Even though he had directed Vivian Leigh to an Oscar, Kazan still felt that she or any other actress that tackled the role was hard pressed to get to the the core of what this character was about. He confessed the difficulty of the part and was not really sure who could play it.
Writer Tennessee Williams had written the role of a lifetime for whoever could play it. Blanche Du Bois invokes pity while at the same time you can’t help but root against her.
On top of all this the play deals with the onset of mental illness. Blanche has to fade in and out. One minute she’s back to normal (for her) and is in full snob mode raging against the world and the next back to living in a dream world. You are not sure this world is of her own making or one that she really did live in.
Maybe the real difficulty starts with Tennessee Williams himself. So much of his work is really about Tennessee Williams. As Kazan put it, ” “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”
Williams definitely had a lot of material to draw from. A father that showed his contempt for his son by calling him Miss Nancy, a schizophrenic sister who would spend the majority of her life in an institution. Williams himself was bed ridden for two years with infantile paralysis and later on in his teens living the life of a hobo.
Depression and the constant fear of going insane haunted Williams. To ease the pain he would turn to alcohol and prescription drugs. Not that they did any good for Williams was always seemingly one step away from a nervous breakdown.
Blanche DuBois is one of the most complex characters in stage and movie history. There’s a lot to deal with and if any actress gets it wrong chances are the results are not going to be pretty and viewers along with critics will make her pay for it.
Personally I think Vivian Leigh was magnificent but since we’re on the subject here are some movie actresses from classic Hollywood that could have taken on the challenge and got it to work.
1. Norma Shearer
The main reason for picking Norma Shearer is her gift for balancing melodrama with realism.
You can see it on display in any number of her films where one minute her acting is surprisingly naturalistic and the very next she makes some sort of gesture or says the dialogue in such a way that it’s like something out of the 19th century or in her case from silent movie era.
Her reaction is riveting. What she does with her hands could be classified as slightly melodramatic but the terror in her eyes is real. It’s not an easy thing to balance subtle and blatant and make it not only effective but powerful. Shearer pulls it off beautifully.
2. Elizabeth Taylor
The way she used her voice and went from coy and at times catty to completely vulnerable and lost was amazing to watch.
Looking back at her work it’s not hard to understand why Taylor was not better appreciated.
Everybody knows she was a movie star of the highest caliber but it seems like all too often the image of the woman was separated from the craft she practiced for decades.
3. Ann Harding
Okay she’s on this list because she’s one of my favorite underrated actresses but I’ve always felt whether it was stage or in front of the camera this woman could do just about anything.
She had great emotional range an ability to play it small on film and the vulnerable quality needed for Blanche DuBois.
It didn’t hurt that she also had the sophistication and roots to tap into the Southern pseudo aristocratic side of the character. You watch Ann Harding and it becomes clear that for all her years in Hollywood they sometimes never really knew what to do with her.
4. Bette Davis
But of course right? You can see her sweep into a room like nobody else and command the attention Blanche craves yet at the same time showing abject scorn for those that have earned her wrath. Bette Davis excelled at these kind of roles.
5. Jean Arthur
Strange choice? Possibly but there are times when she is emoting on screen that you feel like Arthur is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It can all go at any minute and that’s a big part of Blanche Dubois.
One side note about Jean Arthur as Blanche. Yes I think she could have done it but it would have taken a very strong director to pull her through.
6. Mary Astor
Her Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon is a work of art. School girl melodrama and demeanor, playfully flirtatious and yet a heart of darkness that could explode in violence then scurry back quickly to the innocent schoolgirl.
As for vulnerable, there’s a scene in Kiss Before Dying when Robert Wagner as her murderous son berates her for what’s she wearing. Astor goes to pieces. No histrionics but his words shattered her to the core. Blanche was right down her alley.
7. Eva Marie Saint
Besides her versatility Saint brought an ocean of depth to her work which she was able to project anyway she wanted with seemingly pinpoint control.
If you wanted ice cool (North by Northwest) no problem, neither was projecting rage, fear and pain almost simultaneously (On The Waterfront). There are times when she is just sitting and listening that you can see still waters run deep.
8. Joanne Woodward
The Three Faces Of Eve. Nuff said. Timid like a church mouse one minute, the ultimate party girl the next and then solid as a rock.
9. Clare Trevor
One of the best and most underrated actresses the movies ever saw. Whether raging at Kirk Douglas in Two Weeks in Another Town (and I mean raging), putting Dick Powell gleefully and seductively through the ringer in Murder My Sweet or having twisted relations with Lawrence Tierney in Born To Kill, Claire was always on her game.
She also had the necessary vulnerability for Blanche as well. A perfect example is her Academy Award winning turn as former showgirl turned alcoholic Gaye Dawn in Key Largo.
Johnny Rocco (Edward G Robinson) forces her to sing for a drink in front of a literally captive audience. Trevor by her own admission could not sing and in doing the scene allowed the camera to expose a real flaw. For an actor to open herself up to public humiliation in this manner takes remarkable courage.