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Cruel to be Kind

Posted By Alex Belth On December 3, 2009 @ 10:55 am In Arts and Culture,Bronx Banter,Theater | Comments Disabled

Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.


A Streetcar Named Desire…was directed by [Elia] Kazan, who seems to have an instinct for the best of both [Arthur] Miller and Williams. It is perhaps the most misunderstood of his plays: the English and French productions were both so blatantly sensationalised that Williams’ underlying fibre passed unnoticed. If Willy Loman is the desperate average man, Blanche DuBois is the desperate exceptional woman. Willy’s collapse began when his son walked into a hotel apartment and found him with a whore; Blanche’s when she entered “a room that I thought was empty” and found her young husband embracing an older man. In each instance the play builds up to a climax involving guilt and concomitant disgust. Blanche, nervously boastful, lives in the leisured past; her defense against actuality is a sort of aristocratic Bovarysme, at which her brutish brother-in-law Stanley repeatedly sneers. Characteristically, Williams keeps his detachment and does not take sides: he never denies that Stanley’s wife, in spite of her sexual enslavement, is happy and well-adjusted, nor does he exaggerate the cruelty with which Stanley reveals to Blanche’s new suitor secrets of her nymphomaniac past. The play’s weakness lies in the fact that the leading role lends itself to grandiose overplaying by unintelligent actresses…

Kenneth Tynan, 1954

Nobody has ever confused Cate Blanchett with not being an intelligent actress. But man, dig this rave review of Liv Ullman’s new production of Streetcar from the Times theater critic, Ben Brantley [1]:

Blanche DuBois may well be the great part for an actress in the American theater, and I have seen her portrayed by an assortment of formidable stars including Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson and Natasha Richardson. Yet there’s a see-sawing between strength and fragility in Blanche, and too often those who play her fall irrevocably onto one side or another.

Watching such portrayals, I always hear the voice of Vivien Leigh, the magnificent star of Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie, whispering Blanche’s lines along with the actress onstage. But with this “Streetcar,” the ghosts of Leigh — and, for that matter, of Marlon Brando, the original Stanley — remain in the wings. All the baggage that any “Streetcar” usually travels with has been jettisoned. Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have performed the play as if it had never been staged before, with the result that, as a friend of mine put it, “you feel like you’re hearing words you thought you knew pronounced correctly for the first time.”

This newly lucid production of a quintessentially American play comes to us via a Norwegian director, best known as an actress in the brooding Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman, and an Australian movie star, famous for impersonating historical figures like Elizabeth I and Katharine Hepburn. Blessed perhaps with an outsider’s distance on an American cultural monument, Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have, first of all, restored Blanche to the center of “Streetcar.”

I haven’t been to the theater in years but this sounds like a memorable experience for those lucky few who’ll get to see it.


One of the things that interests me here, is how Brando’s performance in movie version of Streetcar, and presumably the original stage version too, was so stunning that it overshadowed the lead character. The role wasn’t minor exactly, but it wasn’t the central character, and his performance was towering, seminal. What are some other examples of a supporting performance dominating a production?

These are all over the place (and some are really minor characters more than even supporting ones), but off the top of my head, here’s a few: Orson Wells in The Third Man, Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, John Turturro in Miller’s Crossing, and Joe Pesci in Good Fellas.

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[1] dig this rave review of Liv Ullman’s new production of Streetcar from the Times theater critic, Ben Brantley: http://theater.nytimes.com/2009/12/03/theater/reviews/03streetcar.html?ref=arts

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