Blanche DuBois is an iconic character of the white male American imaginary, a damaged, even pathological figure, whose sexual and emotional pathos drives Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. The canonical play has been revived on Broadway several times in the last few years, once with Cate Blanchett in a production originally mounted with her Sydney-based theatre company, and once by director Emily Mann with an all-African American cast. Now, Woody Allen enters the Williams arena with his own film adaptation of the play, also starring Blanchett, in Blue Jasmine.
Reconceived as a cross between Streetcar and the Bernie Madoff story, the film chronicles the downfall of “Jasmine” (born Jeanette, the Blanche character), a comfortably clueless member of the 1% whose life begins to unravel when her husband, Hal (Alex Baldwin), is indicted for financial fraud of the Madoff magnitude. Fleeing New York, where former friends now only pity her reduced circumstances, she settles in with her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. By Jasmine’s standards, Ginger’s apartment on Van Ness is tiny and cramped, but Jasmine proceeds to crowd it even more with her out-sized personality and expectations, disrupting numerous people’s lives with her illusions and narcissism.
Allen uses flashbacks to measure the distance Jasmine has fallen, and to gradually implicate her in her own misfortune. From a millionaire’s life in New York to a one-bedroom flat in San Francisco; from cavorting with the rich to working as a receptionist for a lecherous dentist; from presuming she deserves the luxury she’s been handed to maintaining those illusions, even when she’s precipitated the crisis that dissolves her thoughtless privilege, Allen creates a compelling portrait of a ruined woman.
His adaptation—which uses much of Williams’s plot and some of the play’s dialogue, even as it expands the narrative to include a Madoff-like scheme and a revised story for Ginger (the Stella character)—also emphasizes that Jasmine is nothing but a performance of herself. Where Williams hinted that Blanche had a soul that was corrupted by circumstances both emotional and economic, Allen denies Jasmine a heart. As Stacy, Feminist Spectator 2, remarked, she’s only a series of screens, projecting an image of herself crafted to fit what “white woman” and “wealth” mean on the Upper East Side of contemporary New York.
As a result, where those recent Broadway theatre revivals managed to cook up some empathy for the deluded Blanche, Allen makes it difficult to feel anything but contempt for Jasmine. Blanchett’s completely unvarnished performance is marvelous; it’s rare to see a woman so exposed on screen, and an actor so unconcerned with how she looks. That Blanchett plays against Jasmine’s utter concern with her own surface creates a tension that makes her performance fascinating.
The rest of the cast, too, is excellent. Hawkins plays Ginger/Stella with confused guilelessness, one moment persuaded by Jasmine’s pretentions that Ginger deserves more from her life, and the next settling in rather happily with the rough-hewn mechanic, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who adores her. Hawkins captures Ginger’s confusion about how much striving is enough, given that she’s actually content with what she has. Ironically, Hawkins—who’s British—and Blanchett—who’s Australian—play these quintessential American characters with real insight into what they represent about contemporary white American femininity.
Chili serves as the film’s Stanley, the working-class, physically magnetic hero, given a much more lovable, humanized reading by the sweetly sexy Cannavale. Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight is the upper-middle-class Mitch stand-in with the potential to save Jasmine from herself. With a conveniently deceased wife and a ton of money, Dwight seems the perfect white man on a white horse riding to Jasmine’s rescue. But she can’t stop herself from lying to him about her past, finally, once again, undoing any possibility of future redemption.
Blanchett makes these plot machinations believable, and the combination of Williams’s dialogue with Allen’s (and exchanges that seem improvised, they sound so natural and spontaneous) keeps the film moving along in a literate and compelling way. But as my former colleague, the famed, late theatre historian Oscar Brockett, used to say, “Why this play [read film]? Why now?” The perennial interest in the madwoman (as Sondra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote years ago) who’s somehow the exemplar of white femininity; the woman whose agency is warped by a deluded sense of social propriety; the woman with no desire of her own, except for maintaining her own fantasy of herself, from the outside, for others . . . isn’t stereotype shopworn by now?
Blanchett (for whom Oscar buzz has already begun) is terrific and makes the film worth seeing, along with Hawkins, Cannavale, Sarsgaard, and Baldwin as the Madoff figure, Louis C.K., as a man who seduces Ginger without telling her that he’s married, and even Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s first husband, Augie, all of whom bring nuance to characters that could be two-dimensional. But it’s too bad we get to see all this good work in such a tired tale.
The Feminist Spectator