Stella Gibson, Blanche DuBois, and Gillian Anderson’s Grasp on Two Poles of Femininity

On The Fall, playing Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (who’s investigating a series of sexualized murders throughout the series), Gillian Anderson is often so calculatedly still, her voice scarcely raised beyond a cracking whisper, that it’s up to you to decide whether there’s a fascinating psychology beneath all of that controlled, oddly intense placidity, or whether it’s just a slightly limited performance. Stella is so contained that sometimes you wish she’d catapult into a mindless, id-propelled fit — but the whole point is that she never does, which is something we’re unused to in film and TV’s writing of women characters.

Gibson may, like all of us, have her share of singular demons (or not so singular — her diary is littered with suggestions of archetypal developmental psychological curiosities), but she’s not a character who succumbs to them by outwardly losing control. Anderson’s performance is frustratingly good, in that it is actually frustrating, and can be monolithic if you’re not paying close attention to her subtle shifts at all times.

This brings us to Anderson’s rendition of Blanche DuBois in Benedict Andrews’ version of A Streetcar Named Desire, which is running in Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse through June 4. Blanche’s southern bellerie is generally hyperbolized to an otherworldly level, along with her own fantasies about what her life is. After watching both seasons of The Fall, the strange calm of Anderson’s character therein — subdued even for film acting — made me wonder whether she would bring the wild energy an actor needs in order to carry this behemoth play.

As it turns out, she exceeded those expectations (especially in comparison to co-stars Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski and Vanessa Kirby as Stella-not-Gibson, whose performances both sink very quickly from memory.) Anderson’s Blanche is wildly energized, sharp, and just strong enough to put up a fight against how fragile everyone — including herself — seems to want the character to act. (The only real criticism is that she’s not just a little more subtle in her fantastical self-presentation at the beginning.) Knowing the way Anderson chose to represent this historic and challenging character provides insight into her role in The Fall, and how both Stella and Blanche navigate the more horrific results of unhinged male desire with relatively oppositional coping mechanisms.

Gillian Anderson as Blanche Dubois in Young Vic's production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Gillian Anderson as Blanche Dubois in Young Vic’s production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Blanche DuBois, especially in this period-neutral production (Is it the early 2000s? There’s a cordless phone and PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love” and Cat Power’s “Troubled Waters”), where she’s temporally removed from the era that created her and her amplified performative southern femininity, is like a person wearing a full-body Mickey Mouse costume to a casual house party. Beneath the thickets of persona she applies with makeup and drawl, there is a person, but she can only be heard from beneath an elaborate, padded costume — and she wouldn’t have it any other way. For every fantasy she has there is a simultaneous reality — a characteristic that’s almost antithetical to Anderson’s Stella, who’s nearly self-flagellatingly immersed in reality.

Blanche becomes, within the arc of Streetcar, a victim of rape (I would say the word “survivor” here would underemphasize the result — a total mental breakdown, and within Tennessee Williams’ rendering of a wholly cruel society, her subsequent institutionalization), and has presumably, during her exploits at a certain Flamingo Hotel, endured many other likely abusive encounters with men. Meanwhile, Stella similarly deals with sexually predatory men, but as someone who pursues them — from her voyeuristic Detective profession — to ultimately enact justice on them.

Gillian Anderson in 'The Fall'
Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

Anderson’s Blanche, as the play progresses, begins gilding herself increasingly in almost childlike notions of haute femininity. At the beginning of the play, she almost resembles Cate Blanchett’s Blue Jasmine protagonist (herself something of a facsimile of the Streetcar Blanchett likewise played), sporting large designer sunglasses and a Louis Vuitton bag, but then as the play progresses, her ostentatious dress devolves to a near-fairy tale idea of what womanhood looks like: she sports a wild red dress and massive red bow practically the size of her face, and then finally, in the last scenes, a bejeweled pink dress with a tiara, as though suggesting she’s sinking deeper and deeper into this character, recoiling from reality as she sees that’s where people want to shatter her.

Similarly, perhaps for this reason (and a general neurotic attention to beauty norms), Blanche has a youth fixation, and relentlessly hides her age, going so far as to only show herself to the man she’s seeing — Mitch — at night. Blanche is so uncomfortable in her skin that she goes very far out of her way to hide it. Meanwhile, like Stella’s facial expressions and the highly tempered range of her voice, Anderson’s The Fall character’s choice of dress is muted, and she’s often seen in the private of her hotel room lathering her face in moisturizer as though worshipping the simplicity of her own skin.

As a defense against the brutality of her socioeconomic downfall alongside the brutality of men like Stanley Kowalski, Blanche turns her life into a story, herself into a character, at one point screaming, “I don’t want realism! I want magic!” In ignoring reality, she becomes all the more vulnerable to its harshness — and particularly the harshness of men — but she’s also merely reinforcing the rampart between whatever’s inside her and whatever society wants to see, make, and destroy of her. But while Blanche immerses herself more and more in fantasy — to the point where, as she’s being escorted to a mental institution, she famously proclaims, “Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” — Stella is perhaps one of the most staunchly unromantic characters on television. (Interestingly, the one place where fantasy exists for her is in her journal, as though she’s literally casting her vulnerabilities away from herself.) She isn’t at all opaque about treating her sexual partners as objects of perfunctory pleasure. On The Fall, the first — and one of the only — “fling” she had was killed off literally the morning after. Rather, she develops an almost prurient obsession with the murderer she’s pursuing — channeling sexuality rather to observe, understand and capture a criminal.

Young Vic’s Streetcar production features a ceaselessly revolving set that both emulates the drunken languor of Williams’ dialogue and Blanche’s state of being, but also creates a spinning globe around her which it seems she cannot escape — making us all the more aware of the play’s tragic arc, of how much damage the spinning world can enact on one person in not that much time. When she’s finally escorted away, she walks around the perimeter of the set, towards the presumed hell of the mental institution from within the heavenly clouds she’s necessarily stuffed her head with. Her savior from reality is a journey so far inward that what’s left on the outside is wholly removed from the world around her. For Stella, her savior from a world that so often wants to enact harm on women is to focus fervently, even obsessively, on the ugliness.