Next time you see this scene, note the kittenish way Blanche says she was "sort of thrilled" by the way Stanley broke all the lightbulbs on their honeymoon, or the sly fallopian resonance she brings to the line: "only one tube was smashed." Counterbalancing Leigh's southern faded-belle histrionics, Hunter doesn't miss any of the little resonant mythic notes in Williams' dialogue, but--in courtesy to Leigh's strident yammering as befits an indulgent sister--lets it seem on the surface as if she's missed them all. Leigh's Blanche is horrified that Stella has forgiven Stanley, and that his savage rage has been so completely absorbed into Stella's sexual body. Yet we never feel--as we sometimes do when we hear of women going back to their abusive husbands--that Hunter is weak or not in full control.
The big "Stella!" scene is remembered for Brando, but Hunter is the one who makes it ring, when she walks down the stairs in a kind of voodoo trance - possessed by some pagan fertility goddess, so turned on by Stanley's bestial excess energy her conscious self all but blacks out. She's even able to call Blanche gently to heel reminding her who pays the bills: "Don't you think your superior attitude's a little out of place?"
Sure, I knew she'd won an Oscar for it, but Hunter's performance so ingeniously under-the-radar- so truly "supporting" it may take--as it did for me-- a dozen viewings to see how it's really her film more than Leigh's or Brando's. As a kid, seeing it I was usually busy rolling my eyes at Leigh's drag queen Scarlett O'Hara impersonator histrionics (Blanche is really Scarlett after she becomes a full blown alcoholic, which she was on her way to being anyway in Gone with the Wind), or drooling in awe at the rippling back muscles of Brando's Kowalski under Harry Stradling's glistening cinematography (now perfectly transferred into the digital age so every sweaty sinew shines like a limestone stalactite under centuries of constant slow cavern drip).
This last viewing, as I watched her straddle between Stanley's savage magnetism and Blanche's Gothic hypocrisy, I found myself thinking back to her in other roles, and realized, suddenly, that through sheer repetition of viewings she'd become a kind of positive ideal for me --not the elusive anima but the obtainable heart's desire, the sort who plays the courtship game very badly, to show their cards right away and tell us they like us far too soon, so that dating them becomes stress-free; we can skip all the tedious date small talk, not even bother pretending we enjoy rock climbing or bungee jumping --go right to the colored lights portion, sex and laying around in a post-coital cocoon all day, drinking whiskey and ginger ale on the rocks, watching the James Bond marathon on TNT or listening to Columbia era Sinatra until the wee wee hours. Now I'm talking about someone else, but she too was one of these gifts from god to men (whereas hotter girls can be gifts from Satan all too often).
There were only ever a few such actresses who could convey all that with the shy open courage of Kim Hunter --nowadays there are none. Heather Graham had it for awhile and wound up subjected to the casting equivalent of Dogville. Now there are are only hotties who lazy directors think can pass as 'plain' by putting them in a pair of glasses and a nerdy sweater, and girls who are strictly comic relief. In the forties we had Frances Dee in I Walk with a Zombie (watch it sometime and note the way she unreservedly invades Tom Conway's personal space, or blurts out "I love Fort Holland" yet never talks above a low purr). And we have Kim Hunter in everything - women who--in keeping with the tenor of wartime and, later, noir, talked softly, so as not to arouse some sleeping Axis neighbor. These girls wore their hair in smart naturally-colored curls so as not to get tangled in whatever factory, nursing or WAC job they were doing. Their beauty was subservient --not to men, some hissy stylists' trends, or childbirth--but to their own desires and smarts; they didn't work inordinately towards looking good (1) but always did enough to look pleasant. A man could fall in love with such a girl easily, but he'd had have to be looking carefully to find her even in plain sight. She wasn't out there turning heads and exploding milk bottles as she passed by on the street, so a man in love with her wouldn't have to be jealous every time she went out, like he would with, say, Marilyn Monroe. Girls like Kim Hunter felt no need to stand out from the shadows and so, in their way, provided the right shoulder to lean on. Sympathetic to a man's woes but not dumb enough to fall for a hustler's sweet talk nor maudlin enough to indulge any wussy tantrum of despair, WW2 soldiers saw the type all the time in field hospitals, opiates giving their nurse--all in white--a special halo-like glow. Against the darkening mist of their frail mortality these were angels, but on another level down to earth enough you weren't even embarrassed during your sponge bath.
Hunter, in short, is that rarest of actresses, playing a persona of a cool girl, the sort minted by the Second World War, projecting an ineffable decency (a whispering, sophisticated decency, not a square Tom Hanks-style 'plain folk' decency) that made her a fixed point of gravity, anchoring all the rotations in a film's constellation like a combination planet Earth and warm-handed amateur juggler. Thus we believe in A Matter of Life and Death that Peter could fall in love with her over the radio, simply because she's 'life' and he's 'leaving her' but also --on our end--because of the rosy colors of her radio room that mirror the plane's orange flames. She's so touching you believe that love would stick automatically and help Peter transcend death; and you believe the local doctor with a mild crush on her wouldn't bat an eye in transferring his affection purely to being just a friend and medical advisor when she brings home this new fallen poet. In 7th Victim, she can even gently spurn the pathetic advances of another frail tumbling 'poet', refuse the smugly proffered milk at a diner, and impress a Mephistophelean ladykiller shrink while refusing his advances all in the same hour of running time.
|Hunter as Zora|
Face 1- Stella Dubois-Kowalski's love for the wild animal Stanley
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
(1951) Dir Elia Kazan / W- Tennessee Williams
Maybe it's really a film about old school Southern gothic raging against the dying of the light as Kazan's Actor's Studio kitchen sink Freudian realism jackboots over Oscar Jaffe's overly mannered style of Southern Gothic theater. The exhilarating immediacy of Brando's Stanley, who comes home from his long factory shift, still loud and coiled with energy vs. the fading southern belle airs of Vivien Leigh. Though some lewd understanding seems to exist between them, Brando and Leigh grind up against each other like opposing centuries of drama classes. Brando's terrifying working class sanity is the new way forward in American kitchen sink acting, riding the same electric ripple that Clark Gable rode in RED DUST in 1932, blowing all the soft-handed 'juvenile' leads (like Gene Raymond) clear back into the category of easily out-gunned naive rivals, the type who bring their hot wives down to savage countries where native drums and monsoons enflame the blood to the point their husband's run away to their separate room in fear of combustion, leaving the way open for men already burning.
Kim Hunter's Stella can thrive in either version. She can have a blast at the bowling alley on Tuesdays and make it to the hoity toity jubilee on Saturday. More earthy than Blanche, more mannered than Stanley, her synchronicity with Stanley's animal magnetism reflects the same synchronicity she once had for older sister Blanche's gentility. Stella used to helping Blanche get tarted up for her ballroom coming-out parties, a kind of divine inheritance that changing circumstances or attractiveness levels, kept Stella from living with the same airy entitlement --except vicariously. Stella has married the king of Hell rather than meekly serving Blanche in some heaven where she'd still be stuck at the kids' table
This latest viewing I noticed other interesting termite touches, like the way Brando's "Stella!" shout becomes a musical refrain carried in the far-off music, some singer practicing out his window or selling flores por los muertos. Clearly Stella is right, considering she's a guest in a place paid for by the husband's job, it is out of place, and for all her airs, her snobbery betrays Blanche's provincialism, her lack of nobless oblige. For, as rich snob puts it at the local cantina in Mesa of Lost Women, "the ability to adapt oneself to any situation is the mark of the true sophisticate."
Not living on the 'realistic level' is a common theme in Williams' work. As in Night of the Iguana, the fantasy life cannot survive the real world without creating a kind of insane destructive frisson. Consider Blanche in comparison with the Rev. Lawrence T. Shannon in Night of the Iguana
At the end of Iguana, Shannon winds up in the arms of the female Stanley equivalent (Maxine - the rough earth mother) rather than taking the long swim (the only way left for remaining in the fantastic level aside from a lobotomy, like Mrs. Venable wants to give Katherine in Suddenly Last Summer). Eventually your dependence on the kindness of strangers will leave you fluttering in the wind once you no longer have access to a single new face.
That's why Hunter's Stella is such a reassuring character, contextualizing the monstrousness of Stanley into something human (she's the cub lolling in the arms of the king of beasts), and grounding her schizo sister as best she can. She's who ideally Shannon will be like in a few days once he adjusts to the rhythms of hammock living and being shacked up with a horny Mexican broad pushing forty. Hunter's resilience as Stella is Streetcar's moral, especially if you ignore the tacked-on ending when she runs upstairs vowing to leave Stanley forever (at least she doesn't think twice about leaving the baby in the carriage unattended outside in the street / courtyard before then - so all who pass may gaze upon it, confident that it won't be swiped - the whole of the neighborhood now the loving tarantula arms of the king of beasts).
Face 2: June for the Plummeting Poet Peter D. Carter
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
(1946) Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
If the love between Stella and Stanley is earthy and even lower than earth (the fiery furnace), the WW2 love between Hunter's June--a Bomber Command radio operator-- and RAF bombardier Peter D. Carter (David Niven) is literally airborne, high up in clouds, and fog so thick one might fall to the sea and not even get hurt, merely bounce to shore right into June's bike path, their magnetism drawing them towards each other across dimensions. When love fills them, radio waves are as strong as any ocean's, they'll carry a falling squadron leader right on home.
Well, through some miracle not easily explained, he lives, and they wind up in each other's arms, on that beach. And they both know better than to abandon that love--made when just voices under heavy duress-- to the elements, to throw it back, as it were, into the sea. They both know it's what saved him, even if they don't know why or how. This isn't one of those films, thank god, where things get awkward in person. It's not Catfish and Kim Hunter isn't some aloof anima figure like Dietrich nor some soapy martyr like Joan Crawford ready to die rather than embarrass his aristocratic parents. June is real solid 'girlfriend' material, the sort who won't throw love away on some silly point of honor, like their life/death status or their separate classes or nationalities, or that they barely know each other. She just met him but she's willing to die for him - and it seems perfectly natural. As I wrote in Men Who Are Frozen, in wartime, love's victims don't wait to know anything about each other confessing their love in great spasms of each-breath-may-be-your-last intensity. What could be more intimate that total commitment, intensified by the thought of impending immolation? There may not be a second date--for anyone, anywhere, ever--so there is no time for taking it slow. And parents are whole continents away so no one asks permission. If you happen to stumble on a still walking preacher in a still-standing church, you take it as a sign to get married. Your regiment leaves at dawn, so you better not hesitate when you get your handful of hours in the honeymoon suite.
There's only one thing Carter needs to know on that night on the radio: "are you pretty?"
"Not bad" - she answers, with a kind of shrug. If she was prettier she might be offended, less pretty she might feel bad about lying. But she's Kim Hunter, and she's the working definition of 'the Goldilocks zone' (2), i.e. she's "not bad." You can introduce her to the family and the guys round the pub and they'll all like her, without either trying to hit on her, or wincing and looking at you funny. She's a keeper. Just hanging out with her and Roger Livesy for tea time - while some other girls rehearse a Midsummer Night's Dream amateur production behind them, all bathed in that delicious Technicolor - is a kind of perfect paradise, one everyone is able to appreciate, since they can feel its impermanence.
Strange Love 3 - Mary Gibson for her sister's husband
THE 7th VICTIM
(1943) Dir Mark Robson, Producer - Val Lewton
It doesn't matter, let the men be how they are. After all, we're watching the movies and not out playing softball like our mom keeps nagging us to. We, the asthmatic hay fever suffering indoor viewers, love Mary, too. She might get scared there on the elevated platform, but she doesn't panic; she doesn't cry, give up, or lose hope or faith in humanity. Even with no life experience beyond an all-girls' school, she can easily, but calmly tell Gregory off when he condescendingly tries to get her to drink milk (the ultimate echo of Victorian condescension in cinematic parlance - feel my and Anna Christie's rage here).
But the same problem Mary has with milk is what I have with the "poet" who feels it's his duty to somehow shepherd these people towards his lame insights about Cyrano's sword or whatever. Dude, poets have day jobs. Peter Carter in the last film worked in another field as well being a poet, he didn't mope around a restaurant all day looking thoughtful. I also have a problem with buying Jean Brooks as the 'stunning and vivacious' Jacqueline. She's far too glum looking for any of the Rebecca-Laura-style hype that precedes her character's sudden entrance. Sweeping around the stairwells in a black fur coat (Irina's?) and Cleopatra wig, she strikes me more like a middle-aged secretary turned cranky from waiting too long in the car. If she was even half as beautiful as the hype, it wouldn't matter if she was so dour, and vice versa. We can imagine the role really belonging to cat-eyed ("sister!") Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell, an actress who could be dour as you like but was still classically gorgeous. Was Russell's part stolen by the "this is the girl" machinations of some Illuminati old power broker with a yen for Brooks?
At any rate, like Blanche, she is Mary's allegedly charming older sister, after all, and has the same older sister authority to take over the narrative that Blanche did once she's finally found (hiding out at Judd's). Suddenly Victim shifts focus from Mary and her nocturnal search and the friends she accrues, to Jacqueline grouchy in her easy chair with the poison and the cult. "No!" she keeps saying - they won't let her sleep. "No!" They keep trying to drive her to drink; for killing her is against their religion - it has to be her own hand. Like the roulette in Deer Hunter, it's a rather impractical metaphor for suicidal ideation (if you've ever been in the subway and just imagined putting a gun to your head, over and over, as if hitting the button on your opiate drip in post-op, then you know what Lewton's getting at.) On the other hand, it is a perfect analogy for the early days of sobriety, before you learn how to stay away for 'triggers' (i.e. "people, places and things").
|7th Victim - this is what|
what being a white knuckle alcoholic is like
Poor Elisabeth Russell shows up at the very end, going out on the town for the last time, even if it kills her, and we want to go with her, away from Brooks and her dour sleepless despair. Both run to death and death meets them as fast, but one is running to the pleasures that are like yesterday, and one is running neither forward, no back, but up, onto the chair above the rope.
But we needn't despair when there's still Kim Hunter's Mary, ready to step in and pick up the pieces left by her crazy older sister. Mary lives on, presumably, to teach kindergarten and marry that nice lawyer and bank her steady fire against the ever-rushing darkness of the Lewton-verse.
Though she's always willing to let some other actor else have the spotlight, would any of these three films be the cherished classics they are without her quiet anchoring grace? We can see why these men in all three films, from rising beasts to falling poets (literally in Peter D. Carter's case, figuratively in Jason's) curve their erratic journey through empty, frozen space and begin to orbit in the force of her gravity. She's a warm star in the night, a campfire in the empty desert visible from space, curbing our lost soul drifts.
Me, I curve towards Death the most of these three films, classics as they all are, because of Cardiff's blazing Technicolor. That haunting orange light is like cool hand hand on my fevered tombstone brow. When I'm wigging out on a panic attack, Hunter's voice in Death meets me as fast as the flush of whiskey used to meet my dusty stomach. In our modern age, where we fall in love with voices and words before we meet the object of our night's affections, there, in that Technicolor Cardiff-crafted warmth of her cheeks, I truly find a home,
even if--in the end--it's all just them colored lights.
1. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford don't count, of course, they might not be conventionally hot, but they're never not larger than life - and besides. Brooks, alas, is smaller
1. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford don't count, of course, they might not be conventionally hot, but they're never not larger than life - and besides. Brooks, alas, is smaller