As I’ve said before I respect Tennessee Williams very much. He’s probably my favourite post Shakespearian playwright. I can’t pick a favourite play of his…but the fullest incarnation of his plays is Elia Kazan’s interpretation of Tennessee’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee has been done so well on screen from the macabre Suddenly, Last Summer; the scorching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the underrated but satisfying The Rose Tattoo; the imperfect but enjoyable Sweet Bird of Youth; and the list goes on and on. But yes, this is my favourite. Much of that depends on Elia Kazan. Kazan is most remembered for On the Waterfront, another masterpiece, but there is something that resonates when he tackles these sexual themes.
I always attribute the paradigm on which Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is based to A Streetcar Named Desire. The similarities between the two films are more than just the black and white pallor and the four principal characters. Both are anchored in the performances of the two women. They are both addicted to the sauce…although one is more willing to admit it than the other. And more importantly they both live in worlds that are nothing more than illusions. And if we push the boundaries a little they can even extend further… surely Nick is not that brutish but he does have some similarities to Stanley, Stella’s dutiful housewife is a bit similar to Honey. It’s only measuring George against Mitch that the hypothesis doesn’t hold up.
It’s not that I’m wont to the cheery endings. Many of my favourite films are actually quite bleak, but I’ve probably looked at the first half of these films twice as much as I’ve looked at the second half. Not because their endings are inferior but it’s so gruelling to look through. Tennessee’s richly poetic language is not an accurate representation of life, but yet it's so sharp cutting that we can’t help but see ourselves in Blanche and Stanley. Albee is not as rhythmical. We may not know persons quite like Martha and George but there is a bit of them in us all. This is precisely the appeal of both; their almost repulsive propensity to show human life at its worse.Few cinematic adaptations are so true to their source material without seeming too staged.
There are two scenes in the films that play almost as parallel pieces in symphonies…and as good as both films are they are two of the best moments for me. George has just maliciously killed their baby…and Martha doubts him. He can’t do it after all she descends in manic shrieks and spits in his face. Blanche is more of a lady…kind of. When Stanley destroys her illusions she doesn’t exactly face him…but when Mitch leaves her and she descends deeper and deeper into her delirium it’s downright scary. These are more than just selfish women – Blanche and Martha depend on their illusions for without them, they are nothing. And it's why, you can't quite hate them.
The ending of both films are important, and perhaps show the difference between the two. Blanche refuses to give up her illusions and as she leaves the doctor at the end we can’t help but shed a tear for her. And maybe Martha is luckier because she has George. She asks, did you have to? Yes, he answers. Maybe the shattering of the illusions can help her to grow. And it’s probably the starkest difference between the two films.We can hope for understanding and education to Nick and Honey and perhaps in their own twisted way George and Martha will find happiness. But what of Mitch? Blanche has ruined him as she has ruined herself and a baby cannot assuage the damage between Stella and Stanley.
A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are two films that feature some phenomenal acting. Taylor, Hunter, Burton, Brando, Dennis, Leigh, Malden, Segal. Each one of them is extraordinary beyond words. Both films had each principal character being nominated for Oscars [Malden, Leigh, Taylor, Dennis and Kim Hunter as winners]…but it’s more than the winning of the award. Just the honesty of their representation is enough to make them exceptional, with or without awards.
Both films are important as much for their entertainment value as well as education with A Streetcar Named Desire maybe the one I like better by a hair. Both represent excellent and fluid adaptations of plays, both feature outstanding direction and both feature some outstanding ensemble acting. They may not be your favourite films…but it’s important to see them both at least once; if only for the experience.
Is this doubling up a good idea? Is it confusing? Virginia Woolf or Streetcar? What are your thoughts?