Thursday, December 1, 2022

Kristen Stewart & Vivien Leigh: 2 Oscars, 70 Years Apart

By Lewis Royle 

Kristen Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer” has been showered with praise from critics. Even people who aren’t keen on “Spencer” seem to love Stewart’s performance, as evidenced by her lead in the precursor awards at this time. She’s been the frontrunner for the Oscar from the moment the world laid eyes on her transformative performance at the Venice Film Festival. When I first watched it, the first thing I said to people I saw it with was, “that reminded me of Vivien Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

​​Now, this may sound weird because the two films’ plots aren’t particularly similar. Still, I saw some parallels between Stewart’s portrayal of Diana and Vivien Leigh’s performance as Blanche Dubois (for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress at the 24th Academy Awards). I was stunned when I found myself seeing Blanche Dubois and Diana Spencer, a figure everyone is very familiar with, especially in the UK, mold together in front of me.

The parallels were so strong, in fact, that it wouldn’t surprise me if they were partly intentional from Larraín. The parallels range from very literal to thematic and subtextual. A very simple one is Diana saying she feels like an insect under a microscope and Blanche being described as a moth. Another is Blanche’s avoidance of harsh light to conceal her appearance and Diana’s avoidance of being weighed before and after the visit at Sandringham. Stanley goes out of his way to expose Blanche to light, and Alastair Gregory makes Diana get weighed, both forcing them to have what they perceive to be their flaws on show for everyone to see.

The first big one is the first time we meet Blanche. She is lost and looking for directions to her sister’s apartment. In this first scene, Blanche has just alighted from a train in New Orleans. She looks very out of place. She finds herself lost and looking down at a piece of paper with directions before consulting a stranger who points her in the right direction.  Similarly, the first time we meet Diana, she is lost and keeps looking down at a map. She tries to find Sandringham House, but she gets lost and pulls over her car in a petrol station to ask for directions. Diana looks totally out of place like Blanche, though for different reasons. Blanche seems as though she doesn’t belong there because she is a southern belle, dressed as if she has just come from a plantation in the deep south (which she had). Leigh’s performance emphasizes this, contorting herself to appear totally uncomfortable and scared. Diana seems as though she doesn’t belong because of our knowledge of her; she is a Princess. Seeing a member of the Royal Family, who are typically flanked with armed security guards, being chased by paparazzi without those in a petrol station is one of the most bizarre images put to film this year. Diana, like Blanche, asks for directions and eventually finds her way. Stewart carries herself with the same discomfited and uneasy demeanor that Leigh brings to Blanche. While neither of the actress’ dialogue shows they are uncomfortable in their opening scenes, it is dripping from their body language.

The next parallel is the setting. The places Blanche and Diana are trying to reach are meant to be homes; however, Elysian Fields and Sandringham are buildings where they feel most lost and not at home. When both women first arrive, they are greeted by someone unfamiliar. Blanch with Eunice, Stella’s neighbor, and Diana with Alistair Gregory, the man in charge of making sure Christmas goes to plan. The environments Blanche and Diana are forced into are designed (narratively) to make them anxious. Blanche is taken from a life of luxury in the south to living in a tiny New Orleans apartment whose rooms are separated from one another via a thin vale rather than walls and doors. In “Spencer,” Sandringham represents everything Diana hates, tradition, rigidity, the past. She repeatedly complains that the house of cold, which it literally is, but it’s also emotionally cold and distant. Diana brings emotional warmth, but it is never enough to heat Sandringham. Blanche is faced with Stanley Kowalski, a man who tries to expose Blanche and makes her feel unwelcome; he disrespects, abuses her, and is one of the main reasons Blanche hates being there. In “Spencer,” the Royal Family is Diana’s Stanley Kowalski.

Spencer

Now, for my next point, I need to go on a bit of a tangent about Vivien Leigh and “A Streetcar Named Desire” but bear with me; I promise it’s relevant. After Vivien Leigh won her first Oscar in 1940 for “Gone With The Wind,” you’d imagine, as one of the biggest stars in the world who just won an Oscar and led the most successful film ever to hit American cinemas (still is to this day), she would have her pick of the litter when it comes to roles. But no, this was still the 1940s, and women couldn’t just pick whatever roles they thought were best. Women like Leigh were ruled by studios (men were too, but nowhere near to the same extent). During this studio-driven era, classical acting was the most popular thing in Hollywood; people wanted their movie stars to be just that: movie stars, not real people who struggled just as audiences did. It’s what won awards; it’s what made money at the box office. In the 1940s, due to a lack of interesting roles, Leigh left Hollywood and returned to England to star in smaller British films and on the West End.

On the other side of the pond, in 1947, playwright Tennessee Williams released “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which was a massive hit on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Broadway production was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando as Stanley and Jessica Tandy as Blanche. Everyone involved in the Broadway production was trained by the Actors Studio (which Kazan co-founded). This taught Stanislavsky’s method of acting, now known as “method acting,” not the classical style of acting that had been so popular in the decades prior, and crucially not how Vivien Leigh was trained. In 1949 “A Streetcar Named Desire” was brought to London’s West End in a production starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche.

In 1951 when adapting “A Streetcar Named Desire” for the screen, Kazan wanted to bring the entire Broadway cast to Hollywood. The studio allowed all but one: Jessica Tandy would not be Hollywood’s Blanche. Tandy didn’t have enough star power, and the studio wanted someone who would guarantee box-office success. So, the search began and ended in London when Vivien Leigh was cast. However, there was concern that Brando’s style of acting, rooted in reality, would clash with Leigh’s classicism. And those concerns were valid; watching “A Streetcar Named Desire,” it’s as though Leigh is in a different film. Her fanciful stylized performance clashed directly with Brando’s hyper-real accurate portrayal of a human. Her peers criticized her decision to remain true to her training, saying she was overacting (a criticism I have seen presented at Stewart a few times since “Spencer” released) and old-fashioned. This was, however, an unintentional stroke of genius. Leigh and Brando’s acting styles clashed in the same way that Blanche and Stanley’s outlooks on the world clashed. Stanley is a man grounded in gritty reality, whereas Blanche has a loose relationship with reality and crafts her own world. The opposing style of performances reflected that flawlessly. Williams described Leigh’s Blanche as “everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of.”

This brings me back to 2021; nowadays, Leigh’s classical acting style is not popular. To win awards and earn big money at the box office, Brando’s method style is much more preferred. During the 1930s and ’40s, during the Great Depression and World War II, audiences wanted to get lost in the cinema in another world; it only became popular later to portray accurate and harsh realities of life on the silver screen. There are so few performances from this century that reflect that classical style where it is not hyper-stylized such as Jean Dujardin in “The Artist.”

However, in “Spencer,” I feel as though Stewart tapped into that thought-to-be-outdated style to portray Princess Diana. When you watch films from the 1930s, it feels as though the characters on screen are just that; they do not feel like real people you could bump into on the street and have a casual chat with. To me, that’s how Stewart’s Diana feels too. And it works perfectly in the themes of the film. When people think of the Royal Family, they don’t feel like real, normal people you could talk to. When you read about their behaviors and their traditions (and see these in “Spencer“), they feel fictional, antiquated, and sort of absurd. So, portraying them with the harsh realities of life in a realistic and grounded way wouldn’t really make sense. Unless that’s what the aim is, such as Netflix’s “The Crown,” which portrays the Royals as more human than they are usually perceived to be. Emma Corrin’s Diana is more natural and tangible than Stewarts, but by no means does that mean better.

Corrin’s Diana is young and hopeful. The goal of “Spencer” is to show how the Royal Family has ruined Diana and forced her to contort herself into something she isn’t. And so, the style of acting Stewart brings to the role makes absolutely perfect sense and is reminiscent of Leigh’s performance. Stewart’s “overacted” performance isolates her from the audience, and in the one scene where she breaks down in tears in her old home, the naturalistic style breaks through, and we see her for the person she was, and it emphasizes the great sympathy we feel for Diana watching what she goes through in this film.

Another fascinating parallel running through both films is mental health. In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche suffers from poor mental health, based on the struggles of Tennessee Williams’ own sister. We see Blanche practically living in her own reality and fabricating her version of events. This comes to a climax in the film as Blanche creates a fictional relationship with her old college lover, Shep Huntleigh, who she says will take her away on a Caribbean cruise. She even waits for him to come and ‘collect’ her at the end of the film, and as she is taken away to the asylum, she believes she is going away with her lover. Shep never appears in the film, but his character functions as a representation of Blanche’s fantasy world. The extent of Diana’s mental health struggle is not the same as Blanche’s, but they are both struggling with their emotional state. Much like Blanche’s hallucinations of Shep Huntleigh, we see Diana hallucinating a few times. Throughout the film, she is followed by Ann Boleyn, and Diana sees parallels between Boleyn’s life and her own, and we see this distressing Diana as she fears that she will meet the same fate. When seeing Boleyn, Stewart can play confusion and that fear beautifully. There’s also a scene that features Diana finding comfort in her dresser, Maggie, played by Sally Hawkins, only to realize that it is someone else and she has hallucinated Maggie. Diana’s reaction to hallucinating Maggie is different from her seeing Boleyn; Diana looks devastated and genuinely concerned when she realizes Maggie is not with her, and Stewart can capture all those emotions perfectly. She makes Diana feel so disconnected and alone, even when she is surrounded by people trying to comfort her.

The final parallel I want to discuss is perhaps the biggest one, and it comes down to Jonny Greenwood and his score. In A Streetcar Named Desire,” we learn that Blanche’s ex-husband, Allen Grey, was a gay man. At a dance, where varsouviana Polka music is playing, after discovering Allen’s homosexuality, Blanche confronts Allen and tells him that she is disgusted by it. This causes Allen to commit suicide. Blanche feels great regret over lashing out at Allen. Whenever she becomes distressed in the film or play, we hear the varsouviana creep in and get louder until it blares at the end as Stanley rapes her. Similarly, in “Spencer,” whenever Diana begins to panic, the audience hears quiet music begin to inch its way in that sounds like a wind chime. For example, when Diana is served soup in the dinner scene, she is panic-stricken because of her eating disorder. The idea of eating in front of people makes her agitated, and the idea of eating at all fills her with dread. Diana hallucinates (or imagines, depending on your interpretation) that she tears off her pearl necklace, which falls into the soup, which she then eats. She then rushes to the bathroom to vomit. As the soup is served at the start of the scene, the score is present but subtle and in the background. As Diana becomes more distressed, the score builds until it is bleating from the speakers. Not only is the use of music a parallel, but also the way these two remarkable actresses use it to their advantage. Leigh and Stewart both use this to flex every muscle they have. The dinner scene with the soup begins, and Diana looks slightly uncomfortable and gradually, throughout the scene, Stewart rides the score until her performance comes to a colossal crescendo as Diana begins to have a full-on panic attack and is struggling to breathe. Stewart uses the music to gradually build her performance throughout scenes, allowing her to show her range completely in just a few moments.

Spencer” opens with the words “a fable from a true tragedy”- words that could also be applied to “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Blanche is not a real person, and this story isn’t real, but when writing it, Tennessee Williams put so much of his own experiences in there. “A Streetcar Named Desire” deals with homosexuality and homophobia; some even argue Blanche is a stand-in for a gay man as no one at the time would allow a gay protagonist. Williams’ sister struggled with mental health and was put in an asylum much like Blanche. “Spencer” is not based on actual events that happened, and one of the biggest criticisms levied against it is that it may take a little too much creative license. But “Spencer” tells the tragic story of Diana Spencer, who was so deeply unhappy in her life as a member of the Royal Family and is one of the most sympathetic figures in pop culture. So, while both films are ‘fables,’ they are based on some truth. A significant difference, though, is the ending. At the end of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche is taken away, implying she will be lobotomized. It is a sad, melancholy ending for the film. “Spencer,” however, has an uplifting ending; Diana breaks free from her Royal shackles and takes her children into London for a moment of respite. It is a bitter-sweet moment, though, because, of course, we know this is not the end of Diana’s story, which is similarly tragic as Blanche’s (though for very different reasons). But the film allows us to live in the moment with Diana and end on a high.

Vivien Leigh is often regarded as one of the greatest actresses of all time. And her performance as Blanche Dubois tops polls for the greatest performance of all time. So merely seeing this comparison is incredibly high praise of Stewart. Stewart’s performance in “Spencer” is not only the best performance of the year, but it also deserves to be in the conversation for one of the best performances of all time, and I genuinely believe that’s how it will be remembered. I haven’t seen a performance like Stewart’s in a very long time, and I haven’t seen a performance so haunting, despondent, and beautiful since Leigh’s. At the 24th Academy Awards in 1962, Vivien Leigh won the Oscar for Best Actress for beautifully portraying a damaged, broken woman forced into an environment that makes her uncomfortable and highlights all her flaws. Exactly 70 years later, at the 94th Academy Awards in 2022, Kristen Stewart deserves to do the same.

So what do you think? Do you think Kristen Stewart deserves to win the Oscar for Best Actress just as Vivien Leigh did 70 years ago? What do you think of the parallels between the two roles? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Royle and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @lewisjwr

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