Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine Is Powerful, Disturbing

As my Huffington readers know, I have had a long relationship with Woody Allen. I went to a school in Brooklyn, New York called Midwood High, across from Brooklyn College. When I was a senior there, there was a funny, bespectacled freshman named Allen Stewart Konigsberg writing jokes for the school's newspaper,The Argus. I used to read his funny stuff aloud and predicted he might have a future in show business. The young man had gone to the same public school as me, P.S. 99, and lived just one block from me on Avenue K in Flatbush. I advised him to submit some jokes to columnists like Earl Wilson and Leonard Lyons, which he did...and they were printed. A start. Some years later, I was Production V.P. of a film company called Palomar Pictures, financed by the ABC Network. By then the comedy writer's name went from Heywood Allen to Woody Allen and he had graduated from doing standup routines in the Duplex club in the Village to becoming a very successful TV writer. I often went to Michael's supper club to hear him play clarinet with his jazz group. He once joked that he was expelled from NYU for cheating on his metaphysics exam after being caught looking into the soul of the student sitting next to him.Then, in 1966 he wrote a Broadway show called Don't Drink The Water. One day my partner in the film company came in after seeing the show and told me he had gone backstage and committed to making a film of Woody's show. I protested that I had seen it on opening night and didn't think it would work as a movie. (It was about an American Embassy behind the Iron Curtain; later it was filmed and didn't do well.) My associate then said to me, "Okay, you know him, fix it." I visited Woody and we decided to instead film a screenplay he had written called "Take The Money and Run, a bank-robbing comedy. He wrote, directed and starred in it; I recall that the film cost about $600,000 to shoot in San Francisco and received excellent reviews. One critic said it was the funniest gangster movie ever made. It showed a tidy profit for us ... and an amazing film career was born.

Woody Allen Jay Weston photo

It is now 44 films later, and Woody is 77. (In contrast, Martin. Scorsese has made a dozen films in the same period.) In recent years I have favorably reviewed a raft of Woody's films, those made in Spain, Paris and Rome. (Remember the line in Vicky Cristina Barcelona when Penelope Cruz purrs: "If you don't start undressing me soon, this is going to turn into a panel discussion." Priceless.) I hear he is working on a Broadway musical based upon his "Bullets Over Broadway " and know that he is now shooting a film in the South of France, one in which he will appear. On Saturday, I attended a packed screening of his latest film, BLUE JASMINE (Sony Pictures Classics), at the Motion Picture Academy. It was quite amazing, a revelation in so many ways. I do know that at Oscar time my vote for Best Actress will be going to the 44-year old Australian actress, Cate Blanchett, who stars as Jasmine in this film. No question it is a performance which ranks right up there in the pantheon of great movie female portrayals. On Charlie Rose, she said that she had given up all hope of working with Woody when, out of the blue, she got a call from him. He said he had written a script and would she read it. And she said, "Yes, of course, Mr. Allen." He sent it, I read it, I called him to say "I would like to do it," and in all of 45 seconds he said "Great. I'll see you in San Francisco." In an interview this week, Woody said that he hired her and knew enough to get out of the way and let her do her thing. "After all, she's Cate Blanchett." Cate said on the Rose show: "Once you realize that Woody is never pleased, never satisfied, that's why he makes a film a year, that's why he's so prolific as a filmmaker, you realize he is in some exquisite agony and its horrific for him to hear what he has written."

Cate and Woody. Sony Pictures Classics

In an interview, Woody said that he got the idea for the film from his wife, Soon Yi Previn, who told him about several wealthy women in their upper Manhattan East Side neighborhood who had fallen on hard times and had to take jobs. Everyone has compared Cate's character to Ruth Madoff, but Woody claims that he did not model her on that unfortunate woman. Rather, I suspect, he had in the back of his mind the character of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William's "Streetcar Named Desire," which Blanchett had played brilliantly in Liv Ullman's production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009. Cate has been all over the airwaves this week publicizing the film, so I won't go into intricate detail about the plot. Sufficient to say that she/Jasmine (born Jeanette) had been married to a Wall Street scoundrel and adulterer, Alec Baldwin, and had lived in the lap of luxury for years...until, (spoiler) thanks to her, the FBI showed up one day in front of his office and carted him off in handcuffs to the hoosegow, where he self-expired. We find her at the opening on a plane to San Francisco (in first class, even though she is dead broke), talking non-stop to a fellow passenger. "She couldn't stop babbling about her life," the woman says to her husband at the baggage claim.
We learn she has to move in with her sister Ginger (not a biological sibling, both adopted. Their class differences are explained when Ginger says that their adoptive mother preferred the blond sibling, and she ran away at the first opportunity to seek her own way.) Now she is living on South Van Ness over a taco shop. Someone asked Woody why San Francisco and he replied that he could have shot it anywhere but it seemed a nice place to spend the summer. (Having produced a film there with Alan Arkin and Carol Burnett, Chu Chu & the Philly Flash, I can attest that there isn't a bad vista to shoot anywhere in that beautiful city.)

Cate and Alec Baldwin Sony Pictures Classics

Jasmine's sister is a kind of nice, vulnerable nebbish (37-year old British actress Alice Hawkins, who worked with Woody once before). Her marriage to Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) had exploded when their small nest egg of lottery winnings had been vanished by Jasmine's husband, leaving the sister with two small, rambunctious boys while she works as a checker in a supermarket. (Andrew Dice Clay is that foul-mouthed 1980s comic who had kind of disappeared from sight of late. After the Academy screening on Saturday, he took some questions on stage and said that he was astonished when Woody's casting girl called him in for a meeting.) I predict a brand new acting career for Clay off this performance, a tour-de-force of nice bravado and despair. The divorced sister, Ginger, is being romanced by a nice uncouth guy, an auto repairman named Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who also appeared on stage after the screening. He is somewhat the Stanley Kowalski character of "Streetcar" but not with the viciousness of Brando. Louis C.K. another comic, plays Al, a smooth-talking married guy who romances the sister until his deceit is discovered.

Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay Sony Pictures Classics

Enter Jasmine into the mix, broke and distraught, and we begin to see the Tennessee Williams character emerge in full bloom, "Who do I have to sleep with to get a Stoli martini?" gives an indication. In lengthy flashbacks we see her former life in Manhattan and the Hamptons and the illusion she was creating. After going bust, she desperately takes a job in a Madison Avenue shoe store, only to be measuring shoe sizes of people she hosted at a dinner party just months before. In San Francisco, becoming increasingly delusional, Jasmine - a snob and a liar, but riveting in her need, meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who briefly offers her a romantic out. He is a wealthy, widowed diplomat who falls for her, and she compounds the mix by telling small lies which get bigger. ("I am an interior designer.") She goes off the deep end emotionally and can't handle the relationship. Fantasy merges with reality in her mind and we sit on the edge of our seats as she falls into the snake pit. Scene after scene builds the dramatic tension. There's a plot point where Jasmine takes a job as a receptionist in a dentist's office, played by Michael Stuhlberg, who is a married lech and physically attacks her. Another subplot involves an adopted son, Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), from her prior life, who disappeared after his father's betrayal, and reappears in a music store in Marin and wants no part of her...revealing a stunning truth about what sent Hal/Baldwin to jail.

Cate Blanchett Sony Pictures Classics

Cate said on Charlie Rose the other night that Woody had to keep reminding her that "this is a comedy"...but although it has more than its share of laughs, it is not a comedy. Perhaps a dramedy, with emphasis on the drama. Startling, Blanchett is fascinating in her complicated ferocious performance, often mocking herself at the same time she sadly moves along. I sympathized and wanted even more of her while I was repulsed by the jittery, rambling self-delusion. (Yes, as a much-married man, I have encountered women like this.) The one-percent woman involved with the 99 percent common people... a reflection of society in 2013. The Woodster's laughter has a sharp edge.

Cate, Sally, Andrew Sony Pictures Classics

As I mentioned earlier, Woody still plays clarinet with a jazz group, and the musical score is bluesy wonderful, with the song, Blue Moon, playing an important role. It was playing when, just out of college (where she studied anthropology) she met the fast-talking Hal, Baldwin, in a right-on-performance. Incidentally, he looks great here. In a searing scene when she babysits her two nephews, she ask the unknowing kids if they know that song. "I used to know the words," she adds boozily. "Now they're a jumble." God, she is so brilliant, the brittle, sophisticated, delusional center of this powerful, disturbing, shattering film. I left the theatre profoundly distressed at the shattering last scene..so right on (Cate out on the street, hair wet from the shower, no makeup, talking to a stranger and then to herself, so hopeless.) I told my companions that I know what the next unseen scene would have been...the police called, the psychiatric ward, the sister called, and then commitment to an institution. Hopefully, there she might be weaned off Stoli and Xanax and helped by 'the kindness of strangers'. But doubtful.

Cate Blanchett Sony Pictures Classics

A shout-out is due to all the participants: Woody's charming sister Letty Aronson is one of the three producers, along with Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson. Exec producers were Leroy Schechter and Adam Stern. The fine cinematographer was Javier Aguirresarobe (from Barcelona), production designer was Santo Loquasto (who many years ago did my "Night of the Juggler"), costume deigner was Suzy Benzinger, who hit it with her white Chanel jacket, Hermes bag, every touch was Park Avenue perfect, even Ginger's tacky yellow Fendi bag, a gift from Jasmine. Alisa Lepselter was the editor, and she must have nerves of steel to work with the nervous genius. And his two long-time casting women, Juliet Taylor (since "Love and Death" in 1975) and Patricia DiCerto. It has a PG 13 rating and runs 98 minutes, a lifetime and then some.

We once asked Woody why he had never moved to Los Angeles, and his legendary response was, "I couldn't live in a city where the only cultural advantage is making a right turn on a red light." It is our loss, of course.

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