Behind the Camera On A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Elia Kazan directed the play A Streetcar Named Desire in New York, and when Hollywood knocked, he and most of the Broadway cast went with him, including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter (who was almost replaced by Anne Baxter), Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, Peg Hillias, and Edna Thomas. Jessica Tandy, who had been an absolute smash as Blanche DuBois on Broadway, was replaced with Vivien Leigh. (Olivia de Havilland was offered the role first, but she ended up turning it down.) Studio executives did not think Tandy was a household name outside of the New York stage, so her role went to Leigh, who was famous for having played another colorful Southern belle in Gone With the Wind (1939). Leigh, in fact, was starring in a London presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier, when she got the call from Hollywood to appear in the film version.
Tennessee Williams was brought in to write the screenplay for A Streetcar Named Desire in collaboration with Oscar Saul. Because of the Production Code that was still very much in effect, concessions and compromises had to be made in terms of the play's sexual content. References to the homosexuality of Blanche's dead hubby were deleted, and the film ends with Stella deciding to leave Stanley after he rapes her sister, unlike the play in which it's obvious that Stella will stand by her man. Other cuts took out dialogue that suggested Blanche was promiscuous and possibly even a nymphomaniac who was attracted to young boys. The censors also cut out much of the violent intensity of Stanley's assault on Blanche. A scene between Stella and Blanche lost crucial dialogue. Stella tells her sister, "Stanley's always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night, as soon as we came in here, he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it." After Blanche is suitably shocked, Stella leans back with a strange grin and says, "I was sort of thrilled by it." This deleted line and other cuts were replaced in a 1993 restoration of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Of all the cuts suggested by the Production Code censors, the one that Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams were most adamantly against was the rape of Blanche. Kazan threatened to walk off the production if the scene was to be deleted. And in an August 1950 missive to Joseph Breen, the director of the Production Code office, Williams wrote, "The rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society. It is a poetic plea for comprehension..."
If the suggested cuts were not made, the Catholic Legion of Decency threatened to sink the box office prospects for A Streetcar Named Desire with a Condemned rating. Elia Kazan made a last ditch effort to get his un-cut version of A Streetcar Named Desire seen by the public. He asked Warner Bros. to try releasing the film in both his director's version and the edited version, with each clearly marked so audience members could choose for themselves. Warners said no. Kazan then campaigned for his director's cut to be screened at the Venice Film Festival. Again, Warners refused, since the Legion mandated that only their approved version could be released, and the studio didn't want to risk earning a Condemned rating which would hurt the film at the box office. As a result, Kazan's version would not be seen until Warners restored the film in 1993.
Director Elia Kazan worked closely with the production designer to create the authentically sordid look of A Streetcar Named Desire. They had the walls of Stanley and Stella's home built in small sections that could be removed, so that as Blanche feels more constricted and threatened inside the Kowalski home, the walls could literally move in and create a claustrophobic tension within the space.
There were clashes on the set between Vivien Leigh and her fellow cast members. Besides being the only major cast member not to have come from the Broadway production, Leigh was a classically trained actress, whereas most of the other actors studied under the "Stanislavsky Method," also known as Method acting. But Leigh was determined to make a good picture and create a great performance. She reportedly could not wait to get to the set every day, and was often the last lead actor to leave at day's end. There was some bad blood between Leigh and Marlon Brando at the beginning of the shoot, but these conflicts had nothing to do with acting style. Brando was simply annoyed at Leigh's typically British manners and stuffiness. The two acting giants eventually became friends as the shoot progressed. Brando's dead-on perfect imitations of Laurence Olivier's Henry V did much to break the ice between him and Leigh.
For the London stage production, Vivien Leigh bleached her famous brunette locks. But she wore bleached wigs throughout the production of A Streetcar Named Desire, since Blanche DuBois was supposed to have ragged-looking hair and look like someone who had led a rough life. Since she did not trust the American hairdressers, Leigh air-mailed her wigs back to London to be cleaned and redressed by wig-maker and theatrical entrepreneur Stanley Hall.
To prepare for the part of Stanley Kowalski, Brando began a daily workout routine at a local gym where he exercised with weights to build up his chest and biceps. Prior to this role, the actor was not known for his muscle-bound physique and when Truman Capote first observed Brando's transformation, he said "It was as if a stranger's head had been attached to the brawny body, as in certain counterfeit photographs."
Brando was paid a sizable $75,000 for his work, partially because of the insider scoop that hailed Brando's acting style as the most revolutionary thing to hit Hollywood since the Talkies. Vivien Leigh received a $100,000 salary, making her the highest paid English screen actress of the day.
At a test screening for A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan and producer Charlie Feldman received a shock: the audience laughed at Blanche DuBois. Ever observant of his actors, Kazan discovered that the audience was laughing specifically at the scene when the Young Collector, played by Wright King, reacts to Blanche's bold and yearning way in which she reaches for him from her door. Kazan eliminated King's reaction shots, which did the trick of quelling the unintended laughter.
by Scott McGee