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.