Friday, March 16, 2007
The Other Blanche
For years now, I have been deeply curious about what Jessica Tandy might have been like as Blanche when A Streetcar Named Desire first played on Broadway. Tandy was the only one of the major players from the Broadway production, directed by Elia Kazan, who did not recreate her role for the film, also directed by Kazan. Instead, the role went to Vivien Leigh, who had played the role in London under the direction of her husband, Laurence Olivier. Leigh was a much bigger star than Tandy, of course, having won an Oscar for her performance in Gone With The Wind; and in the end she won another Oscar for her performance as Blanche, which is certainly memorable, although to some viewers nowadays --- to some of my students, at any rate --- it seems just a little too mannered. Kazan confessed later on that he actually preferred Tandy in the role because she was subtler. So did Karl Malden, who played Mitch; although he also emphasized that when he discussed this question with Marlon Brando, Brando had said he preferred Leigh, because she had brought a sexual energy to the role that Tandy had lacked.
I had always assumed that there was no objective evidence left for us to make a comparison, but the other day (while in fact looking to see if there was any video of the country-rock band, Tandy --- evidently not yet), I came across this clip on YouTube of Jessica Tandy recreating a bit of her performance in a monologue that was filmed for a television special on Tennessee Williams. Of course, this was probably filmed almost three decades after the original production: Tandy is grey-haired and a very different woman, and there is no Marlon Brando or Kim Hunter for her to play off. But still, it's interesting, and gives some clue to how the production must have differed from the film. Whereas Vivien Leigh gave the impression of being a sort of panicked song bird battering against the window of a room, struggling to escape from Stanley and everything he represented, Jessica Tandy seems more like a dignified, beautiful creature speaking about the instrument of its imminent extinction. She also seems more formidable than Leigh --- her struggle with Stanley must have seemed more like an even match, which would probably strengthen the play quite a bit. But, one can also see Brando's point about the sexuality: while it's easy to see this Blanche as a schoolteacher, it's a little more difficult to imagine her seducing a school boy. She seems too much in control of herself for anything quite so impulsive.
On a side note, it's also interesting to hear Tennessee Williams' voice at the beginning of the clip. It's easy to forget sometimes, just seeing him frozen in photos (like that great Yosef Karsh portrait above), that he was almost as broad a character in his own way as was Truman Capote (e.g., "collEEsion cohwrse"). And on a side note to my side note, I am very eager to see what Daniel MacIvor does with Williams in his new play, His Greatness, which is about the last year in Williams's life, and a new draft of which Daniel finished just the other day, according to his blog (see the bottom of this page).
Anyway, here's the Jessica Tandy clip: