Best Movie Ever?: “A Streetcar Named Desire”

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If you’ve ever seen a videotaped interview with Tennessee Williams, you have heard him snicker. Like a gay bayou warlord. It’s a menacing, gothic chuckle. You remember it.

You can hear that chuckle resonating throughout A Streetcar Named Desire. In his most famous work, Williams seems to be reveling in the movie’s tense shifts between mannered melodrama and hormonal anarchy. The movie adaptation is half-drenched in shadows, half-drenched in sweat, and as we celebrate Vivien Leigh‘s 100th birthday this week, we should remember Streetcar for the assets that remain dewy and ripe today: two gigantic performances thrusting together from two opposing, but similarly cruel worlds.

Here are five reasons A Streetcar Named Desire may be the Best. Movie. Ever.

1. Marlon Brando is UNNNFFFFF.

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In case you need a refresher on the movie’s plot, here’s as quick a synopsis at it gets: Mississippian Blanche DuBois flees to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella after she loses her teaching job for dubious reasons, and Stella’s husband Stanley thinks Blanche’s affected, woozy demeanor is a strong indicator that she’s a dishonest, freeloading lunatic who wears too much costume jewelry. Sorry, Stanley, but there’s no such thing as too much costume jewelry. That’s the secret problem here.

Uh, look at this man, in case you needed that instruction. He is just sex. That’s all! And rage and grunts and temper and fists and yells and just sex. Just sex! Just sex.

We had sexy movie stars before Marlon Brando changed acting forever with his work here, but we never had movie stars who really seemed unaffected enough for immediate sex right then and right there. Brando’s unintelligible groans are sexy. His erratic changes in volume are sexy. His anger-pumped arms are even sexier. His limp lips are the sexiest.

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My favorite scene of Stanley’s is the first time he lays eyes on Blanche; his lingering nonreaction is the proper prelude to a movie’s worth of resentment and, of course, Genghis Khan-like wrath.

It’s fun to pretend like you have crushes on other old movie stars, but there’s only one who seems personally in charge of every drop of sweat unleashed on screen since 1951, and that’s Brando. Polishness has never been naughtier. Sorry, Lech Walesa!

2. Kim Hunter is on fire, and Kim Hunter is also us. 

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I’m reduced to sentence fragments when it comes to describing Stella Kowalski. Where to start? For beginners, she’s usually smiling. Warm. Calm. Propping up her sister, a sobbing ghost of a woman, with a close hug and a giggle. Compassionate. Energetic. Soft. And then a plate soars over her head, crashes into a wall, and then she’s a horny unapproachable sorceress.

Before you know it she’s sauntering down a staircase, preparing to launch her whole body into the throbbing arms of her maniac husband. She clings to and claws at his glistening back. She’s an animal too. And she knows it.

Kim Hunter looks like a hybrid between Lena Dunham and Jean Stapleton in this movie, and her performance is just as much of a bizarre dichotomy: As Blanche’s attentive, sympathetic sister, she gains our trust. As Stanley’s carnally charged plaything, she gains our terror. And when she’s not convulsing with sexual desire, she’s puttering through her ramshackle apartment with the busy, furrowed-blow flair of, say, Laurie Metcalf. She’s a knockout in all of her wild and womanly extremes, and she’s also gay viewers everywhere — torn between sympathy for a driven, tragic diva and libidinous submission to a grunting man. We all know that dilemma.

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