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`A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’

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Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange aren't just taking on Tennessee Williams in their made-for-TV version of "A Streetcar Named Desire," they're also tackling a pair of legends - Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, the stars of the 1951 movie version.

And acting legends don't come any bigger than that.Baldwin, at least, has a sense of humor about it.

"Let's face it. Brando's a very overrated actor," he joked to TV critics recently.

Baldwin prefers to think of himself as taking on the part of Stanley Kowalski, not taking on Brando, in this updated "Streetcar," which airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on CBS/Ch. 2.

"Anybody that has this attitude about wanting to take on somebody of that kind of mythic proportion is an idiot," Baldwin said. "People would say to me, `Do you think you're going to make people forget Brando?'

"And I thought, `What kind of idiot question is that? You're never going to make people forget about Brando.' "

Lange, for her part, would seem to prefer to not think about Leigh's Oscar-winning performance as the deeply disturbed Blanche Dubois.

"Of course I've seen the film, but it was a very long time ago," Lange said. "I didn't look at it again when I decided to do the play, and I didn't look at it again when I decided to do this. . . . I remember it as being great. I remember her as being brilliant in the part and heartbreaking. But, no, I don't think I was in any way influenced by her performance."

This is not, of course, the first time either Baldwin of Lange have done "Streetcar." They starred in a revival of the play on Broadway in 1993. Baldwin received a Tony nomination, while Lange's reviews were mixed.

However, in this small-screen version, Baldwin has to fight to keep up with Lange's performance.

"I think I feel much more natural in front of the camera. It just seemed to me that with a character like this, you can do so much more on a small scale - kind of the intimate side of it," said the actress, who's won a pair of Academy Awards herself. "So it was a great experience to do it on film after having done it on stage. And I think, overall, the experience doing it this time felt much more rewarding to me than when we did it on stage."

It's also very rewarding for the audience. This Glenn Jordan-directed version, which also stars Diane Lane as Stella and John Goodman as Mitch, is excellent. Even superior to the 1951 movie in many respects.

Lange brings a somewhat different interpretation of Blanche to the role. Blanche is still emotionally fragile and near a breakdown - a breakdown forced by her loutish brother-in-law, Stanley - but Lange still sees her as "a survivor."

"I think she's a survivor in spite of herself, in a way," Lange said. "If you kind of track her story from the time she was 16 years old and this young husband, who she idolized, kills himself basically in front of her - and from then on it's a long series of deaths and disappointments and rejections and kind of sorry and lonely intimacies - like she says, `intimacies with strangers.'

"And in spite of all this, she keeps going. I mean, she is a survivor."

It's a different way to look at a character who disintegrates before the eyes of the audience. But Lange recounted a tale of a Soviet production of "Streetcar" in which the Russians didn't like the ending so they changed it - having Blanche go off with Mitch.

"And someboedy came to Tennessee with this and assumed that he was going to be outraged," she said. "And he said, `Well, of course. Of course. If it wasn't Mitch, it would be the doctor at the hospital. Of course she's going to make it. Of course she's going to survive.'

"And I think there's that essence to her, just like there probably was to Tennessee. Despite all the heartache and disappointment, she'll keep going one way or another. That's how I always felt about her."

Baldwin, too, finds something in the relationship between Blanche and Stanley that isn't immediately obvious.

"One of the things I like most about the play is . . . how much Stanley - in some ways, not in a lot of ways - had in common with Blanche," Baldwin said. "And that is that they're both very desperate people. I think that Stanley is as desperate as Blanche is.

"Now that manifests itself differently, but Stanley is someone who, if he loses Stella, that really is the end of his world for him."

Baldwin also had a somewhat different take on Blanche than might be considered the norm. He refered to her as a "very beautiful woman" who is also "an English teacher. She's very educated and she's very cultured and she's very sophisticated."

"And Blanche is really a great catch. Blanche would be a great woman to go on a date with if she didn't have these severe mental problems that keep creeping up."

"She's a great gal," Lange interjected with a laugh.

"She's a fabulous gal," Baldwin added.

This TV-movie version is a great deal more faithful to Williams' play than was the 1951 movie. Director Glenn Jordan said his contains "95 percent of the original play" with just some minor cuts for time. "It's the first film version of the play," he said, correctly pointing out that both the 1951 movie and a 1984 TV version were adaptations of that play.

Back in 1951, the play had to be rewritten to accommodate the censorship of the time. For example, all references to the suicide of Blanche's husband because of her discovery of his bisexuality - references that are remarkably mild - had to be deleted.

"The whole story of Blanche's husband was completely re-written so that when you watch the original movie, you think the reason that he shot himself was because he was lazy," Jordan said. "It makes absolutely no sense at all when you watch the movie today.

"I mean, he just sat around the house and then she came in and said to him, `You disgust me!' and he shot himself? That's actually the way it was in the movie."

Jordan also sees the character of Mitch differently than movie director Elia Kazan did.

"We play Mitch very differently, I think," he said. "The wonderful thing about this play is it has four distinct tragic stories. You can tell this story from any one of four different points of view."

And this version plays much more to Mitch's point of view than did the movie.

"It's a tragedy for Mitch, too," Jordan said. "When this play is over, in a way his big chance is over, too. He'll never find another woman like this. His heart is broken, and the future you envision for him is a very bleak one."

Any cuts in the TV version were simply to trim a bit of time from the production, which still runs three hours with the inclusion of commercials. CBS did not attempt to tone down the play Williams wrote just after World War II.

"Oh, absolutely not," Jordan said. "What seemed very shocking in 1947 doesn't seem so shocking today."

And while this is still a powerful piece, it's far from shocking by today's standards. As one critic pointed out, if these were real people they'd probably be on a daytime talk show today.

"Well, obviously, it would be `Men Who Rape Their Emotionally Handicapped In-laws and the Women who Love Them," Baldwin said.