One of the best moments of the Golden Globes last night was Maggie Gyllenhaal's acceptance speech, in which she praised modern filmmakers for turning the spotlight towards "actual women": "women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not, sometimes sexy and sometimes not, sometimes honorable and sometimes not." She told Time magazine that her role in The Honorable Woman as a woman who fears letting down her facades is "something that all human beings can relate to: performing themselves, thinking they’re supposed to be a kind of fantasy of what they imagined they were going to be."
I recently read Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, and that urge to "perform ourselves" is the central trait of the play's less than honorable antihero Blanche DuBois. Blanche is a fading Southern belle who initiates a triangle of tensions when she visits her sister Stella and Stella's rough, blue-collar husband Stanley. Condescending and pretentious, Blanche berates Stanley as a poor match for the DuBois family's gentile origins. Blanche's luxurious clothing and exaggerated tales of romance mask her loneliness, insecurities, and tumultuous personal history. Blanche is one of the most coveted and complicated female theatrical roles. Cate Blanchett played Blanche before starring in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, which takes direct inspiration from Williams's play. Notable actresses to take on the role of Blanche also include Vivien Leigh, Rachel Weisz and Jessica Lange.
What makes Blanche relevant to human struggles is that she insists on performing herself, even though she is aware of her self-delusion. Blanche desperately clings to an idealized version of her life and leads others to believe in the fantasies that she constructs. She ultimately holds a mirror to the other characters and reveals the necessity of living with fictions that protect against truths that are too hard to bear. Do we blame her for her failure to face reality, or do we relate to it?
"I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth."
A Streetcar Named Desire is a polarizing text: interpretations diverge on how much sympathy each character, especially Blanche, warrants. The characters are varying shades of vulnerable, tender, dishonest, and manipulative, and it can be uncomfortable when one of them ends up winning your sympathy. If you haven't read the play, I highly recommend it.