Before hack impressionists imitated Marlon Brando by mumbling “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse,” they imitated him by screaming, “Stella!” Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski is a bully who beats his wife and is meant to be hated. But he is also the only naturalistically portrayed character in Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, which is filled otherwise with drapery-chewing “types” declaiming their lines to the theoretical balconies. No wonder we, like Stella, love him despite his ways.
I am certain that Blanche, Stella, Mitch and the others are meant to be overlarge, artificial metaphors, stereotypes in the good sense, like Kabuki characters, opera personae, or simple hieroglyphic “gods” and “demons” who represent tightly-packed clusters of fault and virtue. Blanche, for example, represents culture and refinement — which is to say she represents deception (self- and otherwise), compromises (of every kind) and manipulation, too. I suspect that Stanley was supposed to be broadly-painted and stereotypical, as well, but that Brando wasn’t capable, or wasn’t willing, to go that route. Instead, Stanley comes alive from the very first moment he starts yammering fake-distractedly about the Napoleonic Code, as a fierce intelligence trapped in an uneducated brain, and as a real live believable human being, trapped in a film full of outrageous, theatrical grotesques. His brutality should disgust and distance us from him, but if you or I were living day in and day out in a sweltering New Orleans apartment filled with screaming, mugging, wackadoodle Edwardian-era melodramatists, we’d probably be surly sons of bitches, too.
Or so say I.