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Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — “A Streetcar Named Desire”

The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.

Tennessee Williams’s celebrated play had a difficult road to the screen thanks to the ever watchful Hays Office and its butt buddy for life, the Catholic League of Decency. Due to the play’s references to homosexuality and rape, there were some 68 script changes from the stage to screen. Still unsatisfied, the Legion of Decency ordered further scenes to be cut from the film without director Elia Kazan’s knowledge. But not even the most vigorous, Joan Crawfordian scrubbings could cleanse the scandal from Williams’s Southern Gothic masterpiece and the gay subtext remains for the most part in tact. And thanks to a restored version of the film, that gay subtext comes drunkenly tripping out of the closet clutching Blanche DuBois’s negligee.

The LEGENDARY Ms. DuBois is a fading Southern belle, brought to ferocious life by Vivien Leigh, who had originated the role in the London production under the direction of her husband, Sir Larry Olivier. Blanche shows up in a cloud of smoke, mystery and fancy French perfume in New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her brutish husband, Stanley, played by Marlon Brando in a landmark performance. Rounding out the cast is Karl “Rudolph the Red Nose” Malden, who along with Hunter and Brando had starred in the original Broadway production of Streetcar. In fact, a majority of the Broadway cast was brought onto the film with the exception of noted backseat driver Jessica Tandy, who was replaced with Leigh, a bigger box office draw at the time. Having won an Oscar — and life — in Gone with the Wind, the English-bred Leigh was no stranger to playing Souther belles. This time, however, Scarlett O’Hara loses not only Tara, but also her goddamn mind.

Blanche is a woman of, shall we say, “ill repute” fleeing the memory of her young husband, who committed suicide. Williams never definitively says why he killed himself, but it’s pretty clear the boy was gay.

In Williams’s world, tender, nervous, uncertain poets end up dead for their weakness (homosexuality) much like Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, who is literally devoured by his desires. Blanche found out about her husband’s indiscretions and either cruelly rebuked him or outed him in their small town.

She feels guilty for his death and his presence looms large in her increasingly delusional flights from reality. Exacerbating her already fragile mental state is Stanley, a carnal, primal force of nature. Now, before we go any further, can we just take a moment to appreciate what a fine piece of ass Marlon Brando was 63 years ago?

Has anyone ever looked better on screen? I mean, Stanley Kowalski was walking sex. Walking, screaming, drunkenly violent sex. Which goes a long way towards explaining the men I’m attracted to in life, but I digress. So it’s no wonder the Legion of Decency got its panties in a (moist) bunch: a shirtless, sweaty 27-year-old Marlon Brando was the most indecent thing they’d seen on the screen up till then.

And Blanche’s attraction to Stanley is evident from the beginning.

But then again, Blanche is pretty much attracted to any man who shows her the slightest bit of attention. Blanche is no genteel lady of refinement as she would have everyone believe and Stanley sees through that delicate balancing act. He knows what she actually is: a predator.

Turns out she’s not taking a leave of absence from her job a an English teacher, but rather that she was run out of town like the monster she’s being made out to be for seducing a 17-year-old student. Of course, any woman with a sexual appetite is terrifying. Almost as terrifying as a homosexual. Therefore, critics have long theorized that Blanche DuBois is in fact a gay man, due largely to behavior stereotypically attributed to gay men:

Her avoidance of direct lighting.

Her obsession with youth and beauty.

Her penchant for dramatics and histrionics.

What drag queen hasn’t screamed this while sorting through a pile of discarded wigs and support hose?

Her lasciviousness.

She’s particularly attracted to beautiful, young men who remind her of her late husband…or perhaps of his proclivities.

Some have even suggested that Blanche wants to take the place of her tragic lover, behaving as he would, or as she believed he would.

To wit, Blanche is in the closet just as her husband was, and they’re both outcasts as a result of their sexual desire. The homosexual has to die for his sins, while the wanton woman is systematically beaten down and ultimately neutralized; her sexuality obliterated, violently and deliberately.

Her final exit is one of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema, as she innocently takes the hand of the doctor who will commit her.  

Seriously, though, could you die?

As homosexuality was classified as a mental illness until 1973, gays knew all too well that Blanche’s fate — or the fate of her unseen husband — could easily be their own. Between death and being ruled insane, it was easier to just stay in hiding. While the Hays Code and the Legion of Decency won many battles for the moral majority, films like A Streetcar Named Desire still managed to push boundaries and put up a hell of a fight:

And the Hays Office was fighting a losing battle.

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