Chris Sullivan reviews the 1951 classic and finds a compelling case for abolishing tuition fees before more young people’s talents are wasted.
I first saw A Streetcar Names Desire on TV when I was a teenager and then again in my early 20s when my fascination with Marlon Brando and 1950s America knew no bounds. But I didn’t really get it.
Recently released for the big screen by the British Film Institute, the movie is an undoubted tour de force that shook the acting world to its foundations. Based on Tennessee Williams’ explosive stage play, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Award during the 1947-48 season.
It stars Brando, reprising the role of Stanley Kowlaski that he made his own on the Broadway stage. Vivien Leigh co-stars as his sister-in-law – the morally fragmented Blanche DuBois. Also reprising her stage role is Kim Hunter, who plays Stanley’s wife Stella.
Thirty years on, I caught part of it on TV in a Los Angeles hotel room and was blown away by its excellence, mystified as to why it was never shown on British TV and couldn’t understand why I once disliked it so much.
A Very Adult Film
A Streetcar Named Desire probably doesn’t make it on to British TV much because it is a very adult film, dealing with difficult themes and emotions.
It depicts the slow moral decline of a once proud Southern schoolteacher. A fading beauty, she has lost her job because of her sexual transgressions. It is a role perfectly played by Leigh, who in real life was bi-polar and had regular electric shock treatment.
Homeless, she moves in with her sister and Kowalski in their steaming hot apartment next to the Desire Streetcar in the French Quarter of New Orleans and continues her “meetings with strangers”. Predictably, Blanche’s presence upsets the Kowalski apple cart and strains the relationship between her sister and her husband.
Kowalski is a loud, crude and brutal men. He is determined to get Blanche out of the apartment and his first aim is to find out why she has lost her job. He probes and insinuates and discovers the truth while the mentally unstable Blanche visibly cracks as he, using this knowledge, destroys her last chance of happiness with Mitch, one of his poker-playing buddies.
An Astonishing Film
This is an astonishing film, featuring astounding performances especially from Leigh who won a Best Actress Oscar for her role.
The director, Turkish-born Elia Kazan (a former Communist Party member who in 1952 passed many names to the US House Un-American Committee) remarked that Leigh would have “crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance”.
Leigh later said that the role tipped her over into total madness. Undeniably, the part of Blanche was very close to her true personality and behaviour. After making the film, Leigh starred in only four more movies.
Nominated for 12 Oscars, A Streetcar Named Desire‘s other Academy Award winners were Karl Malden and Kim Hunter for Best Supporting Actors and Richard Day for Best Art Direction. Although he was nominated, Brando failed to win even though he delivered one of the greatest screen performances of all time. His performance was so brutally real and uncompromisingly honest that it turned the normal world of acting upside down.
It was the beginning of a big change in American film and theatre.
The Beat Generation
Post-war America had seen the G.I. Bill of Rights (officially the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) grant stipends covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending college. This enabled nine million veterans to receive close to $4 billion from 1944 to 1949.
This generation of veterans had faced death and seen too many die to still believe in the US macho tradition. They formed what would become known as the ‘Beat’ generation – creating a new stream of art, jazz, poetry, prose and drama. Suddenly, US campuses were awash with twenty-something men with grown-out hair, wearing US demob leather jackets, sweat shirts and chinos.
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Many of these – such as Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Richard Boone Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Robert Duval, Ernest Borgnine, Steve McQueen, Rod Steiger and Paul Newman – went on to, not only act, but be the finest and most successful actors of their generation.
Most of them studied at the Las Pasadena Playhouse Acting School, New York’s Neighbourhood Playhouse School of Theatre or at the famed Actors Studio. All of these institutions espoused the Stanislavski school of method acting. This suited the veterans, who could draw on their experiences to bring power and tragedy to their acting.
The Importance Of the Actors Studio
Marlon Brando, probably the best known and most revered student of the Actors Studio, had tried to enlist in the Army in 1943 at the age of 18, but a football injury let him down.
Disgruntled, he dug ditches for work and, after the Second World War, followed his sister to New York and slept on couches. He attended the Actors Studio where the great Stella Adler introduced him to the Stanislavski method.
“Sometimes went to the Actors Studio on Saturday mornings because Elia Kazan was teaching,” he wrote. “And there were usually a lot of good-looking girls… informed the actor in later life.”
Brando could only do this because the Actors Studio was free. It began at the Union Methodist Episcopal Church in the rundown Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood on West 48th Street. Previously it was home to the Actors Kitchen and Lounge where it was a community space for charitable ventures and impoverished actors could afford meals.
The Studio went from strength to strength attracting what would become the cream of US acting talent including Robert De Niro, Sandy Dennis, Ben Gazzara, Sissy Spacek and Dennis Hopper.
Without the G.I. Bill of Rights or foundations such as the Actors Studio, Hollywood and US culture would have been depleted.
Poverty Smothers Creativity
Poverty is a cruel bitch that smothers creativity. This is a big problem in Britain today, where the talent of so many young people is being wasted. I was struck by this on a recent visit to Merthyr Tydfil, the impoverished south Wales town where I was born. I met the 17-year-old son of a friend who is a great student but doesn’t want to go to university.
“There’s no promise of a job afterwards, but there is a promise of a debt of at least £40,000”, he said. “And I can’t pay it because I’m not in a job. I couldn’t get a mortgage and would be straddled with this massive bloody debt throughout my 20s. I don’t want to end up like my friend Callum’s brother who went to college, did well but can’t get a job now and spends all day drinking cans of cider in the town centre.”
Without my grant to Camberwell School of Art and then St. Martins, I would never have been able move to London. I wouldn’t have started the Wag Club, employed hundreds of people, or promoted the gigs of Sade, Banamarama and Spandau Ballet – all of whom sold millions upon millions of records. Just think what we would have lost if the grant system had not enabled a generation to participate in further education.
Most of my contemporaries such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Sade were on grants. And, more importantly, what are we losing now that tuition fees exist? The answer is simple: a generation of great minds who could pay billions of pounds in taxes and change the world.
In the 1960s, the finest actors in the UK – Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Tom Courtenay, and Albert Finney – all entered drama school on grants. Today, at least half of all UK actors have been privately educated. The most successful actors like Rosamund Pike, Lily James, Emily Blunt and Emilia Clarke are all extremely privileged. Eton has spawned Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis, Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston, while Benedict Cumbernatch, Laurence Fox, Cary Elwes and James Dreyfus went to Harrow.
But the world of stage and film is just one arena where the UK’s great talent is being lost. There’s so much of it out there.
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is out now.