Wednesday, November 27, 2002

I just finished A Streetcar Named Desire, which I started last night. In typical Ken Burnsian fashion, I watched it piecemeal, out of antsiness, and I think my appreciation of the film suffered from not watching it all at once. Live and learn. Or unlearn.

That said, Streetcar proved riveting, devastating. I tried to think when a movie last made me so upset, and what sprung immediately to mind, oddly enough, was The Hustler--the Piper Laurie character has something of Blanche DuBois about her, though God helps us, Piper Laurie is no Vivien Leigh. I guess what I find compelling and upsetting about both these characters is that I've been close to people like them, beautiful, wounded souls with obsessive, self-destructive tendencies.

The Roger Ebert article I link to above focuses on Marlon Brando, and with plenty of justification, I suppose. After I watched the first hour or so last night, Ereck asked me how it was going. I told him somewhat bitterly that nothing iconic had happened yet, except for Brando in a tee shirt...and then I realized that the iconic thing had happened, in spades. (And that is some tee shirt! Hubba!) Still, Brando's Stanley Kowalski leaves me a little cold, perhaps because Brando's Method mannerisms no longer cause the stir they did in 1951, and also just because Kowalski is so awful.

But if Brando is the reason I rented the film, Vivien Leigh is the reason I wept at it. I've underrated Vivien Leigh in the past, perhaps because she's most famous for Gone With The Wind, a film of which I am sometimes dismissive (even though it also makes me weep). But her Blanche is unforgettable. I'll forswear a thorough analysis right now, but allow me two observations: I love her devilish reading of Tennessee Williams's poisonous comic lines, as when she says of Kowalski, "A thousand years have passed him by!" And Leigh does something remarkable with her voice during a harrowing fight with Karl Malden; as we learn unpleasant truths about Blanche's past, Leigh drops her voice about an octave, into Bea Arthur's range.

I gather from the Ebert article that I watched the 1993 rerelease, with added footage that supposedly reveals a lot more than the censors allowed in 1951. Funny--I was just saying to Ereck how vague the film seems around its tawdry themes.

I rented Streetcar as part of an effort to fill in some holes. There are so many important movies I still haven't seen. More Brando needs to happen, for example. And then some Bergman. And some Kurosawa. (And some Vivien Leigh?) Would you believe I've never seen Casablanca?


Apropos of my linking to the Roger Ebert article: I've gotten funny reactions from people when I've told them I'm a giant Roger Ebert fan, have been one since I read him regularly in the Chicago Sun-Times. I think people have formed unflattering opinions about his film criticism on the basis of the fact that he's goofy on television. Which is true, and I find "At The Movies" a little maddening when I watch it, mostly because it's so short, and there's so little time for substance.

But Ebert's newspaper reviews are first rate, in my opinion, and also in that of the Pulitzer jury. More often than not, he has thoughtful, elegant things to say about all kinds of movies, and damned if he doesn't see everything. He also writes a question-and-answer column that I like, and--you'll pardon the morbidity--he writes superb tributes to movie legends when they die. I was particularly fond of one he wrote about Robert Mitchum, who died just after Jimmy Stewart did. Of course Ebert noted the synchronicity, but he also lamented the timing, since the death of the arguably more famous (and certainly more beloved) Stewart threatened to overshadow Mitchum's legacy. And then Ebert proceeded to present a case for Robert Mitchum as one of the greatest of all American movie actors. It's a risky claim, but I was grateful to Ebert for pointing me in the direction of a lot of Mitchum performances I might otherwise have missed. It seems to me that this is what a thoughtful, well informed critic can do--point us in directions. Ebert does it well.

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