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Oscar Flashback: Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine and A Streetcar Named Desire

bluejasmine

Now that Blue Jasmine has opened with the best premiere numbers of Woody Allen’s career, the film will be seriously considered for several Oscar nominations – Best Actress for sure, if not Best Picture. But there have been some rumblings in reviews and out of the mouths of well-placed New York film critics that it’s a modern-day update of A Streetcar Named Desire.  If Woody Allen had wanted to do a spin on that movie, he could have done so; after all, he made A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.  But to draw a closer parallel and one that better suits the brilliance of this film we need only look at Stardust Memories to see how it corresponds so beautifully to Fellini’s 8 1/2. At the time, Woody was accused of being a Fellini (or Bergman) imitator. It was well known that Woody admired both directors so when Stardust Memories came out, in black and white, the same rumblings were heard: it’s Woody riffing on Fellini. But after all of these years, Stardust Memories shines as one of the director’s best and most accomplished films; the framework may resemble 8 1/2, to be sure, but the themes, the characters, the ruminations bear Woody Allen’s own unique imprint.

Clearly, there are similarities between Blue Jasmine and A Streetcar Named Desire. But rather than diminish Blue Jasmine, those similarities enhance it. As with Stardust Memories, easy surface parallels can be drawn: a woman with sophisticated aspirations suffers circumstances so she must deign to live with her rough and tumble lower middle class sister who is married to a grease monkey and lives amid cheap decor – far, far from the upper east side. Both Jasmine and Blanch sashay along the brink of insanity where dependence upon their delusions consume them. Woody Allen has given us a “Mitch” type, a Stanley type, a Stella type. The basic framing is there but the deeper themes, the ultimate meaning of this film and its main character are very different from what Tennessee Williams was trying to express.

One of the biggest differences between the two stories is the passionate friction in A Streetcar Named Desire between Blanche and Stanley is absent between Jasmine and Augie.  Both pairs represent different forces in American culture and complete opposites.  But the first thing you notice with Leigh and Brando is their palpable sexual heat. It is one of the most important tenants of the play (and film) and if you miss that about Streetcar you miss everything. No such palpable sexuality exists in any frame of Blue Jasmine.

When all is said and done, Stanley can only conquer Blanche by raping her just before she’s sent off to a mental hospital. Blanche is victimized not just by Stanley, but likely many men throughout her journey to find ONE MAN who will love her as she needs to be loved. Blanche’s whole identity is wrapped up in male attention.

By contrast, Jasmine’s identity is wrapped up in being the wife of a wealthy man from the Upper East Side and when she loses him her brief life of privilege evaporates. One gets the sense that Jasmine would be okay if all she lost was the man — but as we know from the Bernie Madoff story, she doesn’t just lose the man — she loses everything: money, status, influence, respectability.  Primarily, it’s about wealth — that confidence that comes with deep pockets. But it is not her primal need to seek out male attention. She simply likes the lifestyle — for Jasmine, men are only a means of getting there.

Blanche pretends to still belong to a certain class of people but her engine is driven by desires that have nothing to do with money. Where Streetcar was more about the clash between old and emerging worlds, Blue Jasmine is about the stark contrast between the 1% and the people they screwed. It is a direct indictment of what has gone on in this country over the past five or ten years. The wealthy who promise a tiny piece of the American dream to people who buy tickets for a lottery that they’ll never win.  No such indictment is present in A Streetcar Named Desire — just look at the title of the play. Primal sexual urges underlie Williams’ work, urges sought and satisfied in a very real way between Stanley and Stella that only exist as sheer fantasy for Blanche. If Jasmine wanted to belong to the middle or lower classes it wouldn’t be that hard to get by. She proves herself semi-employable, she still has her looks.  But her desires are to get back was taken from her when her husband’s fraud was exposed.  Such a luxury is not extended to Blanche, who really is too old now to lure a husband and is closer to prostitution than she is to marrying well.  They are interesting sides of the same coin perhaps but more likely, they don’t even belong in the same handbag.

Making matters more complex is that Cate Blanchett recently played Blanche Dubois on stage. When I spoke with her at the Los Angeles premiere of Blue Jasmine, she called Blanche among the favorite roles of her career.  The others favorites she named were also stage productions. Blanchett thinks of herself as a stage actress and prefers that experience to film.  She said you participate with the audience each night and adjust your performance sometimes according to how the audiences are responding.  Streetcar is still very much a living breathing play, even though one incarnation has been preserved in amber as one of the best films ever made, due mainly to the central performances of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh.

But Blue Jasmine is very much a self-contained film. The structure depends on flashback to juxtapose Jasmine’s old and new life. It works extraordinarily well. Though Woody Allen has often telescoped his back stories with flashbacks, sometimes with mixed results, never before has he used the device so cleanly and completely as he does here.  He could never have made a film this good, though, without the central performance of Cate Blanchett to carry it off.  He doesn’t like to do a lot of takes, Blanchett told me, which meant she had to do much preparation before the camera rolled.  Woody Allen has said that he just got out of Blanchett’s way when making the film.  In that way, Allen got as lucky as Elia Kazan did when he hired Vivien Leigh, who took over the role of Blanche played by Jessica Tandy in original stage version.  Both Blanchett and Leigh give the kinds of performances that you can’t shake after the film ends.

Fans of Williams’ work will recognize a distinct difference between his trademark obsessions and those of Woody Allen. You couldn’t find two more polar opposite writers if you tried. But the one thing they have in common is that they draw much of the strength in their writing from their female characters; both have a need and a desire to tap into the female mind and heart, to draw out the tragic, the poetic, the nasty, the divine.  However, Mr. Williams was himself a Blanche Dubois — he was crumbling inward and ultimately wrecked. No such personal ruin will ever befall Mr. Allen.  For one thing, Woody Allen has already outlived Tennessee Williams, who died at the age of 71, his talents dissipated by his dependence on prescription drugs.  Williams was gay, Allen is obviously not.  What both men did have in common was an overbearing mother — and that informed their work continually.

The Oscars would reward A Streetcar Named Desire with Supporting Oscars for Karl Malden as Mitch and Kim Hunter as Stella, and of course, they could run but they could not hide from one of the biggest screen icons ever, Vivien Leigh’s iconic, unmatched performance as Blanche. But Marlon Brando would not win for Stanley. That prize would go, deservedly enough, to Humphrey Bogart for the African Queen. The film that won Best Picture that year was An American in Paris. If it were me, I would have given it, hands down, to A Streetcar Named Desire but the film came with significant baggage. The other great movie in the race that year was A Place in the Sun which, along with Streetcar, illuminated the darker aspects of human nature and we mostly know that, with a few notable exceptions, the Oscars are about rewarding films that illuminate the idealized version of human beings. That is the name of game, even now. But it’s hard to imagine a film having more long term impact than A Streetcar Named Desire.

Blue Jasmine will have its own Oscar story to tell, but that story is wrapped up in Woody Allen’s own story (Midnight in Paris was nominated for Picture, among other Oscars), and Blanchett’s own Oscar story (she has won supporting but is long overdue for a lead actress win). It’s tough to see where it will land.

When critics dismiss Blue Jasmine as A Streetcar Named Desire “lite” they are doing a great disservice to both Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen. To think that either film could be reduced to something that easy to understand is a shallow first pass and one not worthy of the best in film criticism. Blanche Dubois is one of the more tragic female heroines in film and theater. Jasmine is not tragic, nor is she a mere victim of circumstance; she is not trapped by palpable sexual desire in a world that no longer desires her. Jasmine is taking deserved punishment for having been implicit in unforgivable fraud. You can’t take the politics out of Blue Jasmine and have much left, so perhaps those not wanting to go there can only go in one direction, towards Streetcar. Both films, both lead performances, tell fractures of our American story, stories of women, wives, sluts and whores. Blanchett said that the thing to remember about Jasmine was that she preferred her fantasy world to reality and it was contagious. Spending time with her meant other characters starting believing, too, in an alternate reality. The dentists sees an alluring creature in Jasmine where there is none. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) begins to see herself with a different kind of man and of course, there’s the lifestyle built on a pillar of lies that Jasmine herself advertised as the American dream fulfilled. .

In the end, both women dissolve into insanity for different reasons and may perhaps live their lives locked in delusion. One of the beautiful things about women is their inclination towards fantasy. This is true sexually and otherwise. It has produced a whole industry of romance novels, Twilight books, fashion and diet industry. As Blanche says, “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 the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!” There will never be such self-awareness coming out of Jasmine’s mouth.

Woody Allen has dared to anchor his film with an unsympathetic female character who is not rescued by any man, and who doesn’t ever recover from what she views as the tragedy of her own life. We see Jasmines and Blanches all around us every day. We silently judge them, hand them a brief damnation and get on with our lives. And they drift as lost lambs, without a shepherd to guide them, far away from solid ground.

38 Comments on this Post

  1. When critics dismiss Blue Jasmine as A Streetcar Named Desire “lite” they are doing a great disservice to both Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen. To think that either film could be reduced to something that easy to understand is a shallow first pass and one not worthy of the best in film criticism.

    Aaand end of discussion.

  2. Christopher Lewis

    Sasha, thank you so much for such an intuitive piece about one film that I deeply love and one that I can’t wait to see (I live in Baltimore). The reviews of Blue Jasmine have been, for the most part, exciting to me, because they’ve been so complicated and I have been sad to hear people say Allen would go so far as to merely carbon copy a film like Streetcar. It seems to be, like you said, to be a film informed by Williams, but with a different approach–I can appreciate that!

    Oddly, as I sit here writing, I am on a rewatch of the Mad Men season finale and Peggy Olson (so brilliantly played by Elisabeth Moss–let’s get her into a Woody Allen movie, ASAP) and she just spoke perhaps my favorite line of one of the women on the show yet, “Well, aren’t you lucky to have ‘decisions'” It’s nice to sit back and read an article that so intelligently maps out depictions of women in a complicated manner–and how refreshing to know that with Allen, we have a filmmaker who is willing to put a woman first. Thanks again, Sasha.

  3. Sasha,

    This is film criticism at its best. While I was primed to see this movie simply because Blanchette is one of our greatest actress, you have provided a framework for that experience and told me exactly why I want to see this film first hand. Thank you.

  4. William

    I see you only put in Cate Blanchett as a possible Oscar-nominee in the tracker (I’m hoping she gets in). Don’t you believe it has chances to get nominated in other categories? Like best original screenplay?

  5. Bryce Forestieri

    Film critics are just like the rest of the population; the same proportion have good taste + know what they’re talking about. Always mean to subscribe to The New Yorker, and then I remind myself I’d be paying for David Denby’s salary and I don’t. And then you have Peter Travers who lets his dog write the reviews, and his best of the year top 10 which you’d have a hard time distinguishing from his 10 predictions for the Best Picture Oscar. Then you have the others.

  6. Sasha, sorry to post a comment completely out of its subject.
    But you need to watch Magic Magic. I just watched it last night and I think you will like it. It features an amazing performance from Juno Temple. If the film didn’t went straight to dvd, it would sure catch at least some awards attention (like the Indie Spirits, etc). It went straight to dvd because sony didn’t know how to sell it and it’s really sad to see a film like this not having a chance be shown in a theater. It also features a really nice and surprising turn from Michael Cera! No, I’m not kidding! It’s from the director of the excellent chilean film The Maid. You should give it a try! It’s like Polanski’s Repulsion meets Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCjpd-A94T0

  7. julian the emperor

    Very true. That sentence stood out for me as well.

  8. GoOnNow

    that Blanchett “Streetcar” interview for Charlie Rose is undoubtedly one of my favorite interviews of all time.

    She has never looked more beautiful, spoken more eloquently.

  9. julian the emperor

    Yeah, you need to update your contender tracker. At least for original screenplay, but maybe picture as well (BJ seems as strong a candidate as both Nebraska and Before Midnight), and maybe even Sally Hawkins for best supporting actress?

  10. It’s Woody Allen reading “A Street Car Named Desire”, just like Almodóvar read it, along with All About Eve, in “All About my Mother”. And like “Gosford Park” had an Altman’s vision of “La règle du jeu” and “West Side Story” from “Romeo and Juliet”.

    Storytelling has always had an appreciation for reinterpretations, especially in this times [post industrial/modern

  11. sundance and sxsw hit A TEACHER from hannah fidell just got a trailer : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGu-MPqqFr4&feature=player_embedded

  12. Just an observation and a comment:

    Observation — Vivian Leigh was 37 when filming “Streetcar.”

    Comment (and I know I’m not alone in this) — “Stardust Memories” was one of the worst movies of Woody’s 1970s & 1980s oeuvre.

  13. russell pfohl

    I love Awards Daily, and go to it every day. It’s the best! Thank you so much for your searching, brilliant comparison of Blanche and Jasmine, and why Blanche is an authentically tragic figure and why Jasmine is not, despite her fascinating vulnerabilities.

    One detail: Stella in the film was played by the great Kim Hunter, not by the great Kim Stanley.

  14. moviewatcher

    You’re not alone. It’s a very divisive movie.

    But I LOVE Stardust Memories. From the first frame that film captivated me, entranced me, surprised me, made me laugh and once or twice even reached a poetically transcendent moment of beauty.

    For every single second of that last shot (which is fairly long and locked down) my mind was screaming “DON’T CUT TO BLACK!!!” because I didn’t want this amazing experience to end.

    Thank you Woody Allen for giving us interesting films that have the courage to be intelligent and insightful. Just a few days ago I saw Match Point, another very good movie of his. 77 years old and still knocking out of the part, albeit more irregularly.

    I can’t wait for Blue Jasmine. One of the best directors of all time paired up with one of the greatest actresses to have ever lived.

  15. rouge en rouge

    These “think” pieces are always (un)intentionally hilarious.

  16. Steven Kaye

    Great piece. Cate Blanchett keeps getting asked about Streetcar in interviews and casually bats the comparison aside, bringing up Richard II instead. Very cool.

  17. 1951 was such a powerhouse year for film and acting!

    I think particularly the Best Actor category that year was and is perhaps one of the finest to date. How can one even pick one as best?!

    Monty Clift in “A Place in the Sun”
    Bogat in “African Queen”
    Brando in “Streetcar”
    Frederich March in “Death of a Salesman”
    Arthur Kennedy in “Bright Victory”

    Any of them would be deserving and really wish more is regarded of the amazing Arthur Kennedy who was nominated 5 times in his life with no win. I think he should have won for Peyton Place.

    Random rant and shout out to Mr. Kennedy. But gosh darn Monty Clift was so brilliant too.

    Here is hoping that Cate Blanchett finally takes home her Best LEAD Oscar! Darn Gywneth stole it from her

  18. Schaeffer Nelson

    Sasha, I’m a long time reader. Your writing is sublime and your analysis peerless. Thank you for gracing my life with your fantastic work.

  19. Bob Burns

    yup, agree. another excellent essay. thanks.

    more could be said about how so many of us collude with corruption. enable it. are employed to make these other people feel better about themselves (I’m an architect so I’m entitled to no self-righteousness on the subject….. even Michelangelo created masterpieces to celebrate people he despised) Thinking about the myriad charity banquets that celebrate pirates as civic icons….

    none of this is in Streetcar. The comparison says a lot about how writers preoccupation with psychological insights (please spare me any more rosebuds) overlook and minimalize the despicable crimes of common greed right there on the surface visible to all. We’re led to believe they don’t matter as much as unearthing buried motivation.

    btw…. read Vidal on his friend Tennessee. Williams was a tough old bird.

  20. julian the emperor

    Hey, just read that same piece by Vidal on Williams!

    Very good and very profound piece.

    The ‘United States’ essay collection by Vidal is a colossus of thoughts and insights that I would recommend to anyone with just a passing interest in American society (particularly its arts and letters as well as politics).

  21. Radich

    I’m going to join the many voices and say…Great piece, Sasha.

  22. Cannot wait to see “Blue Jasmine”! Usually, the more I read about a film and performances, it feels like I have already seen it and I don’t want to go anymore. This time it’s the opposite, and without having seen it, I am already covinced that Cate Blanchett should win her award for best performance at the Oscars. Here in Germany, unfortunately we have to wait until November to be able to see that film. Weird, since most of the time it’s “day and date” releases, or at least close to the US release.

  23. Houstonrufus

    Great piece of criticism, Sasha. Streetcar is one of my favorite plays/films. Williams is probably my favorite playwright and Brando is my favorite actor. So any discussion of Streetcar immediately piques my attention.

    Have critics really been calling Blue Jasmine Streetcar “lite”? That is incredibly lazy. I do think it’s an interesting comparison, even if only to discuss the differences between the sensibilities of Allen and Williams. I think if Allen were to try to write a Streetcar, it would probably be something like Blue Jasmine. I just think that is how it would funnel through his artistic sensibility. And that is neither a compliment or a criticism. He’s not a writer of tragic characters, certainly not in the mode of Blanche. So I guess I’m just saying what you’re saying. But I suppose I’m also saying it’s an interesting comparison to make. It highlights the characteristics and strengths of each writer.

    As sort of an aside, I’ll disagree with your statement on Brando not winning the oscar for Streetcar. If any performance in American film ever deserved the oscar, it was Brando’s Stanley. Granted, Brando would go on to win two oscars, and Bogie was by then overdue. But as many have said, Brando’s performance in that film kind of stands as a dividing line in American screen acting. There is before and after. He should have won, at least in my opinion. There are certain works of art or performances I remember as having fundamentally altered my perceptions or understanding of art and creativity. The first time I saw Brando is Streetcar was one of those moments for me.

  24. Houstonrufus

    Also, Sasha, what was the baggage Streetcar the film came with? Not challenging. I’m sincerely asking. I’ve always loved the film, so while rewarded with several, I’ve always wondered why it didn’t win more oscars.

  25. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    I don’t always know if Sasha is following the thread of comments and that’s why sometimes I butt in step up to offer some clarifications.

    I’m going to guess that Oscar voters in 1951 were aware of three kinds of controversial baggage.

    The Broadway production caused a sensation and ran from ’47 to ’49. Plenty of time for any nervous members of the Academy to be aware of the homosexual references and the overt rape scene. Rough stuff for 1951. So rough that the Catholic League of Decency put pressure on the studio to tone those aspects down and make cuts to prevent sensitive moviegoers from going straight to Hell after viewing the uncensored play as written.

    Secondly, of course you know Jessica Tandy had played Blanche in the New York production and received the Tony Award in 1948. Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden were all invited to come to Hollywood to reprise their Broadway performances — but Jessica Tandy was replaced by Vivien Leigh. This might have initially rubbed some members of the acting branch wrong (the same way Audrey Hepburn replacing Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady created so much sympathy for Andrews she won the Oscar for Mary Poppins — though the outcome was better for Vivien Leigh).

    Finally, it’s hard to imagine how shocking or racy Streetcar might have seemed to older Oscar voters who were born in 1880. But even if we look back now and recognize without doubt how Brando almost single-handedly revolutionized Hollywood acting style in 1951 — to many people who were alive to see that happening it could have looked like a brash young upstart storming the gates of tradition (and playing a coarse rapist).

    Meanwhile, I took Sasha’s indulgent tone about Bogart winning as acknowledgement that he was absolutely worthy and long overdue. Bogart’s run as Hollywood royalty was coming to an end and Brando would have many years ahead of him to win his Oscars. As a rule, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to wait for an actor to make more than one movie before giving him or her the industry’s highest honor. I think Sasha shares that feeling.

    Sasha might come along behind me now and say that I’m way off base in guessing what baggage she meant Streetcar was carrying. But these are the issues that spring to my own mind.

  26. Houstonrufus

    Thanks, Ryan! All well said. I remember seeing the film for the first time as a teenager in the 90’s and feeling like I had seen something groundbreaking THEN, so I can only imagine how it must have landed in 1951. Rather daft of me to ask the question. I thought maybe I was missing a specific scandal or something, but your post certainly reorients me to the context of the time. Again, thanks!

  27. If Blanchett’s click click click performance is nominated over Julie Delpy’s subtle masterpiece, I will be highly disappointed.

  28. GoOnNow

    why not wait and see what we are given by the year’s end, before pointing fingers and making outlandish conclusions?

  29. Is that you Renee Zellweger?

  30. Nomination:

    Cate Blanchett,
    Meryl Streep,
    Emma Thompson,
    Naomi Watts,
    Kate Winslet.

    Winner: Blanchett.
    Inevitable nomination: Thompson.

  31. MSParks

    Anyone know where to find the complete Streecar interview with Charlie Rose? There seems to be only 2 short clips on Youtube.

  32. what a great review … I think this movie is essentially a very un-preachy, masterfully unpreachy political statement.

  33. david_from_pa

    I just walked in the door after seeing the film, which I had read nothing about whatsoever beforehand, googled Blue Jasmine Streetcar Named Desire and this review/analysis came up near the top. I think Sasha is right on. Blue Jasmine can easily stand on its own as a major work that may have some roots in Streetcar, but grows into a distinct and original creative work.

  34. Chuck Johnston

    Here’s a recent show with Cate talking about “Jasmine.” There are lots more on IMDB.com, but I wasn’t sure which one you wanted.
    http://www.imdb.com/video/hulu/vi1726785817/.
    I just watched the “Breaking Bad” show he did. He’s so good…

  35. Fantastic review. I already agreed with what you said, and you made me see the two films in a more deeper way with respect to how the main characters view men and social climbing. I’m posting my own review on my blog later today.

    The only problem (a more personal issue I have) is that Allen used adoption as an excuse for why the two sisters are so different. I’m a bit sick of writers using adoption to explain away why someone is different in any way.

  36. Amadeus Webern

    I totally agree with this review. Any similarities between Blue Jasmin and A Streetcar Named Desire are only superficial. Blue Jasmin treats entirely different themes. Very well said!

  37. Iman Humaydan

    I saw the film two days ago. The brilliant direction of Woody Allen glues the audience to hear and watch jasmine story till the end. Kate Blanchette was amazing. From the first 10 minutes I could not keep myself from making a comparison between the two characters Blanche and Jasmine. I saw a Streecar Named Desire more than 5 times in my life, still I am ready to see it again. I do not think I will say the same about Blue Jasmine. Not because it is a bad film, no, just because you go out from the film without remembering any moving word said by the main female character. It is a successful film that does not mark any thing in your mind nor in your imagination nor memory. While Blanch is an existential character, a Greek heroine…. her words stay as long as you remember. Jasmine did not succeed in convincing us…. she knew what her husband was doing and she did nothing because she was enjoying the wealth and the Dolci Vita. She only called the FBI just after she knew that her husband has a serious affair and thinking of separation. She was ready to start a second life with a new man built on lies, her lies. Lies not magic!! I think Jasmine is a caricature of Blanch…. a successful caricature… but not a genuine one.

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