Emotions of a woman as captured in Blue Jasmine


A still from the movie Blue Jasmine

by Nanda Pethiyagoda

Cate Blanchett won the 2013 Oscar for Best Actress in the film Blue Jasmine written and directed by Woody Allen. The film won two more nominations; for best supporting actress (Sally Hawkins) and best original screenplay (Woody Allen). The script would have been newly crafted but the theme and story resemble A Streetcar Named Desire too decisively to be labeled coincidental. The resemblance of the two films adds to the interest in the new film by Woody Allen since it is stimulating to track similarities and pin down samenesses.

Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar

named Desire

I am sure most who read me have seen Marlon Brando brutalizing the screen with his appearance as the primal, rough-hewn, sneering Stanley Kowalski - the star of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning 1947 play converted to a film in 1951. The play was produced on Broadway in 1948 by Elia Kazan with Brando, Jessica Tandy (Blanche), Kim Hunter (Stella) and Karl Malden. In London it was directed by Lawrence Olivier and starred Vivien Leigh. Elia Kazan who directed the Hollywood film had Vivien play Blanche.

Stanley was a force of nature and young Marlon Brando, straight from Method School training, overpowered the stage and screen as he did genteel and highly strung Blanche DuBois played by Vivien Leigh. We now know that Vivien was in real life teetering on the razor’s edge between sanity and insecurity and psychoses, which condition came to a head when filming Elephant Walk in Ceylon later. Thus her role as the beautiful, genteel, sensitive southern belle from Mississippi moving to New Orleans and its oceanfront community, battling with emotions and even sexuality, being brutally crushed by her brother-in-law, may have had echoes resounding in the beautiful British actress playing the role.

In A Streetcar … the rough Kowalski dominates completely his pregnant wife Stella whose sister Blanche comes to live with them after leading the life of a lady; their estate Belle Reve lost due to debauchery of ancestors. Stanley does not like the intrusion of his sister-in-law and deliberately brings her down a peg or two. He completes this by disturbing her irrevocably with his sexuality. He rapes her. She is tossed over the thin line between sanity and madness and is carried away in a straight jacket by hospital orderlies. The film is Marlon Brando’s. Blue Jasmine is Cate Blanchett’s. I was fortunate enough to see it at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies on March 28. The ICES does such a good deed by screening the best in European films and Oscar nominated ones. Is it too much to hope that this and other Oscar contenders will be screened in a public cinema circuit?

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett plays the role of New York socialite married to wealthy businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin). After excruciatingly traumatic happenings, Jasmine comes to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger. Ginger’s marriage to Augie has ended due to the loss of their money through investing in Hal’s business. Ginger lives with her two young sons and is in a relationship with rough and ready Chilli (Bobby Cannavale). Jasmine is smart, chic, and extravagant. With not much money in hand, she nevertheless travels first class from the east coast to the west. She borders on being alcoholic which gets worse, and is on a tightrope of mental stability, swallowing pills. She tries to wean her sister off Chilli. Chilli tries to be good to her, maybe attracted too since he asks her for her telephone number to be given a man whom he ropes in as a blind date for her. Jasmine, wanting to learn interior décor through e-classes, joins a computer literacy course. A co-student inviting her, she goes to a high society party taking her sister along. There they meet two men. Ginger has a huge affair with the married man she dances with and rejects Chilli. She is let down and when the film ends she is back with Chilli. Jasmine meets a good looking diplomat who aims at being a congressman. He falls for her. She poses off as an interior decorator and they get set on decorating a huge place he has just bought. Her husband, she says, was a surgeon who died of a heart attack, with no children. Just as he is set to buy her an engagement ring, Augi appears and truths are spilled out. Jasmine goes home to her sister’s, shattered. She is positively antagonistic to Chilli and goes to a park where she talks loudly to herself. The film ends here. It started with her smart arrival in San Francisco with Vuitton luggage. In cleverly clipped-in flashbacks her life in Manhattan is revealed.

Comparison of two films

The similarities of the stories of the two films are evident. The differences are that in Blue Jasmine the woman teetering between sanity and insanity is centre-staged. While we knew nothing much about Blanche, here we know all about Jasmine’s life in Manhattan. The brother-in-law hates Blanche but is attracted and as a final act of cruelty or because of lust, he rapes her. In Woody Allen’s film, the intended brother-in-law, Chilli, may have been attracted by Jasmine but does not cause her breakdown. She is shattered by being found out and ditched by the future Senator. Woody Allen most definitely updates his story and it is very much a now narrative. He devotes more time to the woman and her emotions than did Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan with Blanche.

Blanche goes mad and that is the end of A Streetcar … In Blue Jasmine, however, Jasmine speaks to herself seated on a park bench. She has been speaking to herself often. So maybe she rehabilitates herself. Allen gives us space to create an ending to the story as we prefer.

Both films show the emotions that wrack women. In Streetcar, they are not explicitly shown on film, only suggested and hinted at. In Blue Jasmine the entire film is about the emotions of a beautiful woman: living high, having no time for her sister and brother-in-law who come visiting to New York having won a generous lottery. Then comes the discovery of Hall’s unfaithfulness and intent to leave her for a young French au pair. Jasmine rages and impulsively rats to the FBI on her husband. Her step-son says he will not forgive her and wants her never to see him. We empathize with Jasmine while jeering her hoity-toityness. We say she deserves what she gets but feel deep sympathy too. Her emotions are most women’s. Woody Allen has crafted a story resembling an earlier one, which leaves us the viewers, emotional and undecided. The only considerate reprieve he gives is that we decide Jasmine’s future – it need not be a straight jacket for her like it was for Blanche. She could bounce back and use her beauty, poise and élan to make her way through life, leaving her sister to hers.

The title of Williams’ play was taken from the streetcar which Blanche hired to get to her sister’s home named Desire. The film has been selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry in the Library of Congress and has been named "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant." It is one of the greats in the film business. Will Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine too go down in film history? Left to be seen.

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