Elia Kazan's celebrated film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- which won four Oscars in 1951 and deserved a few others -- opens today at the Key boasting a much-ballyhooed restoration of the cuts that were forced on Kazan by the Breen office and the Legion of Decency. This amounts to only a few minutes of footage: How much difference can they make? Well, as it happens, a lot. You can see why the movie made the prudes nervous -- this restored "Streetcar" is sexier than the censored version, and more disturbing morally.
Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer Prize-winning play made the transition from stage to screen with its director, Kazan, and most of its cast intact, including the extraordinary young Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski (Jessica Tandy, who played Blanche DuBois onstage, was replaced by Vivien Leigh). The text, however, suffered, and anyone who goes to the restored version expecting to see some of Blanche's monologues in full or to hear Brando utter the immortal pre-rape line, "We've had this date from the beginning," is going to be disappointed. Kazan himself participated in some early tidying up, about four minutes' worth, according to his autobiography, "A Life." This footage is apparently gone forever.
What has been restored is not, for the most part, text: I caught only one previously cut line, Stanley's telling Blanche, "Maybe you wouldn't be so bad to interfere with." This is in the sequence leading up to the rape, and oddly enough, cutting it made the scene much uglier. In the censored movie, Stanley's advance on Blanche is single-minded and animal-like; we get a lot of shots over his shoulder of her backing away, terrified. Even after 40 years, it's not a particularly easy scene to watch. In Kazan's original version, there are reaction shots of Brando, and with two human beings in the scene instead of just a frightened woman and a subhuman brute, the act, though still horrible, has some complexity and recognizable humanity. Ironically, the uncensored rape is not as pornographic as the one created by the guardians of public decency.
The censors were extremely nervous about the sexuality of Stella, Blanche's sister and Stanley's wife. Female sexual desire has always been a topic to make Hollywood jittery, and in Stella, Williams created a figure still disturbing today: a woman whose sexual need for her husband is so strong that she will put up with being beaten by him and lie to herself about his destruction of her sister.
But interestingly enough, it is in the cut version that Stella seems more like a stereotypical dope/victim. The restored footage comes in the scene where she returns to Stanley after his famous bellowing cry, "Stella! Stella!! Stelllaaa!!!" As Kim Hunter, who plays Stella, slowly descends the stairs to him, there are two close-ups of her face: Her mouth is sensual, her eyes acknowledge with satisfaction the desperation to which she can reduce her husband. You suddenly realize that Stanley and Stella are in the marriage together, each getting what he or she wants and needs. It is this elementary sexual union that Blanche, to her ultimate sorrow, attempts to shatter.
In terms of style and mores, 1951 was a long time ago, and certainly there are elements of Kazan's direction -- some overwrought, hothouse effects -- that seem dated now. So does the acting, with the startling exception of Brando, who burns on the screen. Leigh is excellent, but as Kazan noted about the stage production with Tandy, "Hers seemed to be a performance; Marlon was living onstage." Brando's performance as Stanley is one of those rare screen legends that are all they're cracked up to be: poetic, fearsome, so deeply felt you can barely take it in. In the hands of other actors, Stanley is like some nightmare feminist critique of maleness: brutish and infantile. Brando is brutish, infantile and full of a pain he can hardly comprehend or express. The monster suffers like a man.
The other element about the movie that hasn't dated is Kazan and Williams's startlingly adult view of sexuality. Williams led a guilt-ridden but active gay life, and Kazan, as "A Life" amply illustrates, was a man of considerable heterosexual appetite and sophistication. Brando seems more dangerous in his sweaty T-shirt and Leigh more alluring in her demure slip than most present-day actors manage to be when naked. This is not because of that old saw about leaving something to the imagination, but because Kazan and Williams understand that sexual tension is at its height during the manipulations before people actually get to the bed. Clothed though it may be, Blanche and Stanley's battle of the sexes is one of the bloodiest and most vicious ever filmed.