Monday, April 8, 2013

Great Performances In Film: Vivien Leigh - A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

The 'Great Performances In Film' series will be an ongoing feature highlighting great achievements in cinema by actors and actresses. 

So, why not kick off this feature with what I consider to be the single greatest female acting performance of all time and one of the best earned Oscars of all time? Miss Vivling in A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan in 1951 and based on the play of the same name by Tennessee Williams.

"She had a small talent but, as work progressed, I became full of admiration for the greatest determination to excel of any actress I've known. She'd have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance." -- Elia Kazan on Vivien Leigh In A Streetcar

  That's utter baloney, Kazan. Determination is indeed key in creating a successful performance but there also needs to be other ingredients at play. Sheer talent that is. And of that Vivien Leigh brought plenty of in her portrayal of Blanche DuBois. I think Kazan was probably at the time biased against Leigh. For one, the other three major actors had originated their respective roles on Broadway with Kazan. Thus, Leigh, casted as a way to bring in a famous name into the production, was at a disadvantage with Kazan, with whom she reportedly did not get along with well. The other three actors (Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden) were Method-trained actors, something else that placed Leigh in disfavor in Kazan's eye. At that point in time, Leigh was mostly known for her role as Scarlett in Gone With The Wind, during a time when classic melodrama reigned and was yet to disappear in favor of Method acting. She was also renowned for her appearances on the British stage, where actors were viewed as being too proper and distinguished for the earthy American roles such as those in A Streetcar. So, in short, Elia Kazan was no fan from the get go and no doubt had more of a rapport with his other actors (even though Leigh previously played the role of Blanche in a British adaptation of A Streetcar).
   But, Method or no Method, Leigh was hands down the best performance in the film. She would herself later comment that playing Blanche is what tipped her over into madness, worsening her bipolar condition. Leigh's Blanche is a total phony. She assumes airs (hiding her alcoholism and her past debauchery) and proves to be quite manipulative. When she meets her brother-in-law Stanley (Brando), she finally finds somebody unwilling to play along with her pretenses and who is determined to break down the last pillars of the pedestal on which she'd positioned herself. Leigh's Blanche is such a pathetic figure, grasping at straws, that she even borders into comical territory at times -- something that perhaps helps appease the audience's would-be loathing for her character. Throughout the film, just as Blanche never knows where she stands, we too are trying to figure out where we stand with her. Who is the real villain in A Streetcar Named Desire? Leigh continues to ride our emotions and expectations as the film progresses, resulting in one of the most heart-breaking finales ever. By the end, we have now assumed a position on Blanche. We want everything to be all right with her. We feel bad for we have now become the villains since for most of the film we've secretly been rooting for her demise. Yet, we never knew it would be so disconcerting. A determined actress would only be able to expose the skeleton behind the complex character of Blanche. Vivien Leigh gives her flesh and makes her live. It is a performance that once seen will remain forever emblazoned in one's mind, such is its strength. Due to Vivien Leigh's pure genius, Blanche DuBois lives on in our mind, tormenting us still.
    Vivien Leigh will forever be remembered for her characters of Scarlett and Blanche. I love comparing and contrasting the two characters. In a way, Blanche is what Scarlett could become. That both characters are played by the same actress gives an odd sense of continuity and closure to cinema. Vivien Leigh was born with Scarlett and died as Blanche. No matter if all of Leigh's other performances are overshadowed because in A Streetcar she delivers the best female acting performance of all time. Dammit, the best acting performance of all time if I were to compare hers to my favorite male performance. I am glad that she will be remembered for this role and this outstanding performance.


  1. Where I agree with most everything you have said about her performance in this film, I do have to admit that I hats Blanche with an undying passion. I don't want things to work out for her, I am not concerned for her well being and I think she is a miserable, manipulative human being. Stanley's not my best friend either but there is something about Blanche that makes me want to enjoy watching her demise.
    How someone so pleasent and kind like Vivien Leigh could play guise part so well I will never understand. She seems wrong for the part but because of her superior acting skills she is able to handle this role easily.
    I enjoyed reading this and look forward to more in the series.

  2. You're heartless! How could you not care for a delusional, stealth, and self-loathing harpy?
    But Vivien Leigh wasn't that kind. I think the role suited her a lot, at least at that point in her life. I think she played both Scarlett and Blanche at the right times in her life. A young Leigh was as ambitious as Scarlett and an older Leigh suffered from mental illness much like Blanche. Her poor health, bipolar disorder, extramarital affairs, etc. had taken their toll on her. She, imo, was ready for that role then. I don't think she could have tackled it any time earlier. I didn't mean to sound preachy, but though in general I do agree that Vivien Leigh was a kind-hearted person, I think her mental illness had given her the foundation needed for the role.
    I'm glad you enjoyed this. I have a lot more that I expect people will find 'controversial' or worthy.

  3. I look forward to the controversial and the worthy. Both sound fun to me!

  4. Thank you so much for this post! I heartily agree. Vivien's Blanche is the greatest performance on film. I also treasure her Scarlett O'Hara, and Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater, and The Graduate, Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, and Deborah Kerr in The Innocents.

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