Monday, July 27, 2015

1951: Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire

In her second and last Best Actress winning performance, Vivien Leigh plays Blanche DuBois, a schoolteacher on the verge of a psychotic break who moves in with her sister and abusive brother-in-law in their tiny New Orleans apartment.

This is one of those movies that is extremely well-done but not at all fun to watch. It's just so incredibly disturbing. Also I think it's difficult for modern audiences to understand because a lot of important plot points are heavily veiled due to production codes. I had only seen this movie once before, seven years ago, and I'm pretty sure I didn't really understand what was going on. I remembered very little about it apart from Marlon Brando famously bellowing, "STELLAAAAAAAAAA!" So even though it's far from my favorite film, I'm happy I watched it again because the first time I completely missed how amazing Vivien Leigh was.

The character of Blanche DuBois is extremely complicated, in a way that seems like it would be ridiculously difficult to convincingly portray without going too over-the-top, but Leigh pulls it off flawlessly. Blanche has several different go-to "modes", for lack of a better term, and Leigh changes her face, voice, and demeanor to fit each one. There's the flirtatious, fake-happy, lying-through-her-teeth Blanche, who reminded me a lot of Scarlett O'Hara. This is clearly her mask, the way she desperately wants others to see her, and the way several characters do see her, but she makes the mask thin enough that the audience can mostly see through it. When she feels comfortable enough, she consciously gives other characters a peek beneath the mask, and that's when she seems the most relaxed and natural. As she descends closer and closer to insanity, it takes less and less effort to remove the mask and reveal a different version of Blanche. Several times someone pushes her to the point where she's almost completely lost her mind, and she becomes hunched-over, disoriented, and withdrawn. And then of course at the end (spoiler alert) there's the Blanche with essentially no sense of reality, who is similar to flirtatious fake-happy Blanche with one important difference: it's no longer a conscious mask. I don't even know how to describe the difference; I only know that there is one. Somehow you can just tell earlier in the film that she's trying to be that way, and later in the film that she has actually become that way.

Those are the most common versions of Blanche, but there are others that come out briefly. One of my favorite parts of her performance is when her boyfriend is confronting her about the lies she's told him, and her voice suddenly gets much deeper as she spits out her defiant retorts. This really stood out to me because it's the only time her voice sounds like that, but instead of seeming out of place it works perfectly in that scene. There's no other scene like it in the movie, so of course she would only act like that then. I have to give some credit to the way the character is written, since it helps that it's such an interesting role, but I think there are very few people who could do the character of Blanche DuBois justice, and Vivien Leigh is unquestionably one of them. She was an incredibly talented actress, as her previous Oscar-winning performance demonstrated, and she also struggled with mental illness, as she suffered from what we would now call bipolar disorder. Those two criteria made her essentially perfect for the role, although it took a talented makeup department in addition to further acting talents for such a gorgeous human being to convince audiences that she actually had any reason to be insecure about her appearance.

A Streetcar Named Desire was the first movie to win three acting Academy Awards, a record that has only been tied once, by 1976's Network. Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor and Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress. Marlon Brando was nominated for Best Actor, but he lost to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen. Personally I thought Brando's performance was deserving of an award, but Bogart was also incredibly good, and his character was much nicer than the jerkface in this movie, so I think the Academy made the right choice. Malden's and Hunter's performances were also good, but I wouldn't have been surprised if they hadn't won, whereas I would have been shocked if Leigh hadn't won for her performance. I think her performance in Gone with the Wind was slightly more impressive than this one, but mostly just because that movie was twice as long.

Vivien Leigh was nominated for two Oscars, and she won both of them. Unusually, they're for her two most famous performances, which are also two of the best performances ever captured on screen. Sadly, due to a combination of factors, she wasn't in very many other movies. Some of that was because she was acting on the stage instead, but the rest was because poor health and a tumultuous personal life made it difficult for her to work. She died of tuberculosis in 1967 at the age of 53 after appearing in only 19 films, thus depriving the world of more fabulous performances like these two.

Next up: Shirley Booth, in a much less famous performance

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