game for these two, and they like it. The restored footage in the infamous scene with Stanley shouting “Stella” from the bottom of the stairs really shows the reciprocal dynamic between Stanley and Stella. As Stanley falls to his knees and calls for his wife, the camera cuts to a close-up of Kim Hunter’s face where we can see the love and lust surface from the very core of her being. She is possessed by desire as she moves slowly down the stairs, step-by-step in her slip. She walks up to Stanley, and he wraps his arms around her for forgiveness as she collapses over his shoulder giving herself entirely to him. He lifts her off the ground and carries her into the apartment for the aforementioned “make-up fuck.” The scene is quite tepid in the censored version, but there is no doubt in the restored version that Stanley and Stella are caught in the combustible storm of all-consuming love, and that they like to prove their love by blowing up and then making up.

Call this scene campy. Laugh at it as you will. But the scene at the bottom of the stairs is an incredible portrait of sexually charged all-consuming love. It is one of the most sexy and beautiful images of love in cinema if you can give yourself over to it. It is especially powerful projected on the big screen. Marlon Brando is an iconic hunk of beauty throughout the movie (his “method” acting in this film inspiring such actors as James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Jack Nicholson), but in this scene Brando’s performance really allows us to see the full complexity of Stanley’s character. He may seem like a brute on the surface, but his character is really much more nuanced. In this scene, we see his vulnerability, his desperation, his unrequited love for Stella, and he is a real human being with complex emotions. His bombastic monstrously explosive performance shows him as a conflicted and vulnerable human encased in muscle, grease, and hot temper.

Brando’s Stanley is much more interesting than many critics give him credit for being. There are many  nuances to his character and Brando’s depiction of him that show us that he is not just a dumb brute. He is smarter than he seems both about the world and about himself. He knows more than he lets on. His seemingly comic lectures about the Napoleonic Code aren’t just an excuse to make him look funny. They show that he actually has the brains to think legally, that he’s not going to be “fucked over” simply because he comes from the immigrant working class.  Also, there is a tenderness to his character that is witnessed in little moments, such as when he’s tying his necktie or picking a piece of lint off of Stella’s dress. There is a slight hint of gentleness underneath the finger-licking, t-shirt wearing “animal” that his physicality portrays.

Also, Stanley has moments of self-reflexivity that show that he understands class and his position within the class hierarchy. He overhears Stella and Blanche talking about him like he’s some kind of lower class animal, and he takes note. In one of the scenes toward the end of the movie, he calls Stella on her stereotyping of him. He tells Stella that the fact that he is “common” is what attracted her to him in the first place. He says in no uncertain terms that Stella was consciously engaging in “recreational slumming” by fucking Stanley and getting a charge out of playing around with the Brute. It is the “common” part of him that turns her on.  Stella doesn’t argue with Stanley. She knows it’s true. In one of the restored scenes, Stella tells her sister Blanche about how on their wedding night, Stanley took one of Stella’s slippers and smashed all the light bulbs. Blanche looks horrified, but Stella says it gave her “a thrill.” The explosive sexual tension between Stella and Stanley isn’t just from the physical tension – the smashing of tables and chairs –, but it’s also about the collision of two classes – southern gentility versus immigrant working class. Tennessee Williams makes crossing class boundaries seem as sexually enticing and taboo as the homosexuality that runs through so many of his plays. It’s just another form of sexual “otherness.”

Speaking of sexuality, let’s talk about the other insanity of love component in the film – Vivian Leigh’s Blanche DuBois. Poor Blanche, entering the scene in a flurry of lace, make-up, vanity and insanity, her character is as messy as the contents of her trunk that Stanley rifles through. With her obsessive compulsive bath taking, her hiding in the dark, her drinking habit and her sex habits, she is quite the portrait of love and sex gone wrong. With the newly restored footage, we get to know a little bit more about Blanche than previously revealed. In the censored version, we understand that there is something amiss with Blanche, but in the newly restored print, we learn that what is amiss is quite For one, we get to learn that she was a bit of a nymphomaniac back in New Orleans and also that she has the hotbed of taboo. Blance, it turns out, has the hots for young boys. Not only does she practically seduce a young boy on screen (the restored footage showing Blanche practically dragging the boy into bed with her), but we also learn that Blanch lost her job as a school teacher back in New Orleans because she seduced a 17 year old student.

Taboo and Blanche don’t stop there. Let’s talk about other cans of worms that Blanche’s character brings to the screen. There is her “boy” who died suddenly and tragically, an event which apparently caused Blanche’s heart to shatter and which her down the path of self-destruction and insanity. Blanche describes her young husband as a poor boy who “cried all the time and read poetry.” Blanche’s boy was clearly homosexual, and in a moment of confession Blanche admits that she killed him by taunting him and goading him until he blew his brains out by shoving a gun in his mouth. Underlying Blanche’s marriage to a gay boy and her proclivity for seducing young boys, we can assess from her relationship with the poor crying poet boy that Blanche not only possesses nymphomaniac and pedophilia streaks, but she is also a bit of a fag hag! This is Tennessee Williams after all. Blanche’s “depravity” doesn’t end there. It is quite clear from the way she ogles and goads Stanley that she also has the hots for him. Much is made of Stanley’s rape of Blanche. It is a scene that is often used as a pivotal point to describe Stanley’s brutishness. But what is quite clear in the film and yet no one wants to openly state is that Blanch wants it! This makes the scene much more complex than it seems on the surface. Sure, it is a rape. Stanley takes Blanche by force, but it is also clear that Blanche wants to be taken. Apparently when she’s not lusting after gay boys, Blanche also likes to indulge in a bit of rape fantasy. You have to give it to Tennessee Williams for breaking out so many taboos in one film.

The other thing that is clear about the rape scene is that Stanley rapes Blanche not because he necessarily wants Blanche, but because she goads him on and she becomes a convenient “substitute Stella” since Stella is gone. Blanche, as Stella’s sister, is the best Stanley can get when Stella is away having a baby. Okay, not the most generous portrait of his character! But the complexities between Blanche and Staneley are not black and white, just like the relation between Stella and Stanley isn’t. Everything in this film is multi-sided and sexually schizophrenic. Blanche is complicit in the rape, and that is not something easy to say or show on screen. It is certainly nothing any Hollywood film would show today. Just like the portrait of Stella “getting off” on Stanley’s violent side wouldn’t be shown in a Hollywood film today. The Politically Correct police ensure that such taboos aren’t depicted. Speaking of Stella and Stanley, the new print maintains the movie’s censored ending in which Stella leaves Stanley. In the original play, Stella goes back to Stanley even after discovering that he raped her sister. After all, she is madly in love with him. In the movie, Stella leaves Stanley (going to the upstairs neighbor), but it’s still implied that she’ll be back. We know that from the scene on the bottom of the stairs where she runs away to the neighbor’s only to return to Stanley’s feverish embrace.

In the end, with all its insanity and depravity, A Streetcar Named Desire is a great love story, and it is a movie that shows how love stories should be told. Love is beautiful. There is no shortage of beauty in that scene with Stella and Stanley at the base of the stairs. But it is also totally irrational and combustible. Stella and Stanley’s volatile relationship can be read as the interior of mad love brought to the exterior, and as such they are a fabulously romantic couple. They are much more attractive than most of Hollywood’s Hallmark versions of love.

I should also note Karl Malden’s character Mitch and his relationship to Blanche. What a loser! Malden’s Mitch does a great job of looking like the nice guy on the outside, but just being another asshole at the end of the day. Sure, Blanche manipulates him and fucks with him, but Mitch is a judgmental jerk. His character is as schizophrenic as everything else in this movie as he alternates between being Mommy’s boy (which would attract Blanche given her aforementioned sexual perversions) and barely contained brute.

In regards to the acting, all the performances in this film are incredible. I must mention that besides Brando (who consumes his role like a starving lion), Kim Hunter’s performance as Stella is really something miraculous to behold. The nuances of character that she delivers through body language and the looks in her eyes are incredible. The hottest sexiest moments in the film occur within the tiniest expressions on Kim Hunter’s face. Hunter’s performance is as complex and masterful as Vivian Leigh’s over-the-top, twitching Blanche, but it is a performance delivered through restraint as opposed to Brando and Leigh’s explosive performances.

As a rule, I am a director person when it comes to movies.  With few exceptions, I see movies for directors, not for actors.  I have to admit that Elia Kazan is not a director I have ever given much notice to. Besides his role as a whistle blower during Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Committee’s  Hollywood witch hunt for commies, I think that Kazan’s directorial style never really caught my eye because his process is one that emphasizes acting over cinematic form. Kazan’s style is one that really focuses on the actors and brings the characters to the foreground. For example, in East of Eden, we think of James Dean’s performance not Elia Kazan’s direction. Besides the intensely claustrophobic setting of thisStreetcar Named Desire (set almost entirely in the confines of the Kowalski apartment), the camera relentlessly closes in on the characters’ faces. The faces of the characters bulge onto the screen leaving very little room for anything other than their emotions spilling out of their eyes to fill the frame.Streetcar is a movie of claustrophobic close-ups. Close-up madness, close-up love, close-up sex, close-up claustrophobia, close-up emotions, and close-up intensity.

By focusing so closely on the exterior of these characters, we get really close to their intense interiors. Inside most of them we find a complex mix of sex, love, perversion, insanity and all the messy stuff that humans are made of, but stuff that is rarely shown in such unapologetic candor in a Hollywood movie, especially in 1951. As I finish writing this review with a smile on my face as I think about the movie, what I am left thinking after seeing A Streetcar Named Desire on the big is that it is one hell of a love story, simply because it so aptly shows the hellish side of love.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published a book of her art Mapping The Inside Out and is finishing a photo essay book on copper mining towns in Southern Arizona. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at:

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at