In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), #47 on the list.
Much like Yankee Doodle Dandy, A Streetcar Named Desire is praised largely due to a remarkable performance at its center. Regardless of what you think of Tennessee Williams’s writing or Elia Kazan’s direction in adapting the material from stage to screen, Streetcar is synonymous with Brando’s powerhouse performance and infamous cry, “STELLA!” While I’m not as perplexed or incensed by Streetcar’s legacy being based almost solely on performance, I do think the reputation as a great American classic is somewhat unearned (sorry to spoil the reveal below), but I also think it’s unfair to only single out Brando. Without a doubt it’s a star-making performance, imbuing a detestable brute with unfathomable charisma, but Vivien Leigh more than holds her own against him, giving Blanche DuBois depth and dimension, conveying her anguish through a largely internalized performance.
The film’s major weakness, perhaps compounded by Leigh’s sensational performance, is that it plays like filmed theater. Kazan and prolific cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. do a lot with very little, utilizing the limited space within the apartment set and distinct camera angles to frame the psychological warfare that occurs within its walls, but it still feels far more theatrical than cinematic.
Does It Belong on the List?
No. There’s already a far superior Brando-Kazan pairing higher on the list: On the Waterfront. No need to shoehorn in a second just because it packs a more notorious performance and quote.
AFI Top 100 1951 a streetcar named desire AFI Top 100 american film institute elia kazan harry stradling sr marlon brando on the waterfront tennessee williams unspooled podcast vivien leigh yankee doodle dandy