Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Volpi Cup Winners: Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire"

(Won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 over Pier Angeli in "Teresa", Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday", Nora Swinburne in "The River", and Simone Valère in "The Night Is My Kingdom".)

Grade: *****

In an awards haul that would eventually net her a second Oscar, Vivien Leigh brings to life -- from the pen of Tennessee Williams -- surely one of the most introspectively challenging characters ever depicted on screen. Her Blanche Dubois is rather like what a 48 year-old Scarlett O'Hara might have amounted to, had she developed a feminine strain of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and forgot that the American Civil War even happened.

Arriving by streetcar Blanche at first appears to be one of those annoying relatives, who come to stay with low expectations of the life that you have made for yourself, and leave with an even sourer opinion. Upon her arrival she flounces around, primly studying Stella's bowling alley surroundings as one would a herd of cattle, and immediately addresses the issue of her sister's downward class-convergence. She coos, Miss Jean Brodie-esque in her Estuary version of Southern drawl, "Oh Stella, do you really live in this place?", continuing to spout from meaningless subject to meaningless subject. It's obvious that Blanche is a narcissistic conversationalist, content to talk through you if she thinks she's constructing a positive image of herself, hiding from the implications of her presence at the Kowalski residence.

Leigh's chatter, with its kooky erratic pitch, and its focusless shifting intonation, makes her so opaquely inaccessible that it's no wonder that Stella's husband Stanley finds her presence a maddening bother. As she flirts with a hapless, lovestruck Karl Malden like a sixteen year-old awake past her curfew it suddenly dawns on you that this woman is never going to face up to her age or her past. Leigh addresses Blanche's complete loss of identity, telegraphing the fluid literary majesty of a Jane Austen heroine into an ageing spinster, playing up to multiple facets and ideals of respectability to attain a marriage that she isn't sure that she wants anyway. Is Blanche just bored with existence? Destined to live a life more ordinary than the ones she teaches in her English class?

When you get two people that are either unwilling or unable to back down from their ideals, things are bound to end messily, and Blanche's inability to curb her worldly outlook eventually makes her the victim of the piece. The permanent state of self-imposed, disillusioned fragility etched on Leigh's face in Blanche's never-ending soliloquies, distort her playful artistry into such an artificially condescending tool. In the scene where Blanche and Stanley have their final showdown she flirts as Kay Francis would in the Thirties, attempting to mould Stanley into the fellow that he just ain't. Leigh lets Blanche revel and strain in gathering control of their exchange, fretfully backtracking as Stanley's infuriation grows. Blanche isn't sure whether she wants to be the sister that everyone loves, the "older" temptress, or the virgin bride, but whichever it is she wants it on her terms. Leigh does an incredible job in making each sly remark, each flippantly false self-diminishment, a clamouring attempt at affection, painfully exposing Blanche's motives when we least expect her to crack.

Leigh's own well-documented precarious mental state has often been cited as a reason behind the ambiguity in her "Streetcar" turn. However accurate an assessment that is, her work here is a complete physical embodiment of identity crises, and a gauntlet-throwing emotional immersion into the pressures of repressed female sexuality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An amazing review of the single best performance of all time! Brilliant!