A Streetcar Named Desire ★★★★★

2017 movie viewings, #60. I'm in the middle of a giant Tennessee Williams kick for the very first time these days, after coincidentally picking two of his films for a recent scavenger hunt (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Night of the Iguana) and loving both of them much more than I was expecting to. It's arguable which is his most famous script, because he's got a bunch of them that have been huge hits, but Streetcar certainly is in the running, not least because of the now-famous musical parody of it that The Simpsons did during its formative years. And indeed, this has every Tennessee Williams Cliche™ that the playwright ever got famous for, the things that made him such a controversial yet adored artist in the Mid-Century Modernist era, but the same things that made him a tired has-been in the eyes of Postmodernist fans by the time the 1970s rolled around: a mentally unstable delicate Southern flower (the infamous Blanche DuBois); a formerly lucrative Mississippi antebellum plantation that's gone belly-up in the 20th century (the event that's forced Blanche to go live with her sister in New Orleans, Stella); a rough-and-tumble alcoholic (Stella's husband, the equally infamous Stanley Kowalski, the part that made Marlon Brando a star and Method Acting a household term); a gradually building conflict within the too-tight confines of a stage-friendly closed residence (literally at the New Orleans street address of 722 Toulouse, which I'll be visiting next month); and eventually an actor-delight confrontation in the middle of a thunderstorm, in which dark secrets are revealed and an emotionally cathartic conclusion reached.

I mean, yes, what I just described is a virtual blueprint for 90 percent of Williams' scripts, the very thing that made him ridiculed by countercultural audiences after thirty years of cranking out sometimes nearly identical stories ("In my new plah, tha sistah's a drunk, tha brutha's ah henpecked homosexulah, and theyah mutha is an overbearahn wilted Southern belle." "TENNESSEE, YOU'VE DONE IT AGAIN!"); but that doesn't stop any of these nearly identical stories from being tremendously entertaining, thought-provoking, and chock-full of dream roles for emoting actors belting it out to the back of the room, especially in this case with all the reveals in the third act about how very, very much more insane Blanche actually is than we realize during the first half of the movie (which, here during the original play's 70th anniversary this year, is no longer exactly a spoiler). It's easy to see with a movie like this why audiences fell all over themselves for Williams' work in the 1940s and '50s, but had largely grown tired of him by the late '60s and '70s, because he was quite literally a victim of his own success -- daring and groundbreaking work when it first came out, subject to censorship and boycotts (but more on this when I review Baby Doll next week), it literally trained audiences in the last decades of Modernism to accept challenging work and demand even more, which is what led us to Postmodernism in the first place but unfortunately is why audiences had to reject this older stuff to get there.

Now that we're past Postmodernism as well, though, and both movements can be looked back at by us with a historical eye and no contemporary baggage, it's much easier now for us to rewatch old Williams work and enjoy it for what it is, even while understanding that Williams definitely had a formula and that he largely was unable to break out of that formula while he was alive, for better or for worse. What's inarguable is that that formula is amazing, so do yourself a favor and check out some of his work when you have a chance -- certainly with an open mind and a forgiving attitude (you'll need it for all the outrageously ridiculous accents on display), but also with excitement for some of the most astute and moving old-fashioned melodrama ever written in the 20th century.

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