At 78 years old, writer/director Woody Allen is going strong. He’s directed 44 feature length films, one a year for many years. Five of his films brought Oscars to the actresses starring in them. His new film, Blue Jasmine, has already created Academy Award buzz for Cate Blanchett, whose intense, compassionate portrayal of a woman losing her grip on reality is one of the best performances by any actor male or female in a long time.
One thing to remember when you’re praising a performance is that someone, in this case, Woody Allen, had to write the script that the actor performs. As a writer, I say, as painful and difficult to watch as it sometimes is, Blue Jasmine is wondrous and the script is breathtakingly perfect.
Though Blue Jasmine is not a movie for everyone—it’s complex, totally devoid of aliens or car crashes, has no real sex, and is aimed at a mature audience—it’s the kind of film that if you love film as a medium of art you will want to see it. Even if its humor is not really funny (no matter what anyone says), and it’s not a version of Streetcar Named Desire (no matter what any number of film critics maintain) and it’s not about a disagreeable woman (as so many people have said)—it’s about a woman who lost everything—I mean everything—and is trying to create something new and keep it—herself.
Instead of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, Cate Blanchett plays a character out of more recent headlines—she’s closer to Ruth Madoff, the betrayed wife of billionaire crook Bernie Madoff, who engineered the largest fraud in U.S. history, leaving penniless thousands of unwary investors. Ruth lost everything, her homes, her furniture, her jewelry, most of her friends and philanthropic colleagues. One of her sons committed suicide. For a while she tried to live with her sister, who had also been wiped out by the fraud, but it didn’t work out.
Now 72, Ruth Madoff lives near her other son and spends her time with family. She hasn’t spoken to her husband, whom she once loved dearly, in over a year. That’s understandable too. After the news of the financial fraud came out, the tabloids were full of sordid tales about which Ruth had been totally ignorant – the tawdry affairs Bernie had had over the years, sometimes with women she knew. Her husband’s betrayal was not only gigantic, it was heinous.
Left nearly penniless by my 5-year “divorce from hell,” I often tried to put my situation in perspective by repeating, “At least I’m not Ruth Madoff.” Maybe this might be the reason, contrary to what many (mostly male) critics said, that I did not find the Cate Blanchett character in this movie as unlikable as they did. I saw her as damaged and clueless, terrified and lonely and no less shell-shocked than a combat veteran. Imperious yes, irritated by every day untidiness, yes, but always brave even when her fantasies of redemption are destroyed.
In Cate Blanchett’s unforgettable face, we can see the whole horrible gamut of betrayal, both the big picture and the humiliating minutiae. And underneath that betrayal, behind that stare of desperation and vulnerability, burn the embers of the will to survive, and maybe even a sliver of grace. I think it’s understandable what Jasmine says about herself. “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”
We meet Jasmine (who changed her name from Jeanette to be more interesting) when she disembarks in San Francisco from the plane from New York. It seems she has been talking about her life, non-stop, to the poor woman stuck next to her on the long flight. What’s immediately obvious is that Jasmine is stressed to the max, but she is also unbelievably beautiful, elegant, used to the details that rich people expect, and completely unprepared for even a small iota of real life.
She intends to come to visit her sister Ginger (English-born Sally Hawkins) and start life anew. Alas, Ginger lives in a walk-up that isn’t much bigger than Jasmine’s former walk-in closet, she has two bratty boys who never took etiquette lessons, a burly ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) who hates Jasmine, and a current boyfriend, Chili (Bobbie Cannavale), who’s on his way to the same attitude.
Jasmine and Ginger, it turns out, really are sisters, but both of them were adopted and have no blood relationship. Ginger felt that her adoptive parents loved the older, beautiful Jasmine more than they did her, so she ran away from home at age 14 and has lived on the margins ever since. Jasmine went to an eastern college, learning everything she needed to apply to high society later. In her junior year, while the band played “Blue Moon,” she met and was passionately wooed by a fabulously rich older man, Hal (Alec Baldwin). Marrying Hal ended Jasmine’s academic career and put her in the fevered greenhouse of high fashion, mansions, worldwide travel, charity galas and lots of friends who lunch.
Though there were plenty of signs, Jasmine never seemed to question where Hal’s enormous amount of money came from, nor where it went. She seemed equally blind to his many flirtations until one of her lunch friends embarrasses her with the long list of Hal’s girlfriends. Then Jasmine does something she regrets– and the house of cards comes crashing down. Like Bernie Madoff, Hal is sent to jail and like Ruth Madoff, Jasmine is shunned as if she herself were the convicted criminal.
As Jasmine tries to cope with ordinary life in San Francisco, the story seamlessly shows us her previous life, as if going back in time were not only the dreamy memories Jasmine needs to remember to keep her sanity, but also to cruelly point out how far she had fallen. She gets a job as the receptionist to a nerdy dentist (Mark Stuhlberg), only to have him sexually harass her. Although several people in the audience laughed at this scene, it wasn’t really funny—it was pathetic. How much farther could Jasmine fall than to be in the clutches of a boss who wanted to seduce her with nitrous oxide?