My, how the mighty fall in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” a dramedic character study about the eponymous diva played by a riveting Cate Blanchett. In the movie, opening today in limited release, we catch up with Jasmine after the behind-bars death of Hal (Alec Baldwin), her Ponzi-schemer husband, whose arrest begat a devastating government liquidation, leaving Jasmine with little more than the Chanel duds on her back and Louis Vuitton bags in her hand. As the once-pampered Manhattan housewife tells it, she was reduced from hosting parties in the Hamptons to—gasp!—a customer service job on Madison Avenue, selling shoes to the same women who munched on endive salad in her foyer. Having desperately fled to the home of her working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco, the last stop on her route to rock bottom, Jasmine spills the worst of her post-Hal debacle back east. “Can you believe I had to live in Brooklyn?” she sobs on Ginger’s shoulder, as if sharing a zip code with the likes of Hannah Horvath, alter ego of “Girls” star Lena Dunham, is as abysmal as it gets.
Reportedly inspired by a story Allen heard from his wife about a friend of a friend who endured a Ruth Madoff-esque experience, “Blue Jasmine” is very much a chronicle of a 1-Percenter’s shattering descent, which, for the average viewer, has a distinctly sinful sweetness. But while Jasmine may be a willfully ignorant riff on Carmela Soprano, averting her eyes from her husband’s misdeeds to enjoy the riches they yield, the character has even more in common with the Hannah Horvaths of the world—certainly more than she’d ever care to admit.
“It’s a very contemporary fable for the moment,” Blanchett said earlier this week at a press conference in a Waldorf Astoria ballroom, a venue that’d suit Jasmine just fine. “That’s the thing with Woody: He’s not only keyed into the zeitgeist, and the epic nature of [the Madoff] catastrophe, but many stories like it. There are thousands of them—thousands of stories.”
One such story is the increasingly popular plight of the American millenial, who, stereotypically, grew up in a world of promises, privilege, and higher education, only to have prospects stripped away in the wake of economic meltdown. The result? A generation of drifting malcontents with coping-skill deficits, who shudder when faced with grown-up challenges, and struggle greatly with accepting less than what they think they deserve. Take Dunham’s Hannah, who initially ekes out a living as an unpaid intern leeching money off of her parents, all in the service of a near-hypothetical writing career she barely has the guts to pursue. Then there’s Greta Gerwig’s Frances in “Frances Ha,” an apartment-hopping aspiring dancer who’d rather live in bohemian denial than, as suggested in a bit of tough love by her mentor, deign to take an office job while honing her craft.
These are the very self-imposed plagues of entitlement suffered by Jasmine, who, without any regard for the 9-to-5-ers in her presence, like grocery-bagger Ginger and her handyman boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale), belittles “medial” employment like waiting tables and nursing. “I’d go nuts!” Jasmine snobbishly declares, insisting instead that she go back to school to become “something substantial,” like an “interior decorator” or, most hilariously, an “anthropologist.” The irony is that Jasmine is already going quite nuts, and a little medial work would almost certainly help her sanity and her tattered link to reality, just as it would benefit Hannah or Frances. Alas, even when she makes an attempt as a dentist’s secretary, and meets an unfortunate road bump (one all but identical to the ass-grabbing habit of one of Hannah’s bosses), Jasmine takes it as a sign to retreat, and to revert back to the only thing she knows how to do: Live inside a funded fantasy. Even her name is a frilly contrivance, as she changed it from Jeanette.
“There began the fiction,” said Blanchett. “She set about creating a fantasy world, and inhabiting that idea of the princess.”
Though each have a unique and startling freshness, Jasmine and Hannah are hardly the foremost antiheroines to cover this terrain. And while Blanchett is quick to give ample credit to Allen, whose “genius,” she says, and “brilliance as a dramatist” helped cement the material’s far-reaching resonance, it’s she who apparently focused most on tracing the archetype to its classic roots. The actress and her director never discussed her celebrated turn on stage as the like-minded Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but Blanchett surely used Blanche for inspiration.
“There’s a strong line in American drama of women who walk the borderline between fantasy and reality,” Blanchett said, “like Blanche in ‘Streetcar’ and Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s ‘A Long Day’s Journey into Night.’ Those are reference points to be drawn upon, which I certainly did. As to whether [the characters are] sympathetic or not, there’s a way of looking at that where you can say, ‘Is Blanche a compulsive liar? Or is the world just set out to stamp out the poetry in her soul?'”
Now there’s a line that could have sprung from the mouth of a certain woe-is-me, self-professed “voice of her generation.” Even more than Dunham, Blanchett’s formidable chops somehow manage to elicit pity for her character, but viewer sympathy is deeply tested by how she interacts with others. Like Hannah, Jasmine not only exploits people with an almost unconscious wellspring of selfishness (“She never cared about you when she had money,” Chili warns Ginger), but also spreads her delusional discontentment like a virus. It’s no accident that, as “Girls” has progressed, Marnie (Allison Williams) has continued to inherit the less favorable qualities of her former roommate, and, likewise, after Jasmine rolls into San Fran, her inability to experience peace starts rubbing off on Ginger, who experiments with an affair despite the good man she has at home. The difference is that Ginger retains the wherewithal to bounce back.
“Everyone has issues, and everyone is deluding themselves to some degree,” Blanchett said. “Jasmine just does it to a spectacular extent.”
Indeed, what “Blue Jasmine” illustrates more than anything else, and what “Girls” presented near the end of its last season, is that denial and the avoidance of mature challenges can severely cripple the psyche. Many loyal fans were alarmed when Hannah was revealed to have a history of OCD, which resurfaced amid the pressure of tackling her first real job, a job she claimed to have always wanted: The writing of an e-book derived from her own material. Hannah started counting her every action, going dangerously deep when cleaning her ears, and revisiting a psychiatrist. What may have seemed like a stretch was in fact a dramatic exaggeration of a plausible millennial meltdown—the spectacular extent, if you will. Though her mother eventually put her foot down, Hannah was raised by enabling parents in the you’re-so-special 1990s, and both factors proved as existentially disarming as the recession. Meanwhile, Jasmine, as she exhaustingly reiterates, was “swept off her feet” by Hal in her early twenties, never having to want for anything or lift a finger in her adult life. And though a twist shows just how active Jasmine was in her world-upending rug-pull, the character was already facilitating her own destruction.
“Her flaw is tragic,” Blanchett said. “Oedipus, for example, fucks up royally—I mean he marries his mother, for god’s sake. But it’s a tragedy because he does it unwittingly, and Jasmine is the sort of unwitting agent of her own downfall too. She’s on a cocktail of various different things, and that was interesting thing to explore: ‘When is she on Xanax? When has she not had a drink?’ But I think, in the end, it was the internal cocktail that was really interesting to play. She’s so riddled with fear.”
And it isn’t lost on Blanchett that, right now, that kind of fear has multi-generational relevance. “Even though [‘Blue Jasmine’] can seem like the demise or fall from grace of a privileged little rich girl, there’s a lot of people who’ve had a fantasy of what it means to live in America, and that has been blown apart in the last couple of years,” the actress said. “So I think there’s a lot to relate to for people of all ages, who’ve had to reshape their economic circumstances in ways forced upon them. They’ve had to really look at who they are, and what their aspirations are, and what they want, and how they’re going to pit themselves against the world now.”
As for “Girls,” Blanchett claims it’s one of her “all-time favorite shows,” and if there’s a single “Blue Jasmine” scene that typifies both texts’ melancholic humor, it’s the one in which Jasmine is sitting across a table from Ginger’s sons in a restaurant. Looking drunk and bedraggled, and getting grilled by the kids about the rumors they’ve heard from their mom, Jasmine is spilling her guts about Prozac and electro-shock therapy. The scene is a riot if only for the looks on the kids’ faces, but it’s also terribly unfortunate, as it soon becomes clear that Jasmine, who could easily be swapped out for Hannah, has less emotional maturity than her preteen nephews. At last, Jasmine levels with the boys, confessing, “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming.” Or, ya know, jab their eardrums with Q-Tips.