‘A Streetcar Named Desire’: How Life Imitated Art

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Oscar Wilde famously stated in his essay The Decay of Lying that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” His philosophical position of anti-mimesis (the opposite of Aristotelian mimesis, the belief that works of art should reflect the world around us) is more than just a witty maxim; Wilde fundamentally believed that “the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression and Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.”

This complex interplay between life and art, nature and culture, is seen most evidently in Vivien Leigh’s performance as Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ tragic play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Streetcar tells the story of a mentally unstable, vulnerable schoolteacher, Blanche (Vivien Leigh), who goes to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her brutish husband Stanley (Marlon Brando) in New Orleans, and in trying to outrun the grief for her past ends up confronting her worst fears for her future.

There are many striking parallels between Leigh and Blanche. Leigh, like Blanche, was in many ways seen as a fading Southern Belle beauty; it had been a decade since Leigh had starred in Gone With The Wind, and at 38, she was now relatively ‘old’ by Hollywood standards to be playing a leading lady. She had desperately wanted to play Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948, but he felt that she was too old for the part and so instead gave the role of Jean Simmons, who was only 19.

Blanche’s insecurities about her age and appearance are evident from the beginning; she desperately baits Stanley to give her compliments, such as when she asks him, “Would you think it possible that I was once considered to be – attractive?” When Streetcar was released Kim Hunter was 29 years old and Marlon Brando was only 27, and this age difference is important, because it makes Blanche’s neuroses even more convincing. In her book Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited, Molly Haskell writes how people assumed that “the beauty that was Scarlett [O’Hara] had faded, along with her career;” the same can be said of Blanche.

Both Blanche and Leigh were also haunted by devastating losses. Blanche suffers from post-traumatic stress after the suicide of her young husband, whilst Leigh went through several depressive periods after her miscarriages, one of which happened whilst filming Caesar and Cleopatra. Both also struggled with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and tumultuous relationships with men.

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Leigh and Blanche, in many ways, also represented the past and tradition. Leigh was old school, classically trained during a brief stint at RADA in London, and was even described by the poet John Betjeman as the “essence of English girlhood.” Everything about her acting style was conventional, from her overly pronounced, clipped speech to her tendency to root herself in the centre of the room.

On the other hand, Marlon Brando represented the future; a pupil of Stanislavski, he brought the Method technique into the limelight, and the physical tension in their acting styles is as evident as the emotional tension between their characters. Leigh’s amplified, theatrical mannerisms juxtapose with Brando’s coiled body language and stumbling speech; Brando is visceral, electric, raw, improvisatory, representing a new form of acting just as Stanley symbolises a new vision of America.

Both Leigh and Blanche were also judged for their promiscuity. One of the symptoms of Leigh’s bipolar disorder was her increased libido, which led to her having many extramarital affairs. Michael Radford, who wrote a screenplay on Leigh’s life, described how her “manic phases” “enhanced her sexuality” to the point that after a show she would “walk the streets [in search of men].” Her mental instability hardly gained her sympathy; playwright Noel Coward allegedly said that she was a “spoilt rich woman, a bit bored with things, who is making a cracking ass of herself to get attention.”

Given the psychological difficulties Leigh was having in the late 1940s and early 50s – undergoing electric shock therapy and struggling with long periods of insomnia – it is somewhat surprising that she pursued the role of this troubled heroine so fervently. She was by no means destined to get the part; despite her success in the West End, Kazan had originally wanted to take the entire cast from Broadway (Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter) into the film adaptation.

Her resolve never wavered though and eventually Kazan was persuaded; Leigh later said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that “I had nine months in the theatre of Blanche DuBois; now she’s in command of me.” Her determination though burdened on obsession; Kazan said that Leigh “would have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would have helped her performance.”

Perhaps this drive came from her empathy with Blanche, her ambition to do the part justice and break away from the more simple, stereotypical roles Hollywood prescribed for leading ladies (Leigh had famously turned down roles such as Heathcliffe’s abused wife Isabelle Linton in Wuthering Heights and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice).

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In the biography Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh, Alexander Walker explains that she desperately wanted the part because “Leigh had mentally left [her husband] 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.”

Early on in the play Blanche begs Stella not to leave her; she says, “I want to be near you, I’ve got to be with somebody, I can’t be alone! Because – as you must have noticed – I’m – not very well.” Her stuttering speech exposes her true vulnerability when she is not performing; perhaps something that Leigh herself felt too.

The consequences for Leigh in taking this role were equally tragic though: Leigh said that “[Blanche] is a tragic figure, and I understand her, but playing her tipped me into madness.” In 1953 Leigh had regular breakdowns on the set of Elephant Walk in Sri Lanka in which she would lock herself in her room or shout lines from Streetcar – yet more evidence that she had not only become the part but also that the part had become her.

At times it is hard to watch Blanche on the verge of a nervous breakdown knowing that Leigh was on the precipice of one herself, but that is also what makes her character so memorable and important even 70 years on. Leigh’s own experiences brought both power and pain to her performance; Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker that Leigh’s performance was “one of the greatest ever put on film” and that it “can truly be said to evoke pity and terror.”

Therefore rather than obscuring her talent, Leigh’s bipolar disorder actually gave her an intensity and rawness that changed the way mental health was portrayed on film forever. The stigma around mental health in the ‘50s was still abominable (‘cures’ such as lobotomies and electro-shock therapies were more akin to tortures than treatments), but Leigh’s role as Blanche gave audiences a relatable character, suffering from mental illness, who was a victim rather than a villain.

Broad Cinema: Vivien Leigh Gave The Performance Of A ...

When the play was performed on Broadway a few years earlier, Jessica Tandy (who had played Blanche) had complained that audiences were laughing along with Stanley’s jokes and sympathising more with Stanley, who is ultimately a rapist who beats his pregnant wife, than Blanche. The same was simply not true for Kazan’s film, which maintained the moral ambiguity of the script whilst Leigh’s performance ensured that it did not become the Stanley show.

The majority of early reviews praised Brando’s revolutionary performance but their sympathies were with Blanche; Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times that “inner torments are seldom projected with such sensitivity and clarity on the screen.” With Leigh, Brando had met his opposite but also his match; Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian how they create a mutually “toxic rapport, a resentful fascination for each other,” which builds up to the climactic “horror and pity of the final scene.”

Vivien Leigh is known for her beauty and her brilliance, but she should also be known for her bravery in taking on a role that explores and exposes mental illness in such an intimate way. It is easy with hindsight to draw these biographical parallels, but it is important to remember that before Streetcar her struggles were not publicly known. In Anthony Holden’s book Olivier, Laurence Olivier describes how “Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness — an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me.”

The secrecy shrouding her struggles makes her dedication to the part even more admirable; it was also a huge risk given that the play was associated with being immoral, decadent, vulgar and sinful (the Catholic Legion of Decency petitioned for it to be censored multiple times). Nonetheless, Leigh committed to the role psychologically, emotionally, even physically – she died her hair blonde when playing Blanche, something which she never offered to do for any other production – and her efforts were rewarded with her second Academy Award.

Streetcar therefore seems to be one of the truest examples of Wilde’s anti-mimesis: the film allowed Leigh a “beautiful form” through which she could “release that energy” and find an “expression” for the struggles of her own life. Her life imitated art, but knowledge of her life also makes us reconsider and reflect on her art too. Perhaps it is fair to say therefore that life re-evaluates art just as often as art re-evaluates life.

by Kristina Murkett

Kristina is an Oxford English graduate, qualified English teacher and freelance writer specialising in writing about film, books and education. When she’s not trying to get teenagers interested in Shakespeare she enjoys travelling, playing netball and eating her way around London. She has also written for The Spectator, The Film Magazine, Little White Lies, ShoutOut UK, and The Quietus, amongst others. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or check out her website here.

2 replies »

  1. Oh, your brilliantly considerate and thoughtful essay captures all of the feelings that a first viewing of the classic evoked in me. I was mesmerized by how progressive, stingingly realistic and uncompromising the play and film are even though the period of its setting would have rather dictated convention to its body of truth. It, for me, truly destigmatizes mental health issues and I completely stand by your views of it. Thank you for your insight and written output here.

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  2. Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and felt it spoke to you. It too is one of my favourite plays / films ever and I think what Williams and Kazan did with the story (and what Leigh did with the character) is just so important!

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