‘She brought everything I intended to the role and even much more than I had dared dream of.’ Is there really anything else to be said? If Tennessee Williams praises a performance of his most famous female character in a movie based on his most famous play with such clear words, then there cannot be any doubt that the actress in question has done a job that surpasses usual indicators of quality and reached a level of excellence that can only rarely be seen on the screen and offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone involved – the playwright who watches as his words become reality, the audience which becomes deeper and deeper involved into this unsettling and yet so fascinating characterization and the actress herself who leaves an everlasting imprint in the history books of movie acting. And even more astonishing in this case is the fact that the actress in question had already done the same thing 12 years earlier on exactly that same, almost unreachable level of excellence. It’s one of the most famous movie facts of all time that British actress Vivien Leigh secured two of the most famous American female movie characters of all time – first the coquettish, beautiful and manipulative Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara in Hollywood’s most famous epic Gone with the Wind and in 1951 the faded, delusional and mentally breaking Southern Belle Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar named Desire. Her work as Scarlett O’Hara is probably the single most famous motion picture performance of all time, a legendary case of actress and role fitting together so perfectly that even the thought of another performer in this part seems completely absurd. In this role, she twirled the screen and forever defined the character of the Southern Belle, making her Scarlett selfish and loveable, mean-spirited and delightful, empty and deep. The normal path for Vivien Leigh after this astonishing work should have been the way it was until 1950 – a career of several movie and stage roles that helped her go on proving her seriousness of her craft that would never again reach that same level of complexity and perfection. But in 1951, Vivien Leigh suddenly returned to the Oscars with a performance that would, as perplexing at is may seem, make her Scarlett O’Hara ‘only’ the second-greatest piece of work she had ever done. Her Blanche DuBois is a creation that haunts and hurts the viewer, a woman who so shatteringly walks down a road of self-destruction while being pushed down this road at the same time and she portrayed this slow, drawn-out mental break-down with a delicacy and heartbreaking anguish that is almost peerless among her craft.
Interestingly, director Elia Kazan apparently did not think as much of Vivien Leigh as Tennessee Williams did – he talked about her as an actress small talent but whose vast determination would have made her crawl through broken glass if she had thought it would help her performance. Well, Elia Kazan is maybe not the best judge in this case – or to put it better, not the most neutral judge. I’m sure that, among the method actors who slowly conquered the acting world, Gone with the Wind was seen as the highpoint of triviality and melodramatic movie acting from those melodramatic days of old Hollywood and Vivien Leigh, with her past as Scarlett O’Hara, certainly did not fit Kazan’s own criteria for great actors – he surely had much more admiration for Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden who had all originated their parts in A Streetcar named Desire on the Broadway stage and Kazan was surely not too pleased when the studio insisted to replace Jessica Tandy, who originated the role of Blanche on the Broadway stage and won a Tony for it, with Vivien Leigh, who was considered a bigger box-office drawn than the unknown Tandy. But Elia Kazan’s criticism as well as his ‘compliment’ on her determination feels rather difficult to be taken seriously – of course, everybody is entitled to his/her opinion but a performance like that of Vivien Leigh cannot only be explained with determination. A lot of actors and actresses display enormous amounts of determination and while this is certainly a very important ingredient for a truly outstanding performance, it cannot replace the necessary talent and abilities. And also: didn’t Vivien Leigh disappear more into the role of Blanche DuBois than her method-acting cast mates? She famously later blamed her performance as Blanche DuBois for causing her own mental problems, she felt that the role tipped her over the edge, grabbed her and never let her go again. It’s maybe the opposite of the acting style of Brando, Hunter and Malden who used their own personality first before finding themselves in their roles and later leaving it again – but Vivien Leigh’s own personal problems made her performance as Blanche DuBois just the same irreplaceable meeting of actress and part as it was 12 years earlier with her and Scarlett O’Hara, even if the consequences resulted in such a personal tragedy. But it’s not difficult to imagine Vivien Leigh being hunted by Blanche DuBois for the rest of her life – she seemed to go so deep into this character that she not only played her, but understood her, felt like her, suffered like her and slowly feel into the darkness of her own mind. It’s basically impossible to think that Vivien Leigh stopped being Blanche DuBois at the end of the day and became her again the next morning – such a level of abandoning one’s own personality can only be explained with a complete surrender to the part one is playing and letting it take over every aspect of one’s own existence. Of course, Blanche DuBois was not completely new to Vivien Leigh – she had already played the role on the London stage under the direction of her husband Laurence Olivier, a run that surely was the beginning of her own connection to this tormented soul and helped her to perfect her understanding in the movie version that would follow.
10 years after A Streetcar named Desire, another movie version of a Tennessee Williams play would again lead the playwright to extensive praise of an actress – but while Geraldine Page’s acting style was more that of a machine that could produce every single human emotion with exact precision, Vivien Leigh portrayed Blanche DuBois with much more emotional closeness that allowed her to completely fit into the form of her character while Geraldine Page preferred to control her characters from a distance. Overall, Vivien Leigh’s acting style is probably the biggest key to her success in this role – yes, there is melodrama in her performance which would make it easy to dismiss her work next to the raw brutality and sensitivity of Marlon Brando and the warm earthiness of Kim Hunter but this melodrama so wonderfully clashes with everything around her that it only helps to increase the loneliness of this woman, her cherishing of days gone by, her inability to cope with the people and reasons that confront her and the intensity of her growing isolation, mentally and physically. Stanley may be called a survivor of the Stone Age by Blanche but Marlon Brando was able to fill his role with an amount of tenderness and child-like dependence that naturally worked in perfect harmony with his brutality, roughness and cruelty and resulted in a performance that is a landmark in pure human force on the screen. Vivien Leigh crafted her own tour-de-force differently, turning Blanche into a passive creature, a woman who is shifted and influenced by the characters around her, who retreats herself more and more into her own mind even though it’s the most dangerous place for her to be. The clash of these two acting styles, these two completely different actors and characters and their chemistry of hate, rejection but also sexual lust is the driving force of A Streetcar named Desire. Vivien Leigh is the antithesis to Marlon Brando just as much as Blanche DuBois is the antithesis to Stanley Kowalski. Today, A Streetcar named Desire is often referred to as a ‘Marlon Brando movie’ but for me, it’s Vivien Leigh who carries the picture and has to handle one of the most challenging parts ever written and in which she not only plays but also evokes all different kind of emotions. Very few other performances are able to pull the viewer so completely into their own misery until the pain and desperation felt on the screen seems to be felt by everyone watching it. But Vivien Leigh portrayed the mental breakdown and humiliation of Blanche DuBois not only on this emotional, but also on an intellectual and psychological level.
Just like Blanche appears out of thick fog at the beginning of A Streetcar named Desire on the movie screen, she also seems to appear out of another world in the environment of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Her delivery of the line ‘Can this be her home’ shows how unable Blanche is to connect to her new surroundings and how she prefers to live in a world of memories, good and bad. Blanche was looking for a kind of security that she will never find here. For the entire movie, Vivien Leigh sustains this aura of inexplicability, of mysteriousness, even when her character has been stripped down of all secrets, of all privacy and all dignity. By focusing on these effects of Blanche, Vivien Leigh was able to create her desperation and helplessness without making it too obvious. Her performance never turns into a display of ‘Look what I can do!’ but instead she fulfilled the task of working with the realism that this movie version demands and the delicacy and otherworldliness of the character of Blanche. Blanche DuBois may want magic instead of realism – Vivien Leigh gave us both, the realism of a harrowing break-down and the magic of a performance was able to realize it with almost poetic beauty that brings absolute justice to the writing of Tennessee Williams and the character of Blanche. She can be real and surreal at the same moment – walking around in the dark, laughing about liquor while trying to prevent Mitch from speaking the truth he came to say, yelling at him for a short moment before she becomes a desperate girl again and creates a moment that is almost like an imaginary dream that unwillingly pulls the viewer more and more inside. Like so many heroines in his plays, Blanche is destroyed by both her own longings and the actions of the people around her. In the case of Blanche, it is never clear if she is truly a victim or an offender – she is exposed to the mental and physical abuse of Stanley which pushed her already delicate condition further and further into a state of madness but she also looks back at a past of sexual behavior that may have been caused by her inability to cope with the memory of her husband’s death but also does not excuse an affair with a pupil. In her interpretation, Vivien Leigh may overall have gone the ‘sympathy road’, playing Blanche mostly as a desperate victim (Jessica Lange’s Blanche DuBois showed her sexual interest in Stanley in various scenes in which Vivien Leigh played her with fearful shame) but this interpretation is in no way easier than another one might have been and Vivien Leigh was brave enough to find some moments in her work in which she leaves it open for everyone to decide how much sympathy and understanding she truly deserves. Blanche is clearly a manipulative woman who tries to lie her way out of her own memories and into the lives of Stella and Mitch. Also, her fake attitude that she has built for herself, that cheerful, high-pitched naïve little girl that dreams to be a Southern Belle is often hard to take and makes it even understandable that Stanley would not want her in the house. Blanche’s arrival destroys the balance that has existed in the marriage of Stella and Stanley as her behavior affects everyone around her and almost even takes everyone down with her. In this way, Vivien Leigh did not corner the other performances of the movie but every character is allowed to develop its own intentions and thoughts.
Vivien Leigh does thankfully not exaggerate the dreams of a Southern Belle. Her Blanche DuBois is not a successor of Scarlett O’Hara – in A Streetcar named Desire, Vivien Leigh demonstrates beautifully how Blanche uses the masque of that cheerful woman to hide all the overwhelming worries to haunt her constantly. This way, she did not turn into a squeaky, fake and unbearable creation like Mary Pickford’s Norma Besant in Coquette but instead made it clear that any melodrama or stylized approach is part of her characterization and not of her performance. The fact that both of Vivien Leigh’s Oscar-winning portrayals are some kind of Southern Belles would make it easy to see Blanche DuBois as an alter ego of Scarlett O’Hara but where Scarlett O’Hara had the strength to adjust herself to a new life, to new circumstances and situations, Blanche DuBois is exactly the opposite as she cannot leave the past behind, lets it haunt and torture her, influence her actions and finally break her. The suicide of her love, a deed she indirectly provoked, has destroyed something inside her but she does not use her fantasies to escape reality but rather becomes dominated by her past, constantly hearing the music that was playing when her husband killed himself, waiting desperately for the shot to make it stop. It’s hard to imagine Scarlett O’Hara being so completely affected by anything that happens in her life. Scarlett O’Hara also existed in a different world of plantations and Southern gallantry while Blanche DuBois comes to life in a small, Black-and-White character study in which Vivien Leigh receives no support from opulent costumes, a sweeping score or fancy Art Direction – in A Streetcar named Desire, she has nothing but herself to rely on.
Playing a character so close to the edge of sanity, almost near a mental breakdown is incredibly hard to pull off without over-acting or doing a collection of ‘crazy tics’. And so, Vivien Leigh has to be applauded even more for letting everything she is doing appear so natural while emphasizing every single emotion Blanche is feeling and experiencing. Her delicate appearance perfectly matches Blanche’s fragility while her voice helps her wonderfully to express the different states of minds she is experiencing. She can pronounce her own name with a tone that seems to come right from the graveyard in which almost all of her family members have retired and she can laugh during her date with Mitch in the most girlish giggle. With all this, she found the harrowing core in what could have been an exaggerated portrayal. She combines the naivety of a lost girl with the self-assurance of a lustful woman – her Blanche is stuck somewhere in her own development, unable to become her own person. She can throw Mitch out of the apartment by exposing a scream that is half anger and half fear, she can appear almost like a dark ghost out of the worst nightmare when she recounts to Mitch about her downfall while leaving the viewer puzzled if they should feel their heart break out of pity or feel their heart stop out of anxiety. Vivien Leigh also finds constantly new nuances in Blanche, breaking down when Cola is spilled on her dress and later angrily pushing her sister away who tries to comfort her after Stanley shouted at her. A scene of her seducing a young man/boy is as disturbing as it is painful and Vivien Leigh portrays the constant spiral downwards which is Blanche’s life with a straight-forwardness that catches all her illusions and fears. This also underlines the fact that Blanche is, essentially, a very straight-forward role that clearly tells an actress what to do and how to do it (unlike Stanley who leaves more room for interpretation) – but the role itself is already so demanding that even with the guidance of Tennessee Williams’s words, a failure could come very easily. The scene in which Vivien Leigh discusses the loss of her old home with Stanley, presenting him letters from lawyers and then fighting with him for the old lovers of her husband shows how completely she lost herself in the role, finding Blanche in every body movement and line delivery. When she talks about her past with her husband and the night he killed himself, Vivien Leigh shows Blanche completely lost in her own thoughts, overwhelmed by her memories while also appearing to be having waited for years to share these moments with somebody, anybody. Who is Blanche? Who does she want to be? These questions seem never clearly answered – Blanche may say that she never lied in her heart but does this not mostly mean that she never lied to herself? This is certainly true because the masque that she has build only exists to fool others but never herself. Blanche always exposes little bits of truth whenever she is forced to, hoping to receive affection and acceptance in return. Vivien Leigh also constantly acts these two Blanches – one on the outside whom she expresses with her body, face and voice and one on the inside who listens to imaginary musical pieces and is always tormented by her own doings and thoughts whom she expresses only with her eyes.
Blanche says that she wants Mitch very much and later even begs him to marry her. But it’s always rather doubtful if Blanche is really looking for this kind of love or if this is a last attempt by her to escape her old life even though it only fastens her circle of destruction and self-destruction – or if she is truly able to even feel this kind of love anymore. It seems that for her, everything is better than that music inside her head but her body mostly appears like an empty shell with a dead soul living inside. ‘Death…the opposite is desire’, Blanche expresses. She may have lived a life of desire for a long time but she did not only take the streetcar named desire but also one called ‘Cemetery’ and the apartment of Stanley and Stella will be place at which she will be crushed like a flower. She has build a cage for herself in her own mind but also in this apartment which secures her from the outside world, from the woman selling flowers for the death but also keeps her locked inside with Stanley whose unwillingness to understand her and his willingness to torture her will finally break her completely. Her final scenes are among the most disturbing displays of human humiliation ever presented – the way she hides behind the curtain like a scared animal and then tries to fight against the nurse while howling like a wounded animal show how much of her dignity and self-understanding as a human being have been taken away from her. At one point, Stella accuses Stanley that men like him have destroyed Blanche and forced her to change but when she delivers her famous last line ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’, it becomes clear that she was destroyed by all sorts of men, by her own deeds, by words, by actions and much more because she existed in her own world that simply had to collide with the harsh reality of her life some day. Blanche may cheerfully hum ‘Paper Moon’, a song about believe, make-believe and the closeness of reality and illusion – but for her, this make-believe cannot last.
Many actresses have played the role of Blanche DuBois. So it’s maybe wrong to say that only Vivien Leigh could play her but it’s certainly not wrong to say that nobody can ever top her. Her Blanche is a mysterious, pathetic, lovely, charming, appealing, tragic, fragile, hopeless and helpless creation that has stood the test of time in the most glorious way. At the end, the viewers feel as if they have known her all her life, to watch her fall and being violated felt too unbearable to remain at a distance and Vivien Leigh gives one of the few performances that make the viewers feel actually helpless but the truth is that we hardly know anything at all about her. She leaves the movie with just as many questions as she entered it and even though Vivien Leigh showed that Blanche was constantly pushed further and further to the edge of her own mind while walking towards it at the same time, she still did not gave an answer to all the mysteries that surround her. She’s a woman who lived behind a thin veil of illusions until these illusions were crashed and destroyed and led her to be unable to separate between them and reality anymore. In realizing all this, Vivien Leigh gave a performance that dug so deeply in this character’s mind and portrayed such unforgettable moments, that it is one of a few movie performances that can truly be called a work of art, that serves the movie it is set in while also existing in its own universe, proofing once and for all the greatness of her talent and standing as a symbol for movie acting at its finest. So it no surprise that for all her talent, determination, willingness, honesty, helplessness, desperation, fear, panic, happiness, suffering and incomparable excellence, Vivien Leigh receives