American playwright Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams III) is one of the most important and influential American authors of all time. Alongside Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, he formed the main trio of American culture in the 20th century and gained fame “suddenly”, with the play The Glass Menagerie, in 1944. Three years later he exploded on Broadway with A Streetcar Named Desire, considered to be his masterpiece. In the cast, an unknown young Marlon Brando embodied the truculent Stanley Kowalski, giving rise to his legend and great influence with a natural and modern performance, far from the traditional grandeur of the theater until then.
A Streetcar Named Desire – like all his plays – is closely based on issues from the personal life of Tennessee Wiliams. Opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947, it follows the experiences of Blanche DuBois, a middle-aged woman who, after facing a series of personal losses, seeks shelter with her younger sister and brother-in-law. The play deals with mental health, pedophilia, rape, homosexuality, and alcoholism, among others. Blanche, whose mental health is tenuous, collapses under the brute Stanley and, after being raped by him, “loses her reason”.
Tennessee knew mental disorders all too well because her beloved sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent a lobotomy, needing to live in institutions for the rest of her life. The dedication was so strong that, in addition to visiting her frequently, he gave her a percentage share in several of his most successful plays, so that the royalties would help with her care. The author, himself a homosexual, was so traumatized by the devastating effects of Rose’s treatment that many believe it lay at the root of his alcoholism and addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates.
The original Broadway production was produced by Irene Mayer Selznick, directed by Elia Kazan and, in addition to Brando, featured the unknown Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella (Stanley’s wife), and Karl Malden as Mitch (Stanley’s friend and a romantic interest of Blanche’s). Jessica, like Brando, became a star and won the Tony Award for Best Actress for the role. However, when it was time to take the play to the cinema, she was the only one replaced. Vivien Leigh took her place, and she starred in the English version of the play. She went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress for the role (Karl and Kim also won, in the supporting category, the only one who lost was precisely Marlon Brando).
The film has an intense and iconic performance by Vivien in the role that is closer to her life than Scarlett O’Hara. But that’s a topic for another post!