1951                          Classic drama


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    cast


    crew

  • Dir:
      Elia Kazan
  • Prod:
      Charles Feldman
  • Scr:
  • Ph:
      Harry Stradling
  • Ed:
      David Weisbart
  • Mus:
      Alex North
  • Art Dir:
      Richard Dey




                                                                                                                                               stars

         a streetcar named desire

    [ a  s t r e e t c a r  n a m e d  d e s i r e : m o v i e  r e v i e w ]

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    Classification: 15


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      'Blanche is a woman with everything stripped away.
      She is a tragic figure and I understand her.
      But playing her tipped me into madness.'

                             - Vivien Leigh on Blanche DuBois


    In retrospect, Laurence Olivier maintained that he had 'lost' hs wife Vivien Leigh on their Australian tour in 1948, but the extent of his loss was not brought home to him until one day in early spring 1949. Thunderbolts have a way of striking at banal moments. Thus it was not at the climax of any stormy argument, but after an uneventful lunch, sitting in the conservatory of Durham Cottage, that Vivien said 'I don't love you any more.'

    Olivier could hardly believe his ears. He recalled sitting there frozen. There was no other man, she assured him. There didn't need to be. Her husband had become "another man' to her. She loved him still, she said, but more as a brother, though he later noted, with sad irony, a number of occasions when 'incest' took place between them.

    But could they go on together, he asked. Oh, yes, Vivien said, they would carry on as if nothing had changed - except that they would no longer be partners in anything but their work. Another man might have exploded in anger and animosity at the cruel way the news was broken and the cool manner in which the compromise was proposed. But Olivier characteristically decided to accept it out of guilt as a form of penance for his pride. Their love had been like a religion to him, loss of love was a fall from grace and must be endured with fortitude.

    A few weeks earlier, on 22 March 1949, Peter Finch and Edith Evans had opened in Olivier's presentation of Daphne Laureola. It was a sensational West End debut for Finch. He received notices which recalled the ones Vivien had got in The Mask of Virtue. He was written about and spoken of as "another Olivier'.

    Friends believe that Vivien and Peter Finch had not immediately become lovers, even though fate had arranged for him to be in the theatre literally next door to the one where she was playing in Antigone. However, the arrival of such a comet may well have made her own domestic horizon pale.

    So the Oliviers began work on the stage play of A Streetcar Named Desire in a troubled and nervous mood. In fact, Olivier was not terribly keen on the play, according to Irene Selznick, and consented to direct it only because Vivien talked him into it. 'Talked' is an understatement: she worried him into it.

    His objections were not simply textual, though he thought parts of it boring and repetitious, and proposed cutting them -- much to Mrs Selznick's agony. In Olivier's still essentially middle-class view of public life, respectability counted for much. The play's sensational nature offended that respectability. News of its incestuous rape, insanity and nymphomania had appeared in the English papers the minute he'd announced its London production - and with the Lord Chamberlain still censoring the stage's morals, it might be bad timing for an actor-manager just starting out to be put down as an agent provocateur. Then for the Oliviers, the 'stage royals', to dirty their hands with such dubious ingredients! He felt they had to tread as prudently as the real royals. Also, the Church might come out against it. For Olivier, a clergyman's son and a prey to guilt, the prospect of fulmination from the pulpit had to be taken seriously.

    It is hard at this remove from English middle-class society of 1949 to realize how deeply these considerations mattered. In fact, the play was to be condemned as "low and repugnant' in the House of Commons and as 'lewd and salacious' by the Public Morality Council. Staging it posed an additional and less obvious risk to Vivien. Her sexuality, aggravated by her recurrent illness, left her elated yet unfulfilled and alarmed by what, in retrospect, it revealed to her about herself. Now her already unsteady psychological balance was being further tested by a play that realistically explored emotions usually portrayed only in safely stylized classical theatre. If there was poetry in Blanche's despair, there was also the risk of contagion in her madness.

    Possibly Olivier didn't realize how it would affect Vivien's mental balance in later months. He himself was never possessed by any role he played to the extent of finding it difficult to shake it off once the show had closed. Much later, in a reference to Ronald Colman's film A Double Life, about an actor playing Othello who confuses himself with the part and takes his work home with fatal results, Olivier would mention, in parenthesis, that, 'Alas, this was one of Vivien's abiding problems.' Her friend Alan Dent, a theatre critic whose own sensibility made him aware of the risks to Vivien, begged her not to do the part. 'Impossible,' she responded.

    The part allowed Vivien to take a stand against the two epithets she hated most when applied to herself - 'pretty' and even 'beautiful'. Both of them she thought too limiting - they trimmed the flame of the dramatic illumination she sought to spread. She even dressed down for the rehearsals, the better to meet the challenge which playing Blanche DuBois represented. Bernard Braden, cast as Mitch in the play, recalled her arriving on the first day of the run-through wearing a simple black jersey dress. Renee Asherson, playing Blanche's sister, remarked (none too tactfully perhaps, given Vivien's abhorrence of such terms): 'That's a pretty dress.' Vivien took the compliment - though she may have winced - and replied in sombre tones to match her costume:

      'I'm glad you like it, because you're going to see a lot of it.'

    She wore it every day until they opened. Braden also believed that she plastered make-up heavily on to her face so as to destroy its basic beauty. She went for 'truth' and knew it was more than skin-deep.

    Vivien recognized that she had the stage role of the decade and her determination to do it full justice was revealed in a small but important element in her approach. Hitherto, she had always refused, when asked, to dye her hair for a stage or film role. She was very self-conscious about her hair. Says the London wig-maker and theatrical entrepreneur Stanley Hall:

      'She had crinkly hair, generally not very good hair. She disliked it and it required a lot of attention. But as she was determined this should be a brilliant performance, she did everything she could to help herself get into character and this included bleaching her own hair. I made her a dark wig to wear during the day. A little later, when she came to do the film, I made her bleached wigs, because the idea was that Blanche should have ragged-looking hair, like someone who had gone through life neglecting herself. She used to send the wigs back from Hollywood, by air mail, to be cleaned and redressed by me - didn't trust the American hairdresseers....'

    Olivier's conception of Blanche was more realistic than Elia Kazan's in New York. He was annoyed to have had to accept so much of Kazan's blueprint, but at least this Blanche would be his own. His Blanche was no longer the New York production's 'pale moth' fluttering briefly into nervous life, only to be broken and discarded. Though Vivien had had her hair dyed blonde to strain the colour even further out of Blanche's faded looks, to London audiences of the time dyed blonde hair denoted a 'tart'. And Blanche's despairing cry to her sister, 'I've run for protection, Stella, from under one leaky roof to another leaky roof,' likewise suffered a downgrading: 'protection' was assumed to be a euphemism for "prostitution' at a time when the latter word wasn't permitted in the sanitized columns of family newspapers. For Lady Olivier to accept a role like this was scandalous to some people - but even the most self-righteous critics, those who used words like 'cesspit' and 'garbage' about the play, couldn't deny Vivien's courage or withhold their praise for her performance.

    Perhaps she succeeded too well. She played Blanche for over eight months at a time of recurring emotional stress. She had mentally left Olivier and was experiencing something akin to Blanche's loneliness. She would talk to friends of 'quicksands' in her life - this was Blanche's trauma too. She seems to have begun her affair with Peter Finch at about this time, though it still had to be covert and sporadic. Towards the end of the run, her behaviour began to endanger her safety. She would dismiss her driver and walk home through the West End's red light district, stopping to chat to the street-girls plying their trade. She said she felt an affinity between their flamboyant appeal and Blanche's more pathetic promiscuity. To Bonar Colleano, the play's Stanley Kowalski, she would later repeat the girls' cutting witticisms and laugh over them. She found many of them were fans of hers and had been to the play with their clients. It is worth remembering that Marlene Dietrich, being escorted back to her London hotel one evening, received a similar salutation from the girls who had enjoyed her worldly femme fatale on the screen. Vivien, though, could not dismiss the role as Dietrich did when it had served its purpose.

    Alan Dent finally got round to attending the play he loathed - he'd deliberately left town so as not to have to review the actress he loved. Ten days after it opened, he went backstage and his fears were confirmed:

      'It was only a few seconds after [Vivien] had taken her last curtain, and she was still [mentally] on the stage. She was still in the mood of the terrifying last scene when Blanche is taken off to the mental hospital. She was shaking like an autumn leaf, and her lips were trembling. She clutched me and put her hand on my shoulder, and said in no more than a whisper: "Was I all right? Am I mad to be doing it?"'

    Sometimes the lines she had to say sounded to her inward ear like maliciously apposite comments on her current problems or state of mind. She had the feeling of being viewed askance, of being judged. She had to repeat the part nightly for the length of the play's run and repetition dinned the lines into her like an autoconfession written by her accusers. When her mind was at peace, she could refer dispassionately to these 'other voices' that were speaking through her tongue, criticizing and chastising her. It was as if she were being forced to externalize her own guilt, heartbreak or, what she had come to fear most, insanity.

    The damage this play did to Vivien's already disturbed psyche was to be severe. Years later, she recognized that herself.

      'Blanche is a woman with everything stripped away. She is a tragic figure and I understand her. But playing her tipped me into madness.'

    Meanwhile Olivier's ventures into management were suffering severe reverses with plays like Fading Mansions and The Damascus Blade opening and closing in weeks, and although Christopher Fry's Venus Observed gave him a breathing space in November 1949, while he rehearsed Finch in Captain Carvallo, it was clear that Laurence Olivier Productions could do with a fresh infusion of cash. The company took all his earnings and Vivien's too, then paid them yearly salaries. But the postwar Labour Government imposed swingeing taxes on high-earners and they concluded that, however much they disliked the place, there was nowhere like Hollywood for raking in delectable lump sums to build up capital.

    So, in June 1950, he and Vivien announced they were off to make two films. He would star in William Wyler's production of Carrie; she in the screen version of A Streetcar Named Desire, which Elia Kazan would produce and direct.

    The film's effect on Vivien was to be even more traumatic than the stage play's.

    Despite her London success, she was by no means an automatic choice for the screen Blanche, nor the only one. A cable from Jack Warner to Kazan, dated 22 November 1950, records that Charles Feldman, the film's executive producer, persisted in wanting Vivien for the role while Kazan preferred other stars. Kazan later admitted to having favoured his own stage Blanche, Jessica Tandy; and as late as mid-March 1950, according to Feldman, he was 'high' on Olivia de Havilland. It has been said that he edged away from Vivien because she had worked under Olivier and he admits, 'I did have a "feeling" about that.' He claims not to have seen her in the British stage production and didn't really know how she would work out as an actress for this kind of film:

      'I couldn't tell anything from watching Gone With the Wind. So much there depends on the way she was positioned and photographed. But in Waterloo Bridge she was very good.'

    In the end, though, Vivien landed the part. Her fee was $100,000, making her the highest paid English screen actress of the day. Marlon Brando received $75,000.

    Kazan's doubts also centred on Vivien's health and strength. Knowing nothing of her manic-depressive state, but aware she had had TB, he spared her the rigours of Hollywood as much as possible and sent Lucinda Ballard, who had done the stage costumes and was to do the film, over to England to obtain Vivien's approval. He'd seen photos of Olivier's costumes for Vivien and was horrified:

      'In one word, they were "English". I mean stuffy, dull, ultra-conservative.'

    Lucinda Ballard, in his opinion, was 'the best'. For Vivien, she also became 'the dearest'. The two women took to each other the moment Ballard stepped out of the Oliviers' Rolls-Royce at Notley (the Oliviers' country estate) to be greeted by Vivien 'like a child who's hung about the window waiting for her best friend'. They had already met during the Old Vic's spring season in New York just after the war.

      She was sitting on an outsize chair with Danny Kaye at a party Ivor Novello gave. She had on a vivid red dress. Her beauty was dazzling. Yet something about her hinted at how she could transform herself into something less of a lady and more of a ... well, entertainer; a comedienne of the kind who plays the resort hotels. I decided she had absorbed Danny Kaye's comic allure by some natural osmosis and tipped into it her own bawdy sense of humour, which only a woman with her looks could get away with. As I got to know Vivien, I saw this chameleon side to her - she could assume a look very easily.

    Lucinda Ballard, besides giving Brando his torn T-shirt look, inspired by road-workers whose sweaty garments outlined their physique and gave them a powerful animality, had commanded Tennessee Williams's confidence when she used the phrase 'a terrible daintiness' to describe how she felt Blanche should be dressed. Now she said to Vivien:

      'I see her with blondish hair, clothes heavily dated, soft-flowing and in pale tones - absolutely no white suit or red satin wrapper like the English production. A prostitute she is not!'

    Vivien embraced her. That was how she wanted to see Blanche too.

    Olivier seemed perfectly friendly when he arrived at Notley, but, pointedly perhaps, did not join in their talks.

    The designer recalls:

      'With looks as radiant as Vivien's, and with her dainty frame, it was necessary to conceal and simplify. The first costume I later made for her had a collar of starched chiffon - several collars were cut and changed during the shooting, for they always had to look fresh and give Vivien's face a look of fragility. Vivien was very anxious about how she would look when madness had overwhelmed Blanche. She had a particular aversion to having Blanche put into a strait-jacket prior to being led off to the asylum. This troubled her so much that she had persuaded Elia Kazan not to use a strait-jacket in the movie. I'd designed a soft chiffon costume that pleased her: it restored a sense of tranquility to Blanche as she is led away, it wrapped itself around her - didn't imprison her. Vivien thought it essential to let Blanche take her leave looking at peace - the calm after the storm. It may have reflected the need she felt to quell her own fear of insanity. It seemed to me Vivien was desperately seeking some kind of personal reassurance. I told her that, in my opinion, Blanche never had sex for money - only for love and, later on, to assuage her loneliness. I said the key to Blanche was her always feeling guilty about what had happened to her husband - his suicide. She was always cleansing herself mentally and physically, always fearful of dirt settling on her.

    Lucinda Ballard stayed two nights at Notley, appreciating how Vivien ran a household in the austerity era - the good garden-grown food, the fish mousses, the hothouse fruits. Vivien kept a note-pad to hand to jot down any thoughts, any bit of interesting information. Later, Vivien showed Lucinda over the house and her guest noted the plethora of Olivier mementoes, dozens of photos of him, even the affectionate notes he and Vivien had exchanged on some notable occasion now displayed under the glass top of her dressing-table. But among this treasured bric-a-brac she noticed a large pale pink silk square edged with handmade lace. Under this, Vivien told her, she put her soiled linen when she undressed for the night. It was the old convent-school habit. It also, Lucinda decided, showed how deeply Vivien was imbued with some of the very traits she had been assigning to Blanche.

    Nothing of the strain on the Oliviers' marriage was apparent to their guest. Only when she left Notley did Lucinda reflect on Vivien's near veneration of her husband every time his name was mentioned. Could passion be this intense, she wondered.

    Vivien preceded Olivier to America and went straight from New York to join Elia Kazan in his country home at Newtown, Connecticut. They went over the play in the peace and quiet of the August days. Kazan recalled later:

      'She was an instinctual actress, and didn't consciously work out the part, except when Larry worked it out with her. It's very hard after that not to standardize your performance night after night.'

    They went to the West Coast the long way, by train, and were met by Olivier and Suzanne Holman, Vivien's only child and daughter from her first mariage. It was the first time Suzanne had stayed under the same roof with Olivier and Vivien, and she wasn't finding her mother easy to get on with, but blamed it partly on herself:

      There were lots of things then in my mother's temperament I didn't take to - don't forget that in looks and personality, she had it all. I was gawky and spotty and 'impossible' in the way girls of seventeen are, unless they happen to be Vivien Leigh. She had made up for having relatively few friends when she was younger and now had dozens, and was passionately possessive of them. She never wanted to risk letting people go ... slip out of mind. Love was the most important thing to her. It was my first real experience of them together - and very uncomfortable it was too. What I remember most about my stay in Hollywood was the fights that went on between them - real theatrically pitched arguments behind closed doors. I knew Vivien was naturally high-tempered. I can now see that the film was putting her under a great strain. But in spite of the shouting matches, it never occurred to me their marriage was breaking up. It was just too precious to Vivien. I put it down to two overwrought people at the end of a long day's work on their separate movies.

    Hollywood's curiosity in the Oliviers was intense. It was the first time two titled players, each a star in a big-budget, highly publicized production, had lived and worked together in the film capital. Vivien attracted far more attention than Olivier - everyone wanted to know what her Blanche was like. Naturally, rumours circulated that Olivier was coaching her at home. Lucinda Ballard discounts that:

      'I suspected Vivien was being made to feel guilty at "betraying" Larry's London production by the way she was adapting herself to Kazan's interpretation. Not that Larry ever, in my earshot, made any comment about Kazan's film, which must have been difficult for a man who had had his own interpretation of the play.'

    But Lucinda Ballard did notice that Vivien was very 'on edge' when she returned to the house that she and Olivier were renting in Hollywood after the day's shooting. A huge variety of suits, gowns and cocktail dresses had been delivered during the day and she spent a lot of time trying them on, viewing herself this way and that in front of the mirror.

      'Larry thinks my ordinary clothes make my legs look too fat,' she told Lucinda Ballard, who privately thought the reported remark a rather unfeeling one, given Vivien's known sensitivity to what she considered to be her outsize hands.

    Jealousy may have been induced, too, by the enormous media coverage Vivien's film was receiving.

      'Nobody in Hollywood gave a damn about Larry in Carrie - everyone was agog to find out what was going on on the closed set between Vivien and Brando.'

    At first they were very wary of each other. Although Brando's first film, The Men, was finished, it hadn't opened; but insiders were claiming that his Method style was the most revolutionary new technique to hit Hollywood since the talkies. Vivien had already seen him on the stage, so she knew her competition; by coincidence he had been cast as the Messenger in Anouilh's Antigone, the play in which she had starred on the London stage.

    They met for a formal lunch - formal enough for Brando, anyhow, who put on an untorn T-shirt and brown slacks - in Jack L. Warner's private dining-room. It was some days before he got round to ribbing Vivien.

      'Why do you always wear scent?' he asked abruptly.
      'Because I like to smell nice - don't you?'
      'Me? I just wash. In fact, I don't even get in the tub. I just throw a gob of spit in the air and run under it.'

    Vivien, unshocked, emitted a deep, appreciative chuckle, which turned into malicious delight as Brando then went on to do a cruelly accurate imitation of Olivier's Agincourt speech, which had obviously been polished on the New York party circuit.

    At the press conference held before the shooting started, Brando was upstaged by Vivien, who coolly told the overdeferential reporters that 'her ladyship is fucking bored with formality'. She then dealt crisply with the anticipated innuendos:

      'Do you read your lines to Sir Laurence?'
      'No. I always know my lines.'
      'Does Sir Laurence read his lines to you?'
      'Yes. It's wonderful, really, because he puts me to sleep.'

    Then came a query that, in retrospect, elicited a sadly apposite answer:

      'What do you think happened to Scarlett O'Hara after Rhett Butler walked out on her?'

      Vivien paused a second, then said: 'I think she probably became a better woman. But I don't think she ever stopped loving him.'

    Filming was slow at first as Vivien relaxed her hold on her stage Blanche, and a film character far more varied in tone and texture began to take over. Observed Kazan:

      'Some people say she seems to get a grip on the character as the film progresses. It might be nearer the truth to say that I got a grip on her.'

    It was a Vivien Leigh that no stage or screen had ever seen before. She had to vary her effects in the takes and retakes Kazan demanded. No chance here to standardize on a 'safe' reading of the text the way she had done on the London stage. She was not a Method player, but every other member of the cast was, including her director. And the obligation on Vivien to reach into herself and make the connection between 'role and soul', as Lee Strasberg's classes at the Actors' Studio put it, devolved on Vivien too. The strain this imposed on her was unrelenting - and when Brando began shooting scenes with her, near the end of the second week, they became, in Kazan's words, "two highly charged people exploding off each other'. Vivien had nothing but her own talent to protect her, and she fed into it, like a resourceful tributary, the instinctual feelings of her own trauma.

    Her scenes with Brando form a pattern of seduction and repulsion leading to rape. The pattern is modulated by Blanche's alternate piteousness - her trembling removal of the posy pinned to her shoulder like a nosegay on a coffin, her teetering little scurry past the brute that lurks inside Stanley, her tendril-like appeal to her sister's sturdier nature - and her precarious seductiveness in which she is, if anything, more effective and disturbing. She brushes against Stanley, hoping to coax him into a semblance of courtesy. She fishes for compliments. She thrills to the feel of Stanley's rough fingers awkwardly doing up her dress at the back. She sarcastically tries to shame him and his poker-playing friends into paying a lady some dues of politeness. Finally she utters a naked cry of horror and disgust as his beer bottle is crudely ejaculated over her dress.

    For Vivien, the most brutal moment came when Karl Malden snaps on the light to expose Blanche to 'reality' - and she ducks, terrified, as if he has made to hit her. 'I don't want the light - I want magic.'

    The psychic wear and tear she suffered did not show on the screen: it was to erupt later in notes of delirium and despair which echoed the very text of the madness she had embodied so brilliantly. Many considered the movie a finer work than the stage production.

    At the Academy Awards ceremony in 1952, Vivien won her second Oscar. Greer Garson accepted it on her behalf, for the Oliviers were on the Broadway stage night.


    cover

  • Extract from the book:
    Vivien: Life of Vivien Leigh

  • available: amazon.co.uk


    Oscars:

    • 1951: Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Supp. Actor (Karl Malden), Supp. Actress (Kim Stanley), B&W Art Direction
    • Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Marlon Brando), Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Costume Design, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Sound


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