In “Blue Jasmine,” Cate Blanchett gives the finest
single performance I have ever seen in a Woody Allen film.
One could well argue that in a way, she’s cheating – merely lifting the most important elements of her previous performance as Blanche DuBois in the 2009 Sydney Theater Company stage production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Liv Ullman – longtime muse of Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman – directed that one. You can bet, then, that when it opened in New York, Allen was a conspicuous attendee.
Of Blanchett in that 2009 production in New York, John Lahr wrote in the New Yorker that “Blanche is the Everest of modern American drama, a peak of psychological complexity and emotional range which many stars have attempted and few have conquered … Blanchett, with her alert mind, her informed heart, and her lithe patrician silhouette gets it right from the first beat.”
“Blue Jasmine” posits the perfectly poised Allen question: What if swindler Bernie Madoff’s wife, Ruth, had been set free on the world to become a kind of new Blanche DuBois?
The fictional cinematic answer to that question in Allen’s case is almost as extraordinary news as the performance by Blanchett in the film’s center. In comparison, her Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” was almost a pathetic act of impersonation. What she does in “Blue Jasmine” is one of those performances that is almost too good to win an Oscar.
So, too, is this one of Allen’s best films – certainly one of his best late-life films. He is now 77, an age when even the best film directors are most often known to become shadows of their former selves.
In contrast, Allen in his 60s and 70s has become an almost reckless chance-taker – most astonishingly in “Match Point,” a Hitchcockian thriller which he made in England with eerie precision and grace. It’s the one Allen movie nobody could have anticipated before it was made. Getting away from Manhattan has almost given him a new career.
He does it with phenomenal cleverness in “Blue Jasmine” – by following Jasmine (real name, the more prosaic Jeanette) from Park Avenue to her lower- middle-class sister’s crowded digs in San Francisco after Jasmine’s crooked husband, the Wall Street grandee, is sent up the river for trashing the fortunes of countless investors. One of those investors, in fact, was her sister’s (Sally Hawkins) ex-husband, whose sudden lottery prize money evaporated into nothing in the hands of the thieving Madoff-like parasite (played by Alec Baldwin).
Her sister’s ex-husband is played by Andrew Dice Clay, which should confirm for you everything you’d ever need to know about Allen’s complete unconcern with our age’s dependence on phony moral outrage among privileged narcissists to prove to themselves that they really do care about others in the world.
To the eternally censorious, the once-blockbusting brutal comedy of “Diceman” Clay might disqualify him forever from the respectable place conferred by, say, appearing in an Allen movie. And with his own experiences in the pillory of the censorious, it is obvious that Allen couldn’t possibly care less about others’ prune-faced disapproval. Clay is perfect for the role and there he is in the film doing fine work, proving it with every line.
Bobby Cannavale plays her sister’s current boyfriend, whose style is cramped no small bit by the sudden arrival of Jasmine, the delusional Park Avenue diva now reduced to directing appointment traffic in the office of a clumsily amorous San Francisco dentist.
What is so phenomenal about Blanchett’s performance is that she is not only able to hit all those Blanche DuBois notes of absurd pretension and heart-rending pathos and madness, she is able to add, with uncanny grace, all of Allen’s wit and humor. We are used to being astonished by Blanchett in movies (“I’m Not There,” “Notes on a Scandal”), but what she does in “Blue Jasmine” contains all the fullness and richness that her profession aspires to at its best and so rarely achieves.
Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” is an American tragedy – a brilliantly poetic vision of social pretension’s inadequacy in the face of the brute force of class reality. America’s much-vaunted social and economic mobility isn’t always kind to pretenders; realists can always reintroduce them to the horrors they’ve wanted to escape – and revel in the malicious pleasure of doing so.
The secret about “Streetcar” though is something that Allen, ultra-realist, bless him, knows – that deep in the play’s cracks there is a lot of comedy almost screaming to be let out. Class abrasions in a supposedly classless society can be pitilessly funny.
When Jon Voight came to Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre to play Stanley Kowalski in the play under the direction of Williams’ pal Jose Quintero, he found one way to reveal the secret comedy residing in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Purists cried foul and decried Voight’s lazy grasp of the role’s low-hanging fruit.
But Voight understood something primitive and basic about Stanley’s relationship to the audience, which is likely to be closer to Stanley than Blanche.
By melding Blanche with the tale of Madoff and his wife, Allen has made an eminently American 21st-century comedy that, ultimately in its brilliant ending, has no fear of the tragedy hiding in its cracks.
For a brief second at the end, Allen doesn’t seem to know it. His beloved New Orleans jazz comes up on the soundtrack in a way that signifies comedy in his other films (there is great traditional jazz, of course, that does the opposite – Sidney Bechet’s “Blue Horizon” for instance).
But Blanchett knows what lurks in the words he wrote – everything. She won’t let the tragedy go astray.
It’s heart-rending – an actress whose indomitability gives the film whatever transcendence it has.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale and Alec Baldwin
Director: Woody Allen
Running time: 98 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sexual suggestiveness and language.
The Lowdown: Comedy/drama about a Park Avenue princess forced to live with her poor and struggling sister when her husband, a Wall Street crook, is sent to jail.