30 October 2001 | gbrumburgh-1
Earnest but pallid TV remake, with performances washed away by the originals.
You can't improve upon perfection. Remember that, all you young, impressionable, earnest Hollywood executive types out there even thinking about a TV remake of `Citizen Kane.' Back in 1984, some daring soul decided to re-film the immortal 1951 classic, `A Streetcar Named Desire.' After 33 years it was bound to happen I suppose, but, I thought, with the right mix of talent, it is not unfathomable to think that a decent, even above-average production could be had.
Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando put their indelible stamps on the roles of Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski, and time simply refuses to erode their puissant images. Elia Kazan's stark and stagy production, despite its sanitization by the Hollywood production code, made a landmark impact in Hollywood, pushing film into a new era of mature adult themes. It remains one of my 'top 5' movies of all time. Moreover, this is THE movie that single-handedly venerates the genius of one of America's foremost playwrights, Tennessee Williams.
All right, back to reality. This TV replica was almost unbearable to watch. A drowsy, perfunctory adaptation to say the least, I'll give it an extra point in that its intentions were honest and sincere, but this version is totally eclipsed by its predecessor both in raw power and sheer theatricality. In fact, not a single aspect of this production challenges the original in any way, shape or form.
As Blanche, the frail, illusory, emotionally unbalanced charmer who depended on the kindness of strangers, it appears that Ann-Margret had virtually no one, not even herself, to depend on here. Quoting the late critic Pauline Kael from another infamous review, this actress runs the gamut of emotions from `A' to `B.' It is merely a facsimile of a performance. There is nothing harder to `reel' in than a star playing a Southern belle. It seems to bring out the very worst in Hollywood actresses. Ms. Margret's aggressive performance is littered with irksome, Southern-baked affectations and unsubtle acting choices. And the harder she bears down on this tortured creature, the more unintended laughter she elicits -- none more so than the scene where Blanche's treasured love letters have fallen to the floor, having been touched and tarnished by Stanley. The way Vivien's Blanche grappled for and embraced her private recollections is heart-breaking. With Ann-Margret, she could have been holding junk mail. Even the reading glasses she wears in that scene look funny and fake on her.
The truly lamentable fact is that Ms. Margret really, really, REALLY tries. After the 1970 movie `Carnal Knowledge' came out, she beat down her "sex kitten" label and received the good seal of approval by film critics, but she is still identified with her feline roles in `Viva Las Vegas' and `Kitten With a Whip.' This is an altogether different undertaking. She is not classically-trained, or even stage-trained for that matter, and, with all due respect, it shows. By the way, she received some highly positive reviews, even earning an Emmy-nomination in the process. I don't know -- either there was a shortage of good performances that year or a gallant gesture for her effort. A much better TV-movie for her was the touching "Who Will Love My Children," which was shot the year before.
Lost as well, Treat Williams, who has strutted his stuff to good effect in other potent material (`Prince of the City') has neither the strut nor stuff to even infer the magic Brando brought to Stanley Kowalski. And the exciting cat-and-mouse chemistry between Blanche and Stanley is strictly high school. Only Beverly DeAngelo as sister Stella displays a freshness that actually threatens to rise above its mediocre surroundings, but she is defeated at almost every juncture by the less-than-adequate interplay with Ann-Margret and Williams. Randy Quaid completes the quartet, merely OK as the sensitive oaf who is taken in, then repelled by Blanche's charms. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden have nothing to worry about.
This `Streetcar,' is filled with unexciting passengers and hits dead-ends wherever it goes. Avoid it and take the `A' train, via the original. By the way, in 1995, Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin took their much-heralded Broadway roles to TV, faring somewhat better. Although the always interesting Lange makes some bold, original choices for Blanche that's worthy of a look, Baldwin is much too cerebral to make a dent as the animalistic Stanley.
Like I said, if it ain't broken...