Woody Allen channels Tennessee Williams with Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine is a topical tribute to Tennessee Williams and another return to form for the prolific director, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 October, 2013, 11:22pm

AROUND THE TURN of the millennium, it seemed like Woody Allen's career was all but over. Flops such as Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending paled in comparison to classics like Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). But then came 2005's erotic thriller Match Point, Allen's first film set in London.

"I was all set to shoot it in New York," he says. "And then I got a call from London saying, 'If you shoot a film here, we'll pay for the film.'"

It was like a breath of fresh air. Receiving positive reviews, it set Allen on a new European path - taking him to Spain ( Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Italy ( To Rome with Love) and France ( Midnight in Paris). His Barcelona outing won Penélope Cruz a best supporting actress Oscar and earned US$96 million at box offices worldwide.

The results for his Paris jaunt were even better: four Oscar nominations and a win for best original screenplay (Allen's fourth Oscar to date). What's more, its US$151 million global gross made it Allen's most successful film.

Two years on, when we meet in the Hotel Le Bristol Paris, where part of Midnight in Paris was shot, Allen's still at a loss to explain the film's success. "I could make 10 films now and the public wouldn't be interested in them," he shrugs. "It's capricious." Indeed, his three London-set films since Match Point - Scoop, Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - were all dire.

But there can be no question that, at 77, Allen is on a hot streak. His latest film, Blue Jasmine, has been one of the indie hits of the summer in the US, where it has taken more than US$30 million. Moreover, showing on over 1,200 screens, it's become the widest ever US release for a Woody Allen film.

Critics have raved, with The New York Times calling it Allen's "most sustained, satisfying and resonant film since Match Point". A fifth Oscar - and perhaps even a first best picture statue - seems on the cards.

For a filmmaker who has specialised in crafting wonderful roles for women over the years - notably those played by Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow - Allen has excelled himself in Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett is stunning as Jasmine French, a well-to-do Manhattan spouse who discovers her crooked financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) has been unfaithful. Her life is turned upside down when she's forced to move to San Francisco to live with her more modest blue collar sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

With Jasmine swallowing pills and booze in a desperate attempt to self-medicate, Blanchett offers a masterful performance of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The script "was a cracker", says the 44-year-old Blanchett. "The story was fantastic, surprising, and full of twists and turns, all of the characters were so well drawn, and Jasmine herself was a great part.

"She's damaged goods from the get-go. She's broken, and she has such a heightened, romanticised, deluded sense of self," says Blanchett.

Allen first got the idea after his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, told him of an "upper-class" friend-of-a-friend who had suffered a similar decline to Jasmine. "When I heard about the events, I thought they were tragic," he says. "It had all the elements of tragedy."

You might say it also has all the elements of Tennessee Williams' classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Jasmine is a sort of latter-day Blanche DuBois - a role Blanchett has played on stage - although Allen claims the play "never occurred" to him.

He also denies he wanted to make a film inspired by the economic meltdown of 2008, yet Blanchett believes this is one of the reasons why the film has resonated with audiences. "All of that stuff, the banking collapse, the economic and global financial crisis and human detritus that's happened … all of that stuff sits in Jasmine's experience.

"Even though she finds herself in some absurd situations, and she's delusional to an epic degree, I think there are many points of connection for people," she says.

Baldwin, who worked with Allen on 1990's Alice and reunited for To Rome with Love, admits he came on board because he was keen to work with Blanchett. When he finally got on set, shooting their segments in Allen's native New York, he was taken aback by just how good she was. "Woody really put her through the machine. Take after take of very, very exhaustive emotional scenes. I sat there at the end of the day and thought, 'She is unbelievable.'"

Still writing on the Olympia portable typewriter he bought when he was 16, there's a ritualistic quality to Allen's filmmaking that has seen him write and direct nearly one film a year since 1969's Take the Money and Run.

"People think it's a big deal. It's not," Allen says. "I get the idea, write it, it takes a few months and as soon as I pull it out of the typewriter, we're in production - so it goes quickly. It's not hard."

Those who work with Allen have their own, sometimes contrasting, opinion on how he goes about his business. "He has a very easy way about making his films," says Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Dwight, a diplomat that Jasmine encounters in San Francisco.

"It's almost like he's making a piece of furniture. He does it very quickly. He's not very precious about it. He knows he's going to make another one in a year," Sarsgaard adds.

Blanchett, meanwhile, detects a "brutality" honed from Allen's days doing stand-up. For him, she says, "the gag works or it doesn't work. It's funny or it's not funny. It's moving or it's not moving. It's interesting or it's boring."

The truth is probably somewhere in between; he's an artist who has got making movies down to a fine art. Does he feel Blue Jasmine has a touch of the old Woody Allen magic?

"That's not for me to say," he says. "I try to make them all as best as I can. Some of them, by luck and hard work, come out good, and some of them don't. That's like any filmmaker."


Blue Jasmine opens on October 17