Tonight: Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in the five-star 1951 Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar Named Desire—the film that made Brando a superstar and the most influential actor of his time.
Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1924. A troubled youth, he was expelled from a Minnesota military academy, attended the New School’s Dramatic Workshop for a year and following a season of summer stock in Long Island, made his Broadway debut in 1944 in I Remember Mama.
In the theatre program’s bio, his birthplace was listed as Calcutta, India.
In his next appearance, Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Cafe, his place of birth was listed as Bangkok.
The Broadway production of Streetcar opened in December 1947, with Brando and Jessica Tandy, directed by Elia Kazan. The play—and Brando’s performance—stunned Broadway.
Its themes were extremely controversial and Brando’s performance electrifying.
Tennessee Williams wrote the play at a time when he thought he was dying of pancreatic cancer. It contains “almost every theme I’ve ever tackled,” he said. The play’s inspiration and title were derived from a time when the author lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Two streetcars regularly passed his residence.
One was marked “CEMETARIES”; the other was marked “DESIRE.” There was symbolism in that, he thought.
Streetcar was a critical and commercial success, running for more than two years on Broadway.
Brando’s performance made him a star and took him to Hollywood, but he was not Kazan’s first choice for the Broadway role. John Garfield was supposed to play Stanley Kowalski, but he quarreled with Kazan and left when the play was in rehearsal. Brando was his replacement.
In the theater program’s bio, Brando’s place of birth was finally listed as Omaha, Nebraska.
In late 1949, the play’s producer, Irene Mayer Selznick, shocked Hollywood—including her father, Louis B. Mayer and her ex-husband, David O. Selznick—with the news that she planned to make Streetcar into a movie.
How could a property dealing with rape, nymphomania and homosexuality possibly get past the Production Code?
Unsuccessful negotiations ensued, followed by reports that William Wyler would produce and direct a screen version with Bette Davis. But it was independent producer Charles Feldman who finally secured the film rights for $350,000.
Williams was engaged to work on the screenplay and Kazan to direct. Kazan was already respected in Hollywood. He’d won an Oscar for Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947).
At first it appeared that no studio would agree to distribute the film, but Warner Bros., hungry for a hit, eventually agreed. In its recent re-release, it was distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Kazan wanted to use the original Broadway cast, but Feldman insisted on at least one star. Brando didn’t count. His first film, Stanley Kramer’s The Men (1950), hadn’t been released yet.
Jessica Tandy had played the role of Blanche DuBois on stage and Kazan wanted her for the film. Warner wanted Olivia De Havilland. But Feldman prevailed.
Leigh hadn’t worked in Hollywood in a decade, but she still had marquee value. She had appeared in the London production of Streetcar, directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier. She got the part.
The rest of the cast—Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, Peg Hillias and Edna Thomas—came direct from the Broadway production.
Streetcar proved to be a smash on the screen just as it had been on Broadway.
It cost $1.8 million and grossed more than $4 million—big bucks in 1951.
It was nominated for 10 Oscars—including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Recording and Best Musical Score.
Malden won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor; Hunter won for Best Supporting Actress.
The Oscar for Best Picture went to a musical, An American in Paris.
Kazan lost to George Stevens for A Place in the Sun; Brando lost to Bogart for The African Queen.
1951 was a pretty good year for movies.
Brando was nominated four years in a row—for Streetcar (1951), Viva Zapata (1952), Julius Caesar (1953) and On the Waterfront (1954).
He won his first Oscar for On the Waterfront.
So now, from 1951, A Streetcar Named Desire.