Analysis Culture

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and the fantasies we create for ourselves

If you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t spoil it here – watch it and come back!

A Streetcar Named Desire, by Elia Kazan (adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams), has been lauded for decades as a cinematic milestone – it was wildly popular upon its release, but it has also stood the test of time and is not only taught in film history classes around the world, but is also simply a great movie by most peoples’ standards.

The story follows Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh), a country girl who is visiting her sister in New Orleans. Her brother-in-law, Stanley (Marlon Brando), lives in a complicated, abusive relationship with Blanche’s sister – due to this and the troubled nature of Blanche’s past, she begins to spiral downward and lose her grip on reality.

While the film was critically acclaimed (and quite popular) when it was released, it did not come without its share of controversy. It deals with sexuality, rape, substance abuse, prostitution, sexual abuse, broken families — all in the course of a couple of hours, and all being discussed under the radar.

On top of this, the movie was released in 1951, right in the middle of the Hays Code, otherwise known as the Production Code. This was the period in American history (that goes largely unremembered) where censorship governed most of what you would see on TV or in the theaters. This is why most films of the era depict couples sleeping in separate beds, kissing for no longer than three seconds, and little-to-no suggestive content (certainly not nudity).

While that seems like the I Love Lucy lifestyle was “just the way they did things back then,” one will see a stark difference if they watch films from the early 1930s or late 1920s, which – morality-wise – seem more like the modern films we’ve had in the last thirty years. Censorship of that day has misconstrued our images of the mid-20th century.

It goes to show that powers throughout the country thought it necessary to string up a veneer; they thought it necessary to show what’s prim and proper about America to the rest of the world, while hiding the ugly things. Our current trend of ultra-realism in film would have certainly never been possible back then. Open discussions on rape, sexuality, violence, slavery, religious institutions, the government – very little of all that was possible in the film industry during the Hays Code era.

As mentioned before, A Streetcar Named Desire managed to tackle some of these issues despite the restrictions placed upon them. And yet, it was this same culture of censorship that heavily condemned the film. According to Var News at the time, a judge in Illinois said that he would not “’condone any picture which dealt with sex, nymphomania, and and liquor’ as its basic theme.”

There was a battle to censor much more of the film, and that entire story can be read here.

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This entire conflict of censorship is a bit ironic, considering one of the core themes of the film: it does not deal with censorship in an institutional sense, but a personal one. The character most obviously putting up a front is Blanche, constantly flaunting her cheap clothes that, only on the surface, seem expensive and classy, a reflection of her own life and youth which she sees as dwindling away. She desperately hangs on to these relics, searching for worth in herself while simultaneously hanging on to things that have already left her (and are probably not worth hanging on to).

She censors every bit of herself that she considers ugly, be it an external or internal flaw. She desperately tries to hide them from everyone around her.

However, A Streetcar Named Desire takes these ideas beyond Blanche. Stella, Blanche’s sister, left their high society to live with the man she loved, Stanley. That’s the dream, right? To shirk riches and comfort to live with those you love, even if they’re dirt poor? Stanley certainly agrees, and thinking that maybe she forgot, he reminds her: “Listen, baby, when we first met – you and me – you thought I was common. Well, how right you was! I was as common as dirt. You showed me a snapshot of the place with them columns, and I pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it, having them colored lights goin’.”

And yet he’s not the romantic, epitome of a working-class, moral man who sweeps the rich girl off her feet and grounds her in reality. Instead, he puts up his own veneer – his own narrative that he uses to convince others as much as he uses it to convince himself.

On one hand, he calls out Blanche in his no-punches-pulled method:

“Take a look at yourself here in a worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for 50 cents from some rag-picker. And with a crazy crown on! Now what kind of queen do you think you are? Do you know that I’ve been on to you from the start, and not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes? You come in here and you sprinkle the place with powder and you spray perfume and you stick a paper lantern over the light bulb – and lo and behold, the place has turned to Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile, sitting on your throne, swilling down my liquor. And do you know what I say? Ha! Ha! Do you hear me? Ha ha ha!”

Sounds like he’s got her all figured out, right? Well, sort of. He is right – but he’s guilty of just the same. Blanche hasn’t pull the wool over his eyes – he’s pulled the wool over his own eyes. At another point in the film, he hypocritically yells at Stella: “I’m the king around here, and don’t you forget it!” when in fact, he’s as much of a king as Blanche is Queen of the Nile.

It doesn’t matter what facet of society you come from, as everyone is capable of lying to others and themselves, constructing a fantasy so that they might be respected or revered. We see these fantasies played out today – social media is a popular medium on which people can project one life and yet live another internally.

But social media is the obvious answer; another easy answer is the fantastical image projected by political parties one might oppose, but when we bring these things up, we tend to be pointing at others. What does it take to look inward? What fantasies do you project? How are you dishonest with others? How are you dishonest with yourself? These are the questions many characters in A Streetcar Named Desire fail to ask, driving the film’s conflict forward.

By the end of the film, the only character to truly look inward is Stella. In the end, she claims to be finally done with her abusive husband, presumably for the sake of her newborn child. Everyone else is lost in the images they project, whereas she finally embraces the sliver of truth: she is not a queen, and Stanley is not some romantic king. She is a mother who must take care of her child, and for both of their sakes she has to leave him. (Though the film doesn’t indicate whether or not she would eventually fall back into the same trap she had historically fallen back into, I choose to believe that she embraced the truth and used it to move forward, in contrast to everyone else. But who knows!)

One could also argue that Mitch also rises above these fantasies people draw up for themselves, and, like Stella, must suffer from the fallout of the falsehoods of others.

A Streetcar Named Desire tackles a lot of difficult subjects, especially considering the time it was released, but this is one that that struck me.

MV5BYzgwNTBkMDEtMDVhMi00NWU3LWJjZmEtYjcyYmVmMzZiNTFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_ You can say it now — STELLAAAAA!!![/caption]

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Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Luke, I must say that was one hell of an article! I appreciate the way that you analyze the film to extract the more profound meaning so much so that even though I have seen the movie at least five or six times, I plan to watch it again in the VERY near future. When I do, I will reread your essay. Excellent, Thank You.

Miche
Member
Miche

I’ve never heard of the Hays Code…and I DID assume (at least as a kid) that I Love Lucy was the way they did things back then, reinforced by the fact that my own grandparents slept in separate bedrooms. I’ve seen that iconic “STELLA!” scene, but I had no idea it was from this movie. Or even that Marlon Brando and Scarlett O’Hara were in it. (My cinema education is clearly lacking….) I find that I’m deeply intrigued by the interplay between art (cinema, literature) and life. The simpler layer (for me) is just how much art reflects society at… Read more »

JoyB
Guest
JoyB

Small confession, I’ve seen the play several times, but not the movie. Tennessee Williams was one of the subjects of a college lit class and at the time there multiple productions of his plays in and around Chicago that our professor got the class free tickets to. He frequently does an amazing job at poking holes is the norms that we’ve created as a society, even as they seem to change. A lot of good comedy does that too, especially some of the British stuff like, heh, “Keeping Up Appearances”. I think what’s scarier now is how dramatically we’re seeing… Read more »

georgehand
Member

Luke,
I took one look at the title and knew it would be you who wrote it. I’m running out just now to get a high and tight but will leave this open so I can read it first thing. I wanted to say also that I read (finally) the first chapter of your book and am amazed at your ability to capture a post Armageddon environment. Great hook.
geo sends

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