by Melissa Strong
A Streetcar Named Desire is a hotbed of deception, full of characters lying to one another and to themselves. Viewers may feel deceived too as they piece together the story of the indelible Blanche DuBois and her relationships with her sister Stella and the men in her life. Streetcar is a masterwork of American drama and an important movie that continues to resonate in the twenty-first century. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) is a case in point: this well-received drama/thriller reinterprets characters and rehashes situations right out of Streetcar. Wait, what? Before we go there, let us first examine Streetcar’s lies.
Before it was adapted for film, Streetcar was a play by Tennessee Williams that received the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Jessica Tandy won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Blanche on stage. Tandy’s performance launched a career that spanned nearly five decades: maybe you know her as the old lady from Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Cocoon (1985). Elia Kazan directed the 1951 film that put the cast of Streetcar’s successful Broadway run on screen, with the notable, crucial exception of Tandy.
Why was Tandy replaced with Vivien Leigh? Leigh helped remake Tandy’s three-dimensional Blanche into a cartoon villain that deceives moviegoers of the character’s complexity. How? At the time of filming Leigh remained synonymous with Scarlett O’Hara, her character in Gone with the Wind (1939). Scarlett is ruthless, conniving, and selfish. You love to hate her, or hate to love her. On the other hand, Williams wrote Blanche as flawed and deceptive, yet fragile and sympathetic. The script even describes her as moth-like. Tandy, by all accounts, captured Blanche’s serious yet human imperfections on Broadway. Unwilling or unprepared to put that ambiguity on screen, the powers that be brought Leigh on board to replace a delicate moth with a praying mantis.
Admittedly, that moth is a disaster. Blanche is an uninvited, long-term guest in the too-small apartment of Stella and her husband Stanley during a steamy New Orleans summer and the final weeks of Stella’s pregnancy. Then there are the lies. Like most of us, Blanche fibs to seem like a better person. But these pile up into major lies that reflect a disconnect between who she is and has been, and the person she imagines or wants to be. Blanche lies about her drinking, she lies about her age, she lies about losing her job, and she lies through omission about a past that seems tragic in the play but like punishment in the movie.
Then there are the lies imagined and the truths hidden. Stanley thinks Blanche is lying about the loss of the family’s estate in order to cheat him and Stella. Stella keeps Blanche’s history from Stanley, which only fuels his conflict with Blanche. That conflict culminates in Stanley sexually assaulting Blanche while his wife delivers their baby. And while the end result is the complete dissolution of Blanche’s tenuous grasp on reality, both Stanley and Blanche hide the rape from Stella.
But the ultimate lie of the 1951 film is its omission of key details in Blanche’s past. Yes, it reveals that she was married to a sensitive boy, Allan, who died. However, in tidying up the play for midcentury moviegoers, the film leaves out that Allan was gay and Blanche blames herself for his death. Absent this backstory, the movie fails to sufficiently develop Blanche’s character and robs Williams’ play of its nuances. This lie is a cheat.
Martha Marcy May Marlene features Elizabeth Olsen as a contemporary take on Blanche. In her breakout role, Olsen portrays Martha, a character with a complicated and secret past who becomes a surprise guest staying indefinitely at the home of her sister Lucy and her husband Ted. Lucy (a terrific Sarah Paulson) is not pregnant, like Stella, but she is trying to conceive. Martha’s strange behavior, the audience learns, comes from trauma and fear: she fled a cult where awful things happened, including a troubling relationship with a man played to creepy perfection by John Hawkes. No kidding, Hawkes is the stuff of nightmares. But Martha hides her past from Lucy and Ted, so they simply see Martha as bizarre, annoying, and impossible. As Ted, Hugh Dancy is no young Marlon Brando, but he captures an iteration of masculinity that reflects the times, as Brando’s Stanley did. Equally important, scenes with Ted and Martha evoke both the power struggle between Blanche and Stanley and the paradox of their mutual attraction and revulsion.
Martha, just like Streetcar, is full of lies, yet the uncomfortably lifelike characters make it a story that rings true today. Just don’t rely on Streetcar to tell that truth.