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Blanche DuBois: Chasing Magic, Fleeing the Dark

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Blanche DuBois: Chasing Magic, Fleeing the Dark

Blanche DuBois: Chasing Magic, Fleeing the Dark

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, a movie actor who's getting some of her best roles in her 40s.

But first, Blanche DuBois, the central character of "A Streetcar Named Desire," is one of Tennessee Williams' most memorable characters. When she boarded the streetcar that will take her to her sister Stella's home in New Orleans, Blanche knows she's headed for a place where she does not belong and where she will soon discover, she is not wanted.

(Soundbite of play, "A Streetcar Named Desire")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Actor) Can I help you ma'am?

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As Blanche Dubois) Oh they told me that they got a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery and ride six blocks and get off at Collision Trail.

SIMON: Blanche DuBois is a character so rich and so complex that bringing her to life is one of acting's great challenges.

In this latest installment of our series In Character, NPR's Lynn Neary talks with some actresses who've taken on the role of Blanche.

LYNN NEARY: For an actress, playing Blanche DuBois is like climbing Mount Everest. The role is both physically and emotionally demanding. Actresses talk of losing their voice, suffering bouts of depression or having anxiety attacks while playing the part. Yet they covet the role. Glenn Close got her chance to play Blanche in 2002 under the direction of Trevor Nunn at the Royal National Theater in London.

Ms. GLENN CLOSE (Actress): Well Blanche is the center of the play. All of the action happens because of her. And she's a magnificent part.

NEARY: When Blanche arrives on her sister's doorstep, she is penniless and alone. A fading beauty, she's lost her job, her home and, it will soon be revealed, her reputation. Clinging to the past, she cannot face the reality of her life. She hangs Chinese lanterns around her sister's apartment to cover up her grim surroundings and tries to use her feminine wiles against the hostility of her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski.

The first actress to play Blanche was Jessica Tandy, who starred opposite newcomer Marlon Brando when "A Streetcar Named Desire" opened in 1947.

(Soundbite of play, "A Streetcar Named Desire")

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): (As Stanley Kowalski) Now what is the cost for a string of pearls like that?

Ms. JESSICA TANDY (Actress): (As Blanche Dubois) Why, those were a tribute from an admirer of mine.

Mr. BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski) Well, he must have a lot of admiration.

Ms. TANDY: (As Blanche Dubois) In my youth I excited some admiration but look at me now. Would you think it's possible that I was ever considered to be attractive?

NEARY: Tandy's performance is legendary. She made the role her own even though Brando's naturalistic acting style and overt sexuality threatened to overshadow her performance. When the play was made into a film, Vivien Leigh put her own stamp on the role of Blanche.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Streetcar Named Desire")

Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH (Actress): (As Blanche Dubois) Why, those were a tribute from an admirer of mine.

Mr. BRANDO: (As Stanley Kowalski): Well, he must have had a lot of admiration.

Ms. LEIGH: (As Blanche Dubois) In my youth I excited some admiration, but look at me now. Would you think it's possible that I was once considered to be attractive?

NEARY: Every actress who has played Blanche since is aware of both those performances which did so much to shape perceptions of the character. Yet each actress must encounter Blanche anew.

Michael Kahn, now the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C. directed a production of "Streetcar" at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey in the 1970s.

Mr. MICHAEL KAHN (Artistic Director, Shakespeare Theater Company): There's no one Hamlet, there's no one, you know, Lady Macbeth. There's no one Blanche DuBois. As a matter of fact, I think every Blanche who played it, that Tennessee saw, he would tell them that they were his favorite Blanche because each actress brought something to the role that might have been different than somebody else. And I think he liked that.

NEARY: Shirley Knight starred as Blanche in a production directed by Kahn. A few years later she did the role again because she felt she hadn't finished with the character. The second time Knight says, she came to a new understanding of the energy Blanche brings with her from the moment she appears.

Ms. SHIRLEY KNIGHT (Actress): She is from the onset a moth that's fluttering too near to the flame, and she never stops.

NEARY: It's important, says Knight, to capture that mothlike quality, to show how truly vulnerable Blanche is. Otherwise, Knight says, the audience can see Blanche as too self-centered and manipulative. If an actress gets Blanche right, Knight says, the audience will identify with her.

Ms. KNIGHT: Because we all are sometimes insecure or petty or looking down on other people or whatever she is, you know, wanting safety. And Blanche was searching for safety and she never had it.

Ms. ROSEMARY HARRIS (Actress): One thing I do know about her, that it's the loneliest part to live through that I've ever played on the stage.

NEARY: Rosemary Harris starred as Blanche in the 1973 Lincoln Center production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Ms. HARRIS: And most people even if they're unsympathetic characters like Lady Macbeth or somebody, at least she has Macbeth rooting for her. But there is nobody rooting for Blanche, and you go through that night after night and it begins to get to you. It's very, very lonely up there.

NEARY: What saves Blanche and makes her tragedy more bearable, says Harris, is her humor. Harris says too many people fail to see that parts of the play, especially some of the exchanges between Blanche and Stanley are meant to be funny.

Ms. HARRIS: They're very witty. They're very funny with each other. They spar, you know, strike sparks off each other. And it's a sort of sexual - it's obviously sexual right from the very beginning too. But it's a sexual thing with wit.

NEARY: Laila Robins, who played Blanche at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, agrees.

Ms. LAILA ROBINS (Actress): I think she just is funny because of the things that come out of her that you don't expect.

NEARY: In one of the most powerful speeches in the play, Blanche tries to convince Stella to leave Stanley. In Steppenwolf's production, Robins captured the humor in some of those lines.

(Soundbite of play, "A Streetcar Named Desire")

Ms. ROBINS: (As Blanche Dubois) He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits, eats like one, moves like one, talks like one. There's even something sub-human about him, something not quite at the stage of humanity yet.

NEARY: Blanche is a character filled with contradictions, and that Robins says, is the real challenge of the role.

Ms. ROBINS: As much as she wants to see beauty in life, and magic and propriety, and have this certain aesthetic, she's also an incredibly sensual, lonely, hungry woman. And you keep rocking back and forth between these things and trying to hold - literally hold yourself together.

NEARY: For Glenn Close, the key to Blanche is her strength. Underneath it all, says Close, Blanche is a survivor.

Ms. CLOSE: She is not physically strong anymore and she's certainly emotionally and psychologically fragile. But she's not giving up. She just doesn't give up. She fights to the - I mean she fights him at the very end.

(Soundbite of glass breaking)

Ms. CLOSE: I found that very moving and a very important aspect of a character.

(Soundbite of play, "A Streetcar Named Desire")

Unidentified Man #2: (As Stanley Kowalski) Why did you do that for?

Ms. ROBINS: (As Blanche Dubois) So I could twist a broken end in your face.

Unidentified Man #2: (As Stanley Kowalski) But you wouldn't do that.

Ms. ROBINS: (As Blanche Dubois) I would. I will if you…

Unidentified Man #2: (As Stanley Kowalski) Oh. Well, a little red fox, huh? All right, let's have a little red fox.

NEARY: Strong as she may be, Blanche Dubois is ultimately no match for the brute strength of Stanley Kowalski. And when her own sister refuses to believe that Stanley raped her, the delicate mothlike Blanche is finally broken. But Glenn Close says at the end of the play, she was still determined to show Blanche's inner strength.

Ms. CLOSE: It seemed right to me that when she's kind of listed out at the end by the doctor being taken off to whatever asylum she's going to end up in, that you see her putting herself back together enough to leave with a sense of dignity, because she had spent so much energy keeping herself together.

NEARY: And so when Blanche Dubois holds on to the arm of the doctor who is taking her away and tells him, she has always depended on the kindness of strangers, she turns her own tragedy into an unexpected moment of grace.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: And on our Web site, we've gathered a gallery of famous Blanches plus scenes from the film. It's all at npr.org/incharacter, all one word. While you're there, you can nominate a character who's made a difference in your life. We might put your essay on the air.

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