The Oliviers Unhinged: A Streetcar Named Desire and Sleuth

Kendra over at Viv and Larry is hosting an Oliviers appreciation blogathon and I have been trying to figure out what I wanted to write about for my contribution for awhile. Laurence Olivier was nominated for eleven Academy Awards over a five decades (nine for Best Actor, one for Best Supporting Actor and one for Best Director), as well as receiving two honorary awards. His only competitive win was Best Actor for Hamlet (the film also won Best Picture). Vivien Leigh was only nominated for two Academy Awards over the years, both for Best Actress: Gone With The Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire. She won both times. Two were married for twenty years (it ended in divorce), made a handful of  films together and worked extensively together in the theater. Have you got all of that? So, obviously, there is a lot of material there and a lot of ways to approach writing about them, together or separately. I finally decided to take a look at two of their Oscar-nominated performances, in separate films, that touch on madness. Beware: there are quite a bit of spoilers after the cut.

A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951 (dir. Elia Kazan)

When we first see Blanche DuBois in this film she is already pretty fragile. She hasn’t told her sister the whole truth about why she’s visiting (or how long she intends to visit). Blanche has not had an easy life and she prefers to live in the haze of fantasy. At first this all seems harmless, but with the introduction of the violent Stanley, her sister’s husband, things get a bit shaky. Stanley – brilliantly played by Marlon Brando in a game-changing performance – might just be a little off his rocker himself. At least, he’s got some issues with morality. Leigh is astounding through the first two-thirds of the film; she’s so fragile you really think she might snap at any minute. Every inch of Leigh seems fragile – not just her mental state.

After a brief flirtation with one of Stanley’s friends and what seems like a possible marriage proposal falls miraculously apart, Blanche devolves even further into her madness. This is where Leigh shines her brightest, pushing you as a spectator to limits with her madness. You know she’s crazy, you can tell this is not going to end well. But you can’t help but feel for Blanche, and hope that maybe someone will rescue her.

But this is based on a play written by Tennessee Williams, so you know that won’t happen. Instead, we get a (very drunk) Stanley – Blanche’s sister has just had a baby and is away at the hospital – he finds Blanche alone and picks at the threads of her delusion until everything unravels and she’s forced to face her true reality. It’s a brutal mental attack. One that’s followed by an even more brutal rape, though, since we’re still in the Hays Code era, it’s only alluded to and not shown. This is a hard scene to watch.

The film ends with Blanche completely broken and sent off to live the rest of her life in a mental asylum. It does seem, though, that she’s found her way back to a quasi-happy delusion state. Is this a happy ending? No. Bittersweet? Maybe. An essential classic? Absolutely.

Sleuth, 1972 (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

I wrote a little bit about this film in my January 2011 in film round-up post. In the film Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine play a cat-and-mouse came that escalates into violence. Both Caine and Olivier were nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards (losing to Marlon Brando in The Godfather) and the film was also nominated for Best Director and Best Score. Sleuth is actually one of only three films where the entire on-screen cast was nominated for an Academy Award (the other were Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!). When we first meet Olivier’s character, Andrew Wyke a wealthy writer of detective novels, he’s already a bit off – he’s dictating bits of his next novel into a recorder. Through the whole first seen with Milo Tindle (Caine) – who is actual having an affair with Wyke’s wife, Wyke remains a bit off-center and manic. This will only get worse.

After playing a game of pool, playing a little bit of dress-up and forcing Milo into a clown suit, Wyke then convinces him to do a fake robbery. This he later reveals is all a ruse to allow him to murder Wyke and call it a break in. Milo, and the audience, now knows that Wyke has been aware of Milo’s affair with his wife for quite some time now. This has led to a bit of a mental breakdown for Wyke, though he certainly doesn’t look at it that way.

The tables turn when Milo not only does not die, but also plays his own little game on Wyke. By this point in the film, both actors are full of so much energy it is insane. It’s almost like watching a really good game of tennis and you have no idea who is going to win and you just can’t look away even if the tension is killing you.

By the end of the film Wyke has pretty much lost the game (though, in a way, so has Milo) and the final scene is one of the creepiest I’ve ever seen – terrifying wind-up toys included. Olivier’s growth of character throughout the film is mesmerizing. I also love this performance because it just seems like Olivier was having so much fun while he was filming it. I mean, most of his performances are full of passion and precision and “great” acting, but this one seems the least like work and the most like he really was this guy. I am at a loss for the right words to articulate exactly what I mean, but if you’ve seen this film or when you see this film, I think you’ll understand what I mean.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on July 9, 2011, in Classic Film and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Nice article. Oh be still my heart Cain and Olivier in the same movie 🙂 Streetcar is so brilliant as well as heartbreaking – no one should miss it.

  2. Two amazing films! More people need to talk about Sleuth, seriously, I love Larry in it!

  3. This was great! You made us want to watch those films:) I like how you summed up each of the movies. Streetcar is such a good movie, but also a sad one. I agree with kungfumom no one should miss it. I would love to see Sleuth looks good. Keep up the great work your doing great. Once again thank you for sharing this:)

  1. Pingback: Let the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathon Begin!

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