Life is messy, or at least it can be. It is the unfortunate nature of our fallen world, the lingering curse of the impudence of our forebears, Adam and Eve. Whether you want to believe in the physical reality of the first man and woman, God took humanity out of the Garden and Eden and sent us forth to toil by the sweat of our brow. Go read Exodus for the full story. Symbolic or true, what it means for us today is that we have to work at our salvation. It makes Faith a gift, the sacrifice of Jesus a grace, and the ability to approach the world with gentleness and kindness a blessing. Until the day comes when the old is wiped away and we are together in the New Jerusalem (and I pray you get there), our existence tends not to be easy. Much of this is our own doing, either to ourselves or others around us, or both. Number forty-seven on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list is A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). If you have ever heard anyone shout “Stella!” this is the movie they are quoting. There is much more to it than this one word/name declaration. It treats of all the things I just mentioned in a Biblical context. Read on to find out how.
You might think that with such a famous name, A Streetcar Named Desire’s main character would be Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter). Instead, it is her sister, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). She has come to New Orleans to seek out her sibling. Taking the title conveyance, Blanche eventually finds Stella in rough bowling alley. Stella is there to watch her husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), bowl, the setting for which his volatile demeanor is well-suited. From the moment they reconnect, Stella can tell that something is amiss with Blanche. She is elusive in her answers as to what has brought her to the Crescent City. She claims to have lost her position as an English teacher back home over a disagreement with administration. While it is clear that she had also had to give up the family estate back home due to financial hardship, the rest remains murky. Nonetheless, she puts on the charm whenever she is called upon to do so. You see this later when they return to the Kowalski’s simple French Quarter apartment. When Stanley arrives and is properly introduced to Blanche, it seems like she is slightly coming on to him. He is not impressed in his gruff manner. The next day Blanche’s luggage is delivered and Stanley and Stella begin unpacking while the owner is in the bath. Seeing the fine dresses and pearls, Stanley is immediately suspicious despite Stella attempting to explain everything away. To him, Blanche appears wealthier than she is, but he only gets more evasiveness. Thus, he vows to uncover the truth about her. That evening, after Blanche and Stella go out for the evening, they come home to find a raucous card game underway. Stella is not pleased and attempts to break it up, causing Stanley to fly into a rage and smash things around the apartment. In the chaos, Blanche and Stella run upstairs to the neighbors, taking shelter with Eunice Hubbell (Peg Hillias). Meanwhile, Stanley’s friends attempt to sober him up. Coming to his senses with a cold shower, he goes out to the courtyard in front of their place and that is when you get the famous line mentioned in the previous paragraph. Stella emerges tentatively from above and forgives him. The next day, Stanley overhears Blanche trying to convince Stella to come away with her. His response when he enters the apartment is to tell Blanche the news that Stella had been waiting to reveal: that Stella is pregnant. Thus, for the moment, there is no question of Blanche leaving, and she settles in for a longer stay. During this period, she is pursued by Stanley’s comrade from the war, Mitch (Karl Malden). As is her wont, Blanche is flattered by the attention, but keeps Mitch at bay by putting on her airs and charms. During an evening dancing, Mitch’s persistence gets her to reveal a little about her troubled past. Apparently there had been a young man with whom she was involved. One night she had spoken some unkind words to him, leading to him committing suicide. Since then, she has blamed herself for his death. Mitch has compassion for her, saying they need each other. What ruins this is Stanley. He has uncovered the truth and is telling Stella that Blanche needs to leave. He also gives this information to Mitch. As it turns out, Blanche had been down on her luck following the death of her husband. She sought the arms of many men, if you get my meaning, and it became something for which she became known in town. When the fact that one of these was one of her students, it led to her dismissal from her post. In light of this information, Mitch does not come over to the Kowalski’s on the night of Blanche’s birthday. Stanley, to Stella’s horror, tells Blanche that he knows of her sordid history. The stress of all this causes Stella to go into labor, and Stanley takes her to the hospital. While they are away, Mitch comes to confront Blanche, the long and short of this being that he tells her that they will not be married. This leads to a complete break from reality, and Stanley enters his home to find Blanche believing that she is about to go on a Caribbean cruise with a rich oil baron. Once the baby comes home, Stanley arranges for Blanche to be taken to an asylum (this is what they called mental health institutions back in the day). Stella is not pleased by this, and the film ends with her going up to Eunice’s place with the baby, seemingly for good.
My heart ached for Blanche to a certain degree in A Streetcar Named Desire. As I was discussing in the introductory paragraph, many of our troubles can be attributed to our own flawed decisions. This only explains so much, however. Circumstances prevail upon us, and we all deal with them as best as we can. One would hope that Blanche would deal with the loss of her home and husband in a healthier way, and the mental strain of these occurrences are exacerbated by Stanley’s brutish behavior. What interests me most about her is her desire (no pun intended) for love. This is something that God puts into all of us at the moment of our conception. How we respond to it is another source of our struggles. When we can orient the things that happen to us according to that loving design, we can handle the negative aspects of our lives with a better perspective. In a sense, this is what Blanche is trying to do. As the old saying goes, she is seeking love but in all the wrong places. In any case, she clearly did not want to live the life she had begun to lead anymore, which is what brings her to New Orleans. Modern culture will tell you that there is nothing wrong with promiscuity, and in this light, it is unfortunate that she did not live in our own times. Yet, the brokenness that you see in people who pursue such a lifestyle eventually comes out of them at some point. Think of the amount of heartache that could be saved if different choices are made. Unfortunately, Blanche did not get the opportunity to make them, even if she had the capacity to do so. It all makes for a tragedy of epic proportions.
I have been watching a lot of tragic movies off AFI’s list, and A Streetcar Named Desire is one of them. Yet, I find it easier to take pity on the characters in this one than in some of the others I have lately seen. In any case, this one is a tough watch, but if you can get through that, the performances are excellent. Proceed with caution.