Monday, July 21, 2014

Guest Blog Post: Thoughts on A Streetcar Named Desire and The Books “Brando’s Smile” and “Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait” By Intern Lola

By Lola, French intern

Legendary director Elia Kazan’s  A Streetcar Named Desire screened at the Egyptian Theatre on the 16th of July.

I saw this masterpiece for the first time when I was 18. I was looking for a movie to watch, so I Googled “100 movies you need to see before you die” and I decided to  randomly choose A Streetcar Named Desire. Not that randomly, actually. At that age, I only knew Marlon Brando for his performance in The Godfather and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind. I’d never seen a movie before with young Marlon Brando and I wanted to see what Vivien Leigh was able to do after her incredible performance in Fleming’s movie, rewarded by the Best Actress Oscar. I got a high school degree in Literature, so I heard a lot about the 1947 play written by Tennessee Williams during my classes.

Today, a lot of things made me want to see A Streetcar Named Desire one more time. First, it’s the 10th anniversary of Marlon Brando’s death, and it was a golden opportunity to see one of his best performances on the big screen. Marlon Brando remains one of the most important actors because of the way he had to get into roles. He was one of the first actors of his generation to apply Stanislavski’s techniques, which let the actors explore their own feelings and use their life experiences to play characters. Method acting results in very real performances, and this is why I’d wanted to watch Brando’s performance in this movie one more time. Knowing what I know now, it’s been interesting to better understand Brando’s powerful and deep performance in this movie and to see it in a different way. This time, I paid attention for more things in the movie than I did the first time.

A couple days ago I entered Skylight Books, a great bookstore in Los Feliz Village, and there was a book displayed on a shelf: “Marlon Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought and Work,” written by Boston University English teacher Suzan L. Mizruchi, who painted an informative portrait of the Legend.

In it she explained how Marlon Brando used his past experiences to get into the roles he played all his life, and how he liked to observe people to understand better human behaviors.

Wednesday’s screening of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Egyptian Theatre was introduced by writer Suzan L. Mizruchi herself, whose book I’d been so excited to discover. If Marlon Brando used his own feelings and experiences to play the scary but very virile Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, I‘m fascinated to understand to what extent his personal life and feelings influenced his other performances in masterpieces such as The Godfather or Apocalypse Now. His animal performance was incredible to see on the big screen. “Heyyyy Stellaaaaaaa”!

But that’s not all! This movie also confirms Vivien Leigh’s talent after seeing her in the 1939 Best Picture Oscar Winner Gone with the Wind. Vivien Leigh carries the movie. I was very moved by her performance in Streetcar. She is both fragile and strong, trying to struggle with her old fears. Her performance as Blanche Dubois is so real.

Today, Hollywood has advanced in the representation of women in film. In many films, producers and directors give women very strong roles. They save the world, they fight for causes and they can be real heroes, and real people. This hasn’t always been the case, so it’s interesting to see older films that focus on complex female characters. In this movie, we can see the weaknesses and the strengths of a woman and this is what I found very moving. At the time this movie was made, Vivien Leigh was struggling with a mental illness, as Leigh’s biographer Kendra Bean explained us. She said that Vivien Leigh didn’t let her problems overwhelm her. She kept going and making movies.

A Streetcar Named Desire is the kind of movie driven by its actors. I was very excited to hear from two writers who have led research about these two screen icons.

Kendra Bean spoke alongside Brando’s biographer Suzan L. Mizruchi to talk about her book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. She is the only writer who has researched Vivien Leigh’s relationship with Laurence Olivier and about her medical state. After having watched Gone with the Wind, Bean was very moved by the character of Scarlett O’Hara, so she started to read many books about Vivien Leigh.

The introduction by the two authors was so interesting. They both had access to all kinds of resources that previous writers focusing on Brando and Leigh didn’t tell.

Kendra Bean explained that she had access to Laurence Olivier’s files and was the first writer who looked for Vivien Leigh’s life moments in Olivier’s biography. She was married to him for 20 years. Laurence Olivier saved everything from his life so thanks to Kendra Bean’s work we can see how difficult Vivien Leigh’s illness was for her, but also for people around her. I also learned that Vivien Leigh was more appreciated in America than in England. In England, she did theatre. Her small voice didn’t reach the back of the gallery and in film, it does not matter. The moderator said that we admire her for her 2 Oscar-winning roles but most American people don’t know much of the rest of her work. Now, I really want to see her whole filmography!

I was impressed by what Susan Mizruchi told during the introduction. She had access to Marlon Brando’s library. Indeed, Brando read around 4000 books in his library in his house on Mulholland Drive. He mostly had science and psychology books. Mizruchi found out that Brando was somebody with very spiritual conversations. She found a Ruth Thomas book (one of Brando’s favorite authors) in which he’d scribbled many comments like “Oh come on!”, “How do you know that?”. She also had access to Brando’s personal scripts. Mizruchi said that there were two writers who Brando considered behind him: Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. So what we discover is that Brando used to rewrite his lines in movies. That’s why Elia Kazan was one of his favorite directors because he encouraged him to improvise. We didn’t know before Mizruchi’s work that Brando rewrote some of the best lines in The Godfather and now, we can explore that.
What is amazing is that she read everything Marlon Brando read. She has worked on this book for 6 years.

The moderator said he suspected that Marlon Brando did not win an Oscar for his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire because it’s not his film but Vivien Leigh’s film. For him, Elia Kazan wanted to make sure that the sympathy in the film was toward Blanche. But for Susan Mizruchi, Brando did not win this Oscar because he did not behave in Hollywood. He was from the beginning a rebel and an iconoclast.

I recommend Susan Mizruchi’s and Kendra Bean’s books on these fascinating figures because they show that no one is black and white.

“No one is holy evil and holy good,” -Tennessee Williams