As human beings, we’d like to assume we’re equipped to cope with emotional trauma—but we’re not. Hell, we’d like to think we’re equipped to deal with the troubles that plague our everyday existence, and yet, we’re certainly not. We may not find ourselves with “saliva dribbling out of our mouths wandering into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism,” or washed away on Xanax audibly reenacting old memories to ourselves in public, but life is hard—and for the neurotic and anxiety-ridden, terribly so. However, there’s always comedy to be found even in the darkest moments and it’s the ability to expose yourself to that, which helps takes a small burden off the weight of existence. And if there’s one filmmaker who has always shown us the difficulties of living with a mind that never stops running—as if being chased by a large, hairy irregular verb—it’s Woody Allen.
For nearly half a century now, his films have possessed an emotional and psychological vulnerability that work through his own past and his own neuroses, turning his movies into a means of therapy—not only for himself but for those audience members that truly invest in his work. There’s a romantic magic and witty spirit of playfulness that pervades even his most serious films, and whether it’s Annie Hall or Midnight in Paris, they serve as an exercise in psychoanalytic release—providing a roadmap to weave through life, love, and an array of disturbed interpersonal relationships. Even when Allen himself is absent from the screen, his presence is always impressed upon his characters—be they male or female—leaving his auteuristic stamp embedded between the words.
With his latest summer film, Blue Jasmine, Allen delivers his weightiest film in years—putting to bed the shallow, slight nature of his previous work, To Rome With Love. Whereas my main argument with the latter rests heavily in his flimsy, two-dimensional portrayal of female characters, with Blue Jasmine, Allen has written a character ferocious and full of force, allowing Cate Blanchett to deliver one of the best performances of her career. From her opening line of dialogue spoken to a kind, elderly stranger on a flight to San Francisco, you see Blanchett has completely vaporized into the skin of Jasmine—tear-stained eyes, anxious cadence, and all—fully sunken into the character’s fractured psyche. In the way that you felt exhausted—both physically and emotionally—after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—the actor’s stamina in the role a marvel to watch—I left my screening of Blue Jasmine feeling more shaky and distressed than when I entered, my own anxiety and emotions unraveled by Blanchett’s bewitching performance.
Like a destructive force of nature that waltzes in and sucks the air out of the room, Blue Jasmine tells the story of a woman completely in the throws of a nervous breakdown. After losing her husband, her fortune, and any sense of security, Jasmine goes out west to San Francisco to move in with her adopted sister, Ginger (played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins). As a broken-down New York socialite cast into a middle-class world populated with “losers” she doesn’t find worthy of her time, Jasmine attempts to assimilate to circumstances but finds herself trapped by her own fantasies. After changing her name from Jeanette to Jasmine in college, she re-imagined a life for herself, elevating her place in society and relying on the kindness of rich men to aide in her fantastical delusions.
With a supporting cast of Andrew Dice Clay (as the tough blue-collar ex-husband of Ginger), Louis CK (as the seemingly romantic side-jawn of Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (the brutish yet vulnerable boyfriend of Ginger), and Peter Sarasgaard (Jasmine’s unsuspecting and ambitious boyfriend), the film lacks Allen’s typical sense of romantic flair and swaps it for a substantial and darker sense of emotion. There’s no fourth wall breaking, no slapstick, no giddy romance—even the romances in the film seem slight and tragic in comparison to the greater weight of existential and psychological unrest. It’s a colder, bitterer pill of a film from Allen than we’ve seen in recent years, and as it cuts back and forth from Jasmine’s fruitful past to her desolate present, we see how one person’s life can spiral down into oblivion as the agent of her own disaster and that of those around her.
On Monday, before the New York premiere of the film, I attended the press conference for Blue Jasmine—sadly sans Allen or Hawkins—which gave me some wonderful insight about the experience of bringing the film to life.
Louis CK on How Allen Cast Him in the Film:
Louis CK: He was so nice to me. He said, “You know, I like your stand up and I know you can act but I don’t know if you can be this guy, he’s a very tough, mean guy so I need to see if you can be that guy.” And I went into the other room and read a scene that he gave and me and I thought, I can’t be this guy. I’ve never really been in a fight or anything, I’m big and I’m not afraid of a lot of people, but I’ve never been in a fight. So I thought, I’ll just read it as myself and not get the part, you know what I mean? So I read it as me and he went, “Oh, okay,” and I knew I didn’t get the part right away. It was one of those things that someone just wants to say, well, that happened, you read that. So I left and I think I cried I was so emotional about it—I just met Woody and he was nice to me and I didn’t get the part and I’ll never see him again. Then I heard that Dice got that part and I thought that was so perfect and I was so happy for him, he’s a good guy. And that was the end of it for me. But then I got a letter that said someone who works for Woody is coming to your house tomorrow with an envelope, and a young woman came to my house and said, I have to take this back with me, so you can have it for forty minutes. And I opened it and it was a letter from Woody saying, “You couldn’t do that guy, but here’s a guy you could do.” And there were three scenes in it and they just made me laugh, and I thought this guy’s a total jerk-off but I could totally play him. So he wrote and said please do the part and I said yes.
Andrew Dice Clay on the connection between stand-up and dramatic acting:
Andrew Dice Clay: Originally I came into stand-up to do acting, but I really didn’t want to go to an acting school. So I figured I’d use comedy stages to develop my own method of acting. Not every comic can act but the ones that can act really have chops, like when you see somebody like Robin Williams who can really do anything from silly comedy to working with guys like Robert De Niro and playing heavy roles, sympathetic roles, vulnerable roles. When I got that called that Louis had failed [laughs], when I got that call, I actually thought that my manager was kidding me. I was here doing a gig at Westberry and my manager called and said Woody wants to meet with you tomorrow and I was like, “You’re kidding, right? For what?” I would never think he could see past the persona I play on stage as a comic, but he really trusted. I’ve been asked today, “Does he give a lot of direction?” And I said that I think the direction comes in his casting. He gets as close to the part on the page with the person and then he lets you really work with it. He was very workable on the set, very open to ideas. Some of the words I would change to fit the way I speak and he was just great with it. I was just excited to get it, I wasn’t even trying to get any more movies, I wasn’t going on any auditions, I was just really focused on my standup. I could do nothing but sit here and thank him for the opportunity and for the chance to challenge myself and do something I haven’t done yet.
Cate Blanchett on challenging roles and whether or not she courts fame:
Cate Blanchett: No. No. I don’t. I haven’t made a movie in a while so I’ve been out of this environment for six years. I didn’t do this to sit here with you guys—as much as I enjoy it—it was to work with Woody and these guys. And the thing about Woody, he’s constantly talking about the audience. He’s very aware of how people will perceive it, but you don’t do it to get anywhere in particular—you do it for the experience.
Blanchett on the comparisons to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire:
CB: We didn’t ever discuss that. The other actors—a lot of whom have worked a lot in the theater—have talked about the setup of the film being similar to Streetcar. Obviously the payoff isn’t and in the end it’s a Woody Allen film. The texture, the tone, the rhythm, the character portrayals and details are quintessentially Woody Allen and not Tennessee Williams. But he never mentioned it, but there are parallels there to be drawn.
Blanchett on her perception and protection of Jasmine:
CB: I don’t find it particularly useful to fall in love or detest a character, that’s up to the audience. I think that’s a bit sentimental to like them or dislike them, because then you’re not going to play them warts and all. There’s plenty of warts to be presented in Jasmine, but in the end her flaw is tragic. Oedipus, for example, fucks up right royally and marries his mother for god’s sake! But it’s a tragedy because he does it unwittingly, and Jasmine, she’s sort of the unwitting agent of her own downfall. What I found most interesting is to delve into her. She’s on a cocktail of various things and that was an interesting thing to see—when is she on Xanax, when has she not had a drink, etc.—but in the end it’s the internal cocktail that was really interesting to play. She’s so riddled with guilt, fear, and rage and then you overlay the situational aspect that Woody has placed the characters in absurd situations. Like the scene of Peter and I in the car, it’s completely absurd but you have to play it for the stakes are high and the situation is real and then the absurdity. And whether the characters are likable or dislikable in that moment is thrown back to the audience.
Peter Sarsgaard: I learned so much watching this film. I was wondering what was going on. I was in my own little world, I interacted with almost no one else and the only person I was interacting with, it seems, might have been unreliable.
On the element of deception in the film:
LCK: Yeah, my guy’s just trying to get something. From what I understand, he works in a stereo store and he meets a very terrific girl and he just wants to eek out this little place where he gets to go to hotels and have romantic sex with Sally Hawkins—which I would like to do if I had that kind of life. But I think that he’s just trying to make something better out of his life. Most people, they’re very shackled by everything they have to do, so when life gets really dreary or so much not like a dream come true, you go outside of reality. I think that’s why most people deceive or lie, because they’re trying to get outside of reality. So you try to say you’re something else or try to find someone else who will believe you that something else is true. I think you can play somebody who is deceptive with sympathy. In most of Woody’s movies, everybody’s just trying their best and they’re failing—trying the best they can living a life, being a little bit happier than they seem to have been meant to be, and that usually means lying.
CB: What the film actually delves into quite deeply is what you choose not to see. So it’s not just people on the Upper East Side or people with political aspirations, Ginger chooses not to see certain aspects of who Jasmine is. So back to the previous question, it’s very dissimilar to Streetcar, yet looking at Streetcar, where you can say: is Blanche a compulsive liar or is the world set up to stamp out the poetry in her soul? Is there something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which she finds herself? And Jasmine doesn’t land in San Francisco with a bunch of people who have their shit together, I mean everyone has issues and everyone is deluding themselves to some degree or wanting to live a fantasy—Jasmine just does it to a spectacular extent.
On working with Sally Hawkins:
CB: I love her. I absolutely love Sally. She was an absolute allie and the first few weeks we cried into our beers together. But she’s a wonderful, wonderful actress and one of the kindest, most generous actors I’ve ever worked with. I don’t know if I’d like to take her to a hotel room and have sex with her…many would.
LCK: Sally’s got this infectious smile and she’s very silly person and she lives in the moment a lot. And then she’s extremely dedicated and breaks herself into pieces to get the thing right. She just worked so hard, and then she was easy to be around. I was really happy to work with her; I felt really lucky.
On where they lie on the spectrum of pessimism and optimism and if recast with actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who would have played Jasmine:
CB: So who would have done better? Many. I was going to say I’m optimistic but now I’m probably pessimistic.
LCK: I just want to say one thing about optimism and pessimism, because I have this conversation with my kids. They say that a pessimist says the glass is half empty, and the optimist says the glass is half full, and my kids and I figured out there’s a third kind of person. I don’t know what you call them, but it’s somebody who sees that the glass is always full because it’s half filled with water and half full with nothing.
Louis on playing a more dramatic role than and being a part of a film:
LCK: I never go out for movies anymore, I have my life in a pretty good rhythm of doing standup and then doing my TV show and I spend time with my kids. And so I never really want to go live on somebody else’s movie set and I never get the part, so I just don’t go out for stuff. So this came out of nowhere, I had no interest in being in anything. I get offered stuff sometimes but I usually just don’t want to do it. Well you’ve got to go live in like Shreveport, Louisiana for like half these things and I just don’t think that’s worth anything. I have custody with my kids for half the time and I want them to count on being with me.
On Woody’s directorial style and working with his actors:
LCK: For me, I wanted to be as little trouble as possible. I think you have to have a sense of proportion, and I knew that Cate and these guys were making a movie and I was in it. I figured with Woody, I should have him need to not focus on me at all—that means basically doing what I was hired to do. I was happy when he didn’t say anything because that meant it was fine, or he’s going to cut me out and I didn’t cause too much trouble. But then some days he would really say to me, “You kind of dumped that, you can try that one better and give me a little something.” One thing he said that always sticks with me is: “That pause was too long for the audience.” And that told me, like Cate was saying, the audience is with him. He’s already already in the seats watching it with a crowd because he’s a comedian, because he came from that. He tried to help us do right for the crowd that’s going to watch it. But otherwise, he’s very humane about movies, some people are not, and he’s very humble too, he says, “I think this is maybe what works.”
CB: The thing he used to say to me was: “the audience has already left the theater.”
PS: Or, “You sound like an actor saying lines.” That’s another good one.
CB: It’s awful but it bonded us. It made us do better the next day. But I actually find him really forthcoming. In the end, because there’s an obvious reverence for Woody and his body of work and I think the danger of that is that the set can become a sacred place where people are sort of laying their offerings at his feet. But when you ask him a question, he’ll give you an answer and so when you set up that dialogue it became really enjoyable and he became free to say “that was awful,” and then I felt free to say “Well what are you after then? I can do this or that or this or that,” and he said “Try that.” So he was forced to direct me.
On the theme of class in the film and schism between Jasmine’s socioeconomic status in comparison to Ginger, Augie, and Chili.
ADC: Well, I didn’t like Cate’s character too much because I hate the rich. I hate them on film and I hate them in reality. For a long time I lived in Beverly Hills, and I’m from Brooklyn, so when you talk to people with old money, it’s like you’re an insect to them. So the way she plays her character was so perfect, I just hated her. She’s great—I actually couldn’t believe I was working with any of them—but I mean, she played it just perfect because I had a neighbor just like her from Beverly Hills. And I had such hatred for this woman that when I had to do some dialogue to Cate, that’s all I could think about. But that’s how those people are. What they were called “new money,” they have no respect for those people that come from blue-collar that work their ass off.
LCK: [to Clay] You’ve been reach for like forty years though.
ADC: [to Louis] I actually going to ask you for a loan today. But you know what I’m talking about. Louis also comes from that kind of family where you break your ass and try to accomplish in life. And when you come from certain families that maybe just things are handed down to you, like Cola Cola, you don’t have to work too hard and you look at anybody who didn’t come from that kind of class like garbage. So that’s how I got into my head. CB: Jasmine obviously foiled your character. The interesting thing about the level of delusion and fantasy that exists with Ginger as well as Jasmine, is that they both were adopted into a pretty lower-middle class family. Jeanette changed her name to Jasmine and there began the fiction and she set out creating a fantasy world and inhabiting that idea of a princess.
ADC: See, I didn’t know that because I never saw the script. I barely had my own lines until the last minute. I would first find that out tonight watching the movie. I haven’t seen anything. LCK: I like that Dice’s example of class is the Cola Cola family. It’s like old blue-blood money.
On the film resonating with a broad audience:
CB: That’s Woody’s genius—even though he seems to be writing about a particular set of people from very particular socioeconomic and intellectual backgrounds, he somehow writes them as every men and women, even though it’s really personal and specific from a world that he knows or has heard of. It resonates to a much broader audience, that’s why he’s been making these films and people have been loving them for decades because they’re archetypical while also being utterly unique and specific. There’s a lot of people doing pretty tough—not only in this country but globally—and even though it 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 American and that has been blow apart, even in the last couple years. Sio I think there’s a lot to relate to for people of all ages who’ve had to reshape their their economic circumstances, that have been forced upon them, and have 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.