When Cate Blanchett Played Tennessee Williams’s Greatest Character
Nancy Schoenberger on the Power of Blanche duBois in Liv Ullmann's Unique Production of A Streetcar Named Desire
In November 2009, the Oscar-winning Australian actress Cate Blanchett undertook the role of Blanche in a notable, much-praised Sydney Theatre Company production. After debuting in Sydney, the play made its way from Australia to London, then on to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, as a cultural exchange. It was one of the few productions of Streetcar directed by a woman—Liv Ullmann, the iconic actress best known for her work with the brooding, brilliant Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
The idea for the production first came about when Blanchett and Ullmann were dining with their husbands in London. A planned film of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had fallen through, but the two actresses were still interested in collaborating on a project. Someone suggested Streetcar, and Ullmann recalled how her “heart jumped in happiness… because if there’s a perfect Blanche that I would know of, it would be her.”
In an in-depth interview alongside Liv Ullmann on The Charlie Rose Show, Blanchett described Streetcar as “a gift of a play,” and she felt that taking on the role of Blanche DuBois was inevitable—a project that somehow chose her. Indeed, she would end up playing the role twice—once in Streetcar, and a second time as a character based on Blanche DuBois in Woody Allen’s 2013 masterpiece Blue Jasmine.
What’s in a name, except in the odd similarity between “Blanchett” and “Blanche?” Perhaps that’s one reason why the actress, on a subconscious level, felt destined to play her. “Blanchett, Blanche—the names seem fated for each other,” Manohla Dargis wrote in a New York Times review of Blue Jasmine.
Blanchett was already drawn to Tennessee Williams because he had been influenced by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, two towering playwrights she admired. Blanchett felt that the challenge would be to find a balance between a tendency to make the play “very camp or very melodramatic.” “Washington was our first port of call” as a kind of diplomatic exchange between America and the Sydney Theatre Company, Blanchett explained. It was the first time she had spent any significant time in DC, which she found invigorating, as so many cultural reference points suddenly came alive for her.
Reviews for the Kennedy Center production were mostly howls of praise. Adam Green wrote in Vogue that Blanchett “gives a performance as heartbreaking to endure as it is magnificent to behold. I have seen several fine stage actresses try, and fail, to pin down this maddeningly essence of a moth-like creature as it turns out, it took an Aussie to recapture the mercurial essence of a great American character.” He’s won over from the first glimpse of Blanche sitting on her trunk, dressed in finery, hoping to find her way to Elysian Fields. She wears the “haunted look of a woman who knows that she has reached the end of the line.”
Green also praises the Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who played Stanley as a boy-man yet a dangerous opponent, and Robin McLeavy’s Stella, who “exudes guileless carnal longing for her husband.” In this production, the conflict between the nostalgic gentility of the Old South and the new, post-World-War-II mentality is made clear. Green also singles out Tim Richards as the hapless, would-be suitor, Mitch, and attributes their success, in part, to Liv Ullmann’s direction.
DC Theatre Scene, however, faulted the Australian production, directed by a Norwegian, for not capturing the essential Deep South milieu of the play. “It is as though a gifted artist had painted a landscape which had been described… over the telephone,” wrote the critic, Tim Treanor. “It has all the required elements, but not the patina of authenticity.”
Ullmann, however, had done her research, taking classes to learn about American blues and the culture of America’s South in the mid-twentieth century. Ullmann told Rose that she felt her discoveries might have eluded an American director “because they wouldn’t know that they didn’t know. I knew.” She also felt that coming from Norway with an Australian production, “we see things that are very interesting to us because it seems different. I really think it’s good for a play, like it’s good for Henrik Ibsen, that foreigners do it. They put humor in where Norwegians don’t really see the humor. And then we can put humor into this where maybe Americans don’t see that humor, because it’s new for us.”
She may have gotten the music right and the sprinkling of humor, but the visuals, by several accounts, did not evoke Elysian Fields, New Orleans, circa 1947. Rather, Ullmann explained, she looked to her favorite painter, Edward Hopper, to inform how the audience would see the play and the characters. Hopper’s stark, brooding work does convey a searing loneliness, but not the humid airs of New Orleans, or the hothouse orchid that Blanche has become, making her last stand in a florid and filigreed city on the Gulf of Mexico.
Nor did Cate Blanchett’s Southern accent ring true as either a New Orleans or—more accurately—a Mississippi accent, according to one of a handful of Southern actresses who had earlier taken on the role. Many actors rely on a generic Southern drawl without making distinctions between regions—folks from North Carolina, for example, sound distinctly different from folks from New Orleans (whose accent, incidentally, can sound more like a Bronx accent).When asked if she was afraid of taking on such an iconic role, Blanchett admitted to being terrified.
Ullmann made two interesting changes in the ending of the play. The psychiatric doctor who comes to claim Blanche for the mental institution that Stanley has arranged for her is a grim, no-nonsense figure rather than the courtly Southern gentlemen of earlier productions. And we don’t see Blanche dressed in dilapidated finery as she’s led away on his arm as if being escorted to a cotillion ball. Rather, she is barefooted, dressed in her white slip, her scrubbed face a hollow mask of what once was.
For Blanchett’s Blanche DuBois, Treanor also has nothing but praise, calling her performance “magnificent” and “spot-on.” The critic (also a novelist) notes how she “carried the whiff of doom from the play’s very first moment, when she realizes that Stella’s financial and social circumstances were not nearly as high as Blanche had come to believe. She knows, at that moment, as we do not until later on, that she is shipwrecked before she sets sail.”
Treanor also notices the oddness of Blanche being allowed to wander into the street at the end of the play, dressed only in a slip and a shawl, and he sees that as proof of her madness. “Where I come from,” he writes, “walking around the streets of New Orleans in your underwear is evidence that you are pretty disturbed.”
The production then moved to the Harvey Theater at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music for a sold-out, three-week run where it continued to garner raves, mostly for Blanchett’s performance. As noted earlier, in The New York Times Ben Brantley wrote, “The genteel belle, the imperious English teacher, the hungry sensualist, the manipulative flirt: no matter which of these aspects is in ascendancy, Ms. Blanchett keeps them all before us.” But rather than the “lyric, fading butterfly waiting for the net to descend” of many past portrayals, Blanchett brings to the role a tough instinct for survival, as did Ann-Margret decades earlier. “There’s a see-sawing between strength and fragility in Blanche, and too often those who play her fall irrevocably onto one side or another.”
Reviewing the play for The New York Review of Books, the critic Hilton Als saw in this Blanche something new, describing her as a “queer artist,” a version of the eternal outsider who nonetheless knows her strengths and the source of her endurance. Her longing for a respectable marriage—even to the unlikely Mitch—is really a longing for survival, a bid to finally stop struggling and find rest. Penury and loss have exhausted her. She has lost everything but her last scraps of youth and beauty and the moral support of her sister, though she is in danger of losing all of those, as she well knows.
Part of Blanche’s tragedy is that even though she tries on conventionality when she takes up with Mitch, it doesn’t fit: her intelligence and status as a defiant outsider keep getting in the way. Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language. Queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. Blanche to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.”
Her love of beauty, poetry, and finery (including her worn-out Mardi Gras gowns) are genuine, but they set her apart in the claustrophobic world of Stanley and his beer-drinking, poker-playing friends. “If you talk about [the play] on the metaphorical level, it is about the death of poetry and that it’s crushed. That flame of inspiration that Blanche represents—that fragile, ephemeral poetry—is extinguished,” Blanchett observed.
Not only are Stanley and Blanche fighting an epic battle for the love and loyalty of Stella, their battle is also a jarring conflict between Stanley’s mundane, macho world and Blanche’s poetic view—the world by moonlight, the world softened by paper lanterns thrown over harsh lights. “I think [today],” Blanchett says, “an audience looks at the play and thinks about what we lost, that we actually lost those intangible, ephemeral parts. Where’s the poetry in America, where’s the idealism in America?”Ullmann and Blanchett recalled that they never talked about Blanche as a madwoman. For Blanchett, the pressure of trying to survive with poetry and idealism intact, in a more practical and even brutal age, was too much for Blanche.
In this production, we are in Stanley’s domain, which literally has no room for Blanche and her moonlit fancies. He’s the master of his domain, as he proudly asserts, quoting the populist politician Huey Long’s declaration that “every man’s a king” of his own home. He’s not going to cede an inch of that control to his flighty, half-mad, provocative, and scarily intelligent sister-in-law, whom he suspects of cheating him—and laughing at him. In their battle over Stella, he must make sure he still has his wife’s complete support and affection. Blanche—who is so foreign to him that he barely understands her—threatens that.
Ullmann understood that Stanley is indeed threatened by Blanche. “He calls her an intellectual. She’s a teacher, she knows everybody, everything. And he’s losing the respect of his wife, the respect of who he is.” When Stanley overhears Blanche describe him as an ape, that’s the point of no return for him. Says Blanchett, “He really needs to feel he is the king of his little filthy castle—for him that was important.”
When asked if she was afraid of taking on such an iconic role, Blanchett admitted to being terrified. Streetcar exists as a masterpiece in cinema as well as theater, so she knew there was a long, available roster of superb performances throwing benign shadows over her performance. Additionally, she commented, “It’s a very naked play, actually. And it’s all about the moments when people attempt to see the mask and when they reveal it to themselves.”
One mask that Blanche wears is the mask of respectable sobriety. We see early on that the opposite is true: she loves and needs her libations, the bourbon in her coke, the quick drinks stolen when no one is looking. She needs them as she needs her hot baths—to soothe her nerves, to let the sweet- ness of brief oblivion erase the furies of memory. It’s a source of much of the play’s humor—the secret tippler pretending to abstain from alcohol—but it’s also what helps tip her into the past that she is trying desperately to escape. It’s her way out, but it’s also her way in. What Blanche reveals to herself is not so much that she’s mad, but that—as Ullmann puts it, “she’s a drunk.”
I don’t know when you become a drunk and when you’re not, but she drinks a lot…and [when] you are so threatened, and nobody sees you, and when you then tell the truth…yes, I think you do the unspeakable things. Maybe we all have done that—rushed out of a house crazy, saying things crazy.
Ullmann and Blanchett recalled that they never talked about Blanche as a madwoman. For Blanchett, the pressure of trying to survive with poetry and idealism intact, in a more practical and even brutal age, was too much for Blanche. “I think it’s very easy to play a mad person,” she says, “but there’s more pathos in watching somebody hold on to their sanity.”
For Blanche, the burden of the past is not only the loss of Belle Reve, the loss of her girlish innocence, the loss of a world that recognizes and values “gifts of the mind,” and the loss of her husband; it’s also the loss—at the very end of the play—of her hope of ever finding another love. She has been driven into fantasy, which is the only place left where she can nourish her hopes and dreams. Memory and fantasy have become fused, their shared boundary evaporating like the mists after summer rain. Can she come back from this enchanted state?
Tennessee Williams thought that she might return, rested and healed from her incarceration, well enough to open a flower shop, perhaps, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (I have imagined such a life for her in my invented obituary at the end of this book.) Perhaps that is the life he would have wished for Rose, who spent her entire adult life in mental hospitals.
Tennessee gave Blanche his own predilections—his love of poetry, his preference for the gentility of the Old South as experienced at his grandparents’ gracious home (despite the South’s depredations on Black souls, which he addresses obliquely in other plays). He also gave Blanche his own reliance on the enchantments of alcohol, with its ability to let one forget, and sometimes to let one remember.
“My roots as a writer are directly related to having been a queer from birth, and then abused from an early age,” he divulged in an interview with James Grissom. “I sought refuge in alternative realities, because my own was so hateful, untenable. This begins in play-acting, doll-playing, writing down what one has.” Drink, of course, when indulged beyond reason, provides another alternative reality, sometimes soothing, sometimes necessary, ultimately—for most—devastating.
Blanche by Nancy Schoenberger is available via HarperCollins.