Friday, July 27, 2012

Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire

"Whoever you are... I have always depended on the kindness ... of strangers." Blanche DuBois

When I reviewed Jane Fonda's performance in Klute, I was talking about those very rare perfect Oscar wins that come at the right time in an actress' career and for a performance of her lifetime. Well, Vivien Leigh was the lady who had not one, but two such Oscar wins. If we go over the list of double winners, we can see at least one win with which we don't agree. But that's not the case with Vivien Leigh as her two Oscar winning performances are regarded as two of the very best performances winning the Academy Award in any category. Even at the time, it was no question who would take home the coveted award. Despite Vivien's modest words that Katharine Hepburn would win, there was no question about the actual winner. 

And why should be? Just like Gone With the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire is a true American classic that's 100% worthy of its legendary status. It deservedly took home all those Oscar and would have deserved a couple more, Picture and Director, for instance. It's a very tough choice between Streetcar and A Place in the Sun and the same goes for Actor where Brando and Monty are battling out for my vote. There's no question about the supporting races, though.

Tennessee Williams was simply a Godsend to actresses, having created (some of) the greatest female leading roles of the 20th Century. However, his #1 legendary female part has always been and always will be the one of Blanche DuBois. Although several brilliant actresses have taken on the role, some to great acclaim and success like Jessica Tandy and some of them to failure like Jessica Lange (some argue with that), no one has put on a more iconic and legendary performance as Blanche than Vivien Leigh, the leading lady of the London stage and an Oscar winner for her also legendary turn in Gone With the Wind. After her  Gone With the Wind co-star, Olivia de Havilland refused to replace the less bankable Jessica Tandy on the big screen, it was up to Vivien to take on Tandy's part and the probable resentment of her co-stars. I suppose nobody knew what these event will lead to.

It can always be misleading to viewers who watch actors play parts very close to their own personality because they might even question if there was really an acting achievement behind the character. However, such performance can turn out to be career-best, ground-breaking achievement like the one of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and Vivien's work in Streetcar. These actors filled their respective roles with their own experiences, pains and sufferings and these all lead to shocking and harrowing results. Vivien, who suffered from manic depression, had to go deep down the recreate the state of horror and loneliness of mental illness. Adding her own experiences lead to (in my opinion) the most real and shocking portrayal of mental illness in the history of cinema, in my opinion. In a movie made in 1951, she lets everybody look into somewhere, which (fortunately) few people get to see first hand.

However, drawing a disturbing picture of mental illness is just one of the many incredible feats of this performance, which combines everything that I love about acting. All these "smaller" achievements are enourmous on their own right and are far ahead of 98% of the Best Actress nominees. Even the way she attaches these parts together is amazing: it's true that she worked from killer material but as Tennesse Williams himself said "She brought everything I intended to the role and even much more than I had dared dream of." Any great actress can give an award-baiting performance in this part so it's about who's able to enrich this character even more, if that's possible. And it certainly was possible for Ms. Leigh.

One of the many incredible things about this performance is how Vivien portrayed Blanche's everlasting desire for magic and denial of reality. In many ways, her character is just like the respective characters of my three other favorite nominated ladies in this category (Jane, Great Glenn, Ingrid): for whatever reason, she's trying to put on a performance. With Great Glenn's Marquise it was all about society's rules and expectations, with Ingrid's Charlotte it was about proving her own kindness and humanity, with Jane's Bree it was about (just like with Blanche) a way of denying reality. Blanche and Bree are almost twin sisters in the sense that they try to cope with their horrendous circumstances with their constant performances. However, while Bree wants to make it in real life with her acts, Blanche is desperate to get away from reality. Vivien so heartbreakingly delivers the line where Blanche says that what she wants is magic, above all (especially real life). And it's so interesting that whenever she's faced with reality, her voice deepens and looks way older and more bitter.

Vivien's acting is extremely theatrical and yet seems to be coming so naturally from her. Moreover, I could feel that Vivien was extremely playful and added way more humor to this character than she's given credit for. Her kick-ass chemistry with Marlon Brando leads to some of the greatest battle of sexes scenes I've ever seen. Actuall, she even made me laugh a couple of times, especially in the beginning. And these moments make the ending even more terrifying and devastating. She covers through every emotion possible in a human being and her brilliance is overwhelming and lot to take at first. She's so damn human and realistic in every possible scene, despite the visible 'overacting'. However, in a way, I felt that Vivien actually gave a very subtle performance despite all the breakdowns and theatricality. She never goes for the 'screaming crazy woman' act that people at the time expected from a mentally ill character (or still do, for that matter).

And yes, there are so many brilliant things about this extremely rich performance that I haven't even mentioned, like Vivien's date with Karl Malden, which I consider the greatest scene of the whole movie. Vivien is simply astonishing when she delivers Blanche's long monologue about the suicide of the man she loved and their whole relationship. In each and every sentence, you can feel the pain and grief of Blanche and Vivien makes it all too clear why Blanche turned out to be the person she really is. That extremely difficult and complex scene is just flawless thanks to Vivien's wonderful ability. In fact, it had such an effect on me that I had couldn't even concentrate on anything else but Vivien's incredibly absorbing and masterful acting.

It's just as absorbing to see her interactions with Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando. Kim Hunter gives fabulous support to her, while with Brando, the whole air sizzles. Vivien so subtly and visibly shows how Blanche is turned on by Stanley's brutal, almost animal-like personality, something that's really contrary to her own expectations. The sexual tension between the two actors is really uncanny, especially for a 1951 movie (hah, that's like a mantra for me now, isn't it?).

And the ending is just as much of a masterclass in acting as her date with Karl Malden. The way Vivien shows that Blanche is still clinging desperately to her lies and delusions is just unbelievably painful to witness. Vivien Leigh reached such a high point with her performance where you just can't say anything about her and you're completely captivated by her. In fact, thanks to her exceptional, wonderful interpretation, you can also go through the stages of the passion of Blanche up until her cathartic, deeply disturbing and heartbreaking last sentence: "Whoever you are... I have always depended on the kindness ... of strangers." Her walk with the doctor becomes as much of a terrifying danse macabre as Gloria Swanson's walking down on the stairs, or Great Glenn's sinister last scene in Dangerous Liaisons. And Vivien reaches this with just one weak smile on her face that's a whole movie itself: the hope, the fear and everything. It remains a disturbing last cry for help from Vivien, maybe just as much from herself as it was from the character.

That's why that Vivien Leigh's performance as Blanche DuBois is indescribable. No matter how much I'm sweating and trying to point out parts of her brilliance, I constantly fail as you have to see Vivien's acting for yourself to feel her brilliance. Her acting in A Streetcar Named Desire is something that words cannot really describe so if I have to give a brief summary about what a brutally, unbelievably amazing performance hers is, I have to turn to Brando who said: Vivien Leigh was the best Blanche. She was Blanche DuBois.

What do you think? 


Anonymous said...

This is simply the greatest performance of all time! Like you said it has to be seen to be believed!! What a brilliant performance!!! Perfect! I hope she becomes your new number one!!

dinasztie said...

We'll see about that Anon! :)

Sissy said...

I remember playing Blanche in a scene back in my acting class days, it was so excruciating one time I just broke down and could not stop crying, this was in a local Actor's Studio and my teacher had actually worked as a protégé with Lee Strasberg and so used one of the techniques to calm me down. And man, I could only imagine how difficult it would be to do the whole play. Vivien was a magnificent and strong actress to pull this off, best performance ever, and one of my fave movies, thanks for the post!

dinasztie said...

Wow, Sissy that's a great story. :) I was also really emotional after watching her, I guess everybody is that way. :) It's really a performance that has a different effect on everyone and a different thing touches everyone in it.

Louis Morgan said...

Amazing performance and the obvious winner.

joe burns said...

Fantastic performance, and a clear winner...

My predictions:

1. Leigh
2. Winters
3. Hepburn
4. Wyman
5. Parker

If I win, please do 2007 next!!!!