The raw sensuality of A Streetcar Named Desire was almost too hot for Hollywood when the film came out in 1951. But despite censors' demands that the decidedly adult themes be toned down, the palpable sexual tension between Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski, Kim Hunter's Stella Kowalski and Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois oozed from the screen.
It still does today. The animal magnetism and emotionalism that made relative newcomer Brando's performance so compelling is undiminished, as is Leigh's nuanced portrayal of Blanche's descent into madness.
A Streetcar Named Desire: The Original Restored Version (1951, Warner Bros., PG, $35) is just out on Blu-ray, and presents Elia Kazan's film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play as the director intended it before the studio made last-minute cuts. The Blu-ray package contains a book with 40 pages of photos, essays and bios, and extras include five documentaries on the film.
Streetcar is set in New Orleans. The Kowalskis live in a downstairs apartment in a gritty, blue-collar block on Elysian Fields Avenue. Stella's sister Blanche arrives from their Mississippi hometown and is immediately appalled by the surroundings and even more so by her uncouth brother-in-law.
Stanley is put off by her airs and recognizes that the fading Southern belle is not all she's cracked up to be. Stella, who unabashedly lusts for her abusive husband and cares for her deluded sister, is caught in the middle of their war of wills. Stanley's friend and co-worker Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (Karl Malden) falls for Blanche, but winds up as so much emotional collateral damage.
Williams, who wrote the screenplay, had already toned down the script a bit from the stage production, which became a Broadway hit in 1947. Still, Blanche's alcoholism, promiscuity and inference that her husband had committed suicide because of her disdain for his homosexuality all had to be brought into line with Hollywood Production Code guidelines. Censors also wanted the pivotal rape scene, in which Stanley assaults Blanche, taken out all together, but Kazan fought to keep it and filmed it in a symbolic way where it was implied but not seen.
The cast of both the play and the film were mostly the same, though because the actors were little known in Hollywood at the time, the studio wanted at least one big name star. Leigh (whose other iconic role came 12 years earlier as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind) was hired in place of Jessica Tandy, who originated the role. Leigh had played Blanche in a London production. Olivia de Haviland and Bette Davis were also considered.
Despite all of the behind-the-scenes drama, the film was a critical and commercial hit. It received 12 Academy Award nominations, winning for art direction and in three acting categories. Leigh, who had won best actress for Gone With the Wind, took home her second Oscar. Hunter and Malden swept the supporting categories.
Ironically, the Method-acting Brando's primal tour de force — considered one of the most influential film performances ever — earned a nomination but he did not win. Humphrey Bogart won that year for African Queen.
Brando, who would be nominated eight times in his career, would win for On the Waterfront in 1954 (besting Bogie in The Caine Mutiny) and for The Godfather in 1972 (an award that he famously refused to accept).