Stella! Behind-The-Scenes Facts About A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire established Tennessee Williams as a major playwright and is seen as a classic to this day. The film adaptation gave us the highly quotable “Stella!,” a line uttered by the then Hollywood newcomer, Marlon Brando. You may be surprised to hear that Brando’s character was inspired by a real person, and that the famous Desire streetcar really did run through New Orleans. Read on for more fascinating facts about the decades-old play and the film that’s still iconic as ever.

The Play Was Named After An Actual Streetcar

Bus and Streetcar Named Desire
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The title A Streetcar Named Desire can be interpreted as a symbol of the play itself, but it also comes from a literal streetcar in New Orleans. It ran from 1920 to 1948 and ended at Desire Street, giving it the name Desire Line.

Ironically, the streetcar was replaced by buses not long after the play made it famous. However, one of the streetcars that ran along the line was restored and made into a tourist attraction in 1967. It was also used in the opening scenes of the movie.

The Setting Is Tennessee Williams’s “Spiritual Home”

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Roy Pinney/Three Lions/Getty Images
Roy Pinney/Three Lions/Getty Images

A Streetcar Named Desire’s New Orleans setting wasn’t random. Playwright Tennessee Williams had a tumultuous upbringing that included several moves due to his father’s job as a traveling salesman. When Williams, then known by his birth name of Thomas, went to college he studied at schools in Missouri, Iowa, and New York.

He spent some time working on a farm in California before finding his “spiritual home” in New Orleans at the age of 28. It was here that he wrote stories and plays inspired by the famous French Quarter, and adopted the pen name Tennessee Williams.

Jessica Tandy Was The Only Lead Not Cast In The Film

Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Even though Jessica Tandy won a Tony for her role of Blanche in the Broadway show, the actress wasn’t cast in the film adaptation. Producers kept the other original leads, but they wanted the role of Blanche to go to someone with a big name in Hollywood.

Thus, they chose Vivien Leigh of Gone With the Wind for the part of Blanche in the film. Don’t worry, though, Jessica went on to have a highly successful stage career and went down in film history as the lead in Driving Miss Daisy.

It Launched Marlon Brando Into Hollywood Stardom

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Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

As we mentioned, producers wanted at least one star in the film, and that didn’t include Marlon Brando. At the time, the young actor was just starting to establish himself as a critically-acclaimed leading man of Broadway. He had received praise for his leading role in the play Truckline Café, but had only ever been in the film The Men.

When A Streetcar Named Desire hit theaters, it earned Brando an Oscar nomination and made him a Hollywood star. The actor would go on to play dozens of major Hollywood roles, including the lead in The Godfather.

The Play Received A 30-Minute Standing Ovation

Actors perform a scene from the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.
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After years of being unacknowledged, Tennessee Williams found stardom through his first major play, The Glass Menagerie. The story was a borderline autobiography of Tennessee’s upbringing, and using his personal life as inspiration became the writer’s go-to.

When A Streetcar Named Desire hit the scene, audiences were already keen on Tennessee so it attracted the masses. Fortunately, the play lived up to its anticipation, receiving a standing ovation that lasted 30 minutes on opening night.

The Film Score Was The First To Combine Jazz And Drama

FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images
FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

The film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire was the first drama to feature a jazz-oriented score. The music reflected the story’s New Orleans setting and paved the way for future jazz scores.

The landmark composer was Alex North, who also composed the score for several other blockbusters at the time. These films include Death of a Salesman, Les Miserables, The Rainmaker, The Misfits, Cleopatra, and several more. Alex’s music career spanned nearly seven decades!

The Character Of Stanley Was Inspired By A Real Person

John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

The lead character of Stanley Kowalski, famously played by Marlon Brando both on screen and on Broadway, didn’t come purely from Tennessee Williams’s imagination. The playwright’s muse was boxer Amado “Poncho” Rodriguez y Gonzales.

Tennessee met Poncho in Mexico City, 1945, and soon became entranced by the 24-year-old muscleman, who was 10 years his junior. The two went on to live together in New Orleans, and Poncho’s macho demeanor would go on to heavily influence the play. However, the name Stanley Kowalski came from a factory worker Tennessee knew in St. Louis.

The Story Was Ahead Of Its Time

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Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Part of what made A Streetcar Named Desire such a smash hit when it opened in 1947 was that it was unlike the plays that dominated Broadway at the time. While many of the mainstream shows were musical comedies, this one was a violent straight play.

The vulgarity and frankness of the play were in stark contrast to the idealized domesticity that ensued post-WWII. In that sense, it was more in tune with the bold counterculture that would erupt in the 1960s.

It Won Tennessee Williams A Pulitzer Prize

Tennessee's Prize
New York Times Co./Getty Images
New York Times Co./Getty Images

A Streetcar Named Desire was not only a success among audiences, but was also critically acclaimed. The play earned Tennessee Williams the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Williams would go on to earn another Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Like Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof became a successful motion picture and even starred the famous Elizabeth Taylor.

New Orleans Has An Annual Festival Honoring The Play

Nited States. Louisiana. New Orleans. Canal Street
Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Every spring, New Orleans holds a five-day festival in honor of A Streetcar Named Desire. The event celebrates the play and film, highlights upcoming writers, and gives literary students educational opportunities.

It also has tours that give participants an inside look at where Tennessee gathered some of his inspiration. Fans can take a look at the French Quarter apartment he lived in with Poncho and how it overlooks the former Desire line. The tour also features the restaurant Galatoire that’s mentioned in the play.

Blanche’s Character Required A Few Tricks Of The Eye

Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

One important component of Blanche’s character is that she’s concerned about her fading beauty. Since actress Vivien Leigh was only 36-years-old at the time of filming, makeup artists did their best to make her look older.

Another eye trick that appeared in the movie was the size of the set. As Blanche’s claustrophobia increases throughout the film, the set of the house gradually gets smaller and smaller. That combined with skillful cinematography gave the film an element the theater wouldn’t be able to achieve.

Marlon’s Shirt Wasn’t Initially That Tight

John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Though Marlon Brando was muscular enough to play the rough and tough character of Stanley, his tight-fitting shirt helped to exaggerate his build. However, the costume designer couldn’t purchase a fitted t-shirt, so they had to shrink a regular-sized one.

To do this, they washed the shirt over and over so that the cotton would tighten up. Then, they stitched up the back so it would be even more fitting. You can tell that the shirt was washed a ton if you look at how short the sleeves are.

Marilyn Monroe And Arthur Miller Met At The Film’s Preview

Marilyn Monroe and Husband Arthur Miller
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When the 1951 film adaptation was previewed in Santa Barbara, director Elia Kazan brought Marilyn Monroe as his date. The young actress was just starting to come up in Hollywood, so it was only natural that Elia introduced her to playwright Arthur Miller.

Like Tennessee Williams, Miller became a famous playwright in the 1940s. His play Death of a Salesman was adapted into a Hollywood film that came out the same year as Streetcar. Little did Monroe know when she met him that Miller would be her third and final husband.

Vivien Leigh Initially Clashed With The Cast

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Vivien Leigh, who played Blanche in the film, described feeling isolated when she first joined the cast, which ultimately helped her role. Nine of the movie’s actors came from the Broadway production, so Leigh was an outsider from the start.

To top it off, she was the only one who had been classically trained, while the others had primarily learned via the Stanislavski Method of acting. Additionally, Leigh’s first portrayal of Blanche was in London, where she performed the play under the direction of her former husband, Laurence Olivier. Vivien felt Olivier’s direction contributed most to her film performance.

The Role Made Vivien Leigh The Highest-Paid English Actress

Leigh As Blanche
Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images
Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images

Producers knew that casting Leigh would give their film “star power” and expand audiences. At the same time, that meant they’d have to pay her well for the part. Her $100,000 salary for the movie made Leigh the highest-paid English actress of the time.

Similarly, Marlon Brando got an impressive $75,000 for his role as Stanley. Though he wasn’t as famous at the time, the word had gotten out about Brando being a revolutionary actor. Producers knew they had to have him, and time would show that they made the right call.

Brando Had To Bulk Up For The Role

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski
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Getty Images

Marlon Brando wasn’t always as built as he was when filming started for A Streetcar Named Desire. He actually had to put on some weight for the role, which he did by doing a daily gym workout.

The actor targeted his arms and chest to create the bulkier look that his character would need to come off intimidating. Before his transformation, Brando wasn’t known for being a muscular guy. Truman Capote described Brando’s new physique as looking like someone put his head on someone else’s body.

The Film Made Up For The Glass Menagerie’s Flop

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though The Glass Menagerie was the Broadway hit that put Tennessee Williams on the map, it was a different story when it came to the film adaptation. Warner Bros. did permit Williams to write the screenplay, but they had another writer create a more commercial ending.

The playwright didn’t know this was the case until it was too late, calling the mistake a “travesty.” As a result, critics gave negative reviews of the film. Fortunately, Warner Bros. learned their lesson, and A Streetcar Named Desire won four of its twelve Academy Award nominations.

Leigh Wore Wigs Shipped To And From London

Stanley and Blanche
Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

One of the reasons Vivien Leigh clashed with Marlon Brando is because he thought her to be stuffy, a judgment reaffirmed by her wig ordeal. Since Blanche needed to have worn-looking, blonde hair, the famous brunette had to wear a wig for the film.

The problem was that the actress didn’t trust the hairdressers who prepared her wigs, so she sent them all the way to London. There, her trusted wig-maker Stanley Hall cleaned and redressed the wigs to Leigh’s standards and sent them back to the states.

All Three Leading Roles Almost Went To Other Actors

Scene From
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After all these years, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter playing the roles of Blanche, Stanley, and Stella. But when casting for the film was still underway, several other actors were considered.

The role of Stanley could have gone to John Garfield or Robert Mitchum, but both turned it down. Olivia de Havilland was first offered the role of Blanche, but the production couldn’t afford her wage demands. Joan Fontaine and Anne Baxter were both considered for the role of Stella, but it went to Kim her earned her one and only Oscar for the role.

The Film Made The Play A Recognizable Classic

Streetcar
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though the play was a major success, it’s the film that helped ensure it remained a widespread classic. The iconic scene where Marlon Brado calls out “Stella!” has been referenced so much in pop culture that people who haven’t even seen the play or film can recognize the line.

The movie made it onto the National Film Registry and the famous “Stella!” came in at number 45 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes. To top it off, the play has returned to Broadway eight times since its initial 800 show run.