POSTED August 1 2013

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: Judge the art, not the artist — right?

Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine"

Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine”

Judge the art, not the artist, that’s my mantra. Does my knowledge of Pablo Picasso’s compulsive womanizing diminish the force of Guernica? Does my knowledge of Charlie Chaplin’s predilection for jailbait make me discount the genius of Modern Times? Does knowing that the roustabout Caravaggio was a murderer or that the drunk William Burroughs shot his wife to death or that the soused Norman Mailer stabbed his wife make me think less of their paintings and writings? In the spirit of hate the sin, not the sinner I abhor the artists’ actions while still liking the art. This includes the movies of Woody Allen, who 20-odd years ago took up with Soon-Yi Previn,  daughter of his longtime partner, Mia Farrow.

I found aspects of Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine very affecting — in particular the performances of Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins as sisters, a fantasist and realist in the spirit of Blanche and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. But I also found that the judge-the art-not-the-artist mantra was more difficult than usual to observe.  I recoiled for what might be called  extracinematic reasons.

The film is in part about the dissolution of a marriage, that between Blanchett’s Jasmine and Alec Baldwin’s Hal, a Bernard Madoff-like financier. The film faintly damns Hal for being unethical and faithless and then harshly sentences Jasmine first for looking the other way at her spouse’s crimes and misdemeanors and second for not sticking with and standing by him. I reflexively recoiled from  the double-bind that Allen the filmmaker put Jasmine the character in.  Because Blanchett bears a resemblance to Farrow and because the film’s position that Jasmine’s disloyalty is a crime worse than Hal’s infdelity and malfeasance,  it struck me me that Allen the filmmaker was blaming  a Farrow surrogate for not sticking with and standing by him through the Soon-Yi scandal.  I began seeing the whole movie as coded references to Allen’s life.  I found it creepy that I wasn’t thinking about the movie but abut the personal events that may have inspired it.

Have you ever had this experience? What was the movie or book or painting or song that prompted it? Could you, finally, separate the artist from the artwork? In the case of Blue Jasmine, I’m still working on it.


  1. Debbie says:

    I haven’t seen the film but I had that same creepy feeling when I read the review (and saw Blanchett looking so Farrow-like); in fact, we were discussing this very dilemma (whether to see the film) tonight at dinner. I’m somewhat more forgiving of misogynist artists from long ago because there was wider acceptance of such norms. But it has gotten in the way of my looking at Diego Rivera’s art… but then, Frida managed to give what she got.

  2. Unfortunately, in our particular media-saturated celebrity age, it can be difficult to make and maintain the distinction you’re speaking about. And, especially for the professional critic, I suppose, you can’t stop watching the movie, get the terrible taste out of your mouth, and turn your attention to other matters. Pretentiousness, the mortal enemy of comedy, Woody Allen’s true and greatest talent, has led him down some terrible artistic alleyways. And like some successful rock bands who fired the record producers or managers who used to give them sound advice about the quality of their work, I assume it’s been a lifetime since anyone has really said no to Woody Allen or had an honest, unguarded conversation that has penetrated his hard shell.

  3. Jimmie Davis says:

    Among my friends there is no other artist that face this disqualification as often as Woody. I don’t get it. The Piccaso, Mailer et al examples are exactly right.

  4. Talkcineman says:

    Self-justification has been ongoing in Woody Allen’s films for the last 20 years and has become his predominant theme, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” Given that in BLUE JASMINe his focus is on Jasmine, and her sister-foil, GInger, Woody is taking aim at a conventional topic, the ephemera of money, particularly of the female vicarious kind, while at the same time his characters are stamped with the mutation in Woody’s DNA over the last two decades. Previous films are far more overtly self-concerned; its as if things are quieting down on the western front.

    Following is the lead-in (which I cut for time considerations) to my review which airs tonight on WGBO, 88.3 FM in the NY/NJ market, and on on podcast after 8 PM:

    “To say I’m ambivalent about Woody Allen is redundant: that makes two of us. He probably likes himself better than I do. Oh maybe not. I don’t know.

    I come and go talking of Woody Allen, oh… Sometimes I’ve liked him: some of the rudimentary early stand up shtick pics; some of the classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters delivered on the promise Vince Canby of the NY Times saw when he did Allen something of a disservice by calling him a filmic genius and reframed him as an untouchable. There’s a personal favorite, Broadway Danny Rose, which harkens back to his comedic storytelling strengths, even Hollywood Ending, a guilty pleasure as it both loathes Hollywood and loves and tweaks the French. I’ve liked some of the melodramas, Interiors and September. But after 1992, his films often are colored by his breakup with Mia Farrow and take up with Soon-yi—if you want to see it that way. The theme always comes down to his famous line, said in self-defense, ’The heart wants what the heart wants.” Well, hmmm….”

    For more, listen to the review, albeit in stripped down form on WBGO.

  5. Talkcineman says:

    Oh, and then there’s this: Fully 23 of WA’s 48 films to date occur post Soon-Yi, about half his body of work–of which there have been a lot of mixed bags after running out his string at home.

  6. Lucy says:

    What the early descriptions of Blue Jasmine made me think was that Allen wanted to rip out Tennessee Williams’ empathy, sensitivity, and delicacy from A Streetcar Named Desire, and prove once and for all, that Blanche deserved what she got.

    It reminded me of reading about Williams and Jessica Tandy (the first Blanche) discussing how director Elia Kazan had buried the theme of the betrayal of Blanche. But since Kazan had made the play a hit, and made Williams financially independent, they both knew that was just the way it would be. Kazan denied betrayal, perhaps because he was a betrayer himself, ie his McCarthy era blacklisting of fellow artists.

    Perhaps Woody Allen, as betrayer and denier, found that Streetcar struck him the same way, the need to insist that “the woman deserved what was coming to her”.

  7. Carrie Rickey says:

    Lucy: An eloquent summation of my reaction to Blue Jasmine.

  8. wwolfe says:

    It’s funny that another reader mentions Tennessee Williams, because he happened to be the artist who came to mind when I thought about the questions you posed. Specifically, after recently seeing the Helen Mirren version of “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” it was impossible not to think that the guilt about sex and the terror of aging experienced by Mirren’s Mrs. Stone had nothing to do with the truth of that character’s existence, and everything to do with Williams’ view of his own life. I think it’s a bad sign when we get to that point with any artist. For what it’s worth, I didn’t feel that way about “Midnight in Paris,” my most recent experience with Allen.

  9. Carrie Rickey says:

    Wwolfe: “Blue Jasmine” is a regroove of “Streetcar”: Two sisters, the elder visiting the younger etc. While I agree about your interpretation of “Roman Spring,” it doesn’t creep me out the way “Blue Jasmine did.

  10. wwolfe says:

    “Roman Spring” made me angry, more than it creeped me out. I wanted to see Carole Lombard, had she lived to her mid-to-late 50s, starring in a comedic version of the same story, scripted by Ben Hecht, in which Mrs. Stone, recently widowed, cuts a swath across Europe as she discovers the pleasures to be found in the Continent’s young male population.

  11. JOHN CAREY says:

    Can’t watch On The Waterfront any more without thinking about the artists behind it:
    Ambition vs Principle: “I did what I did because it was the more tolerable of two alternatives that were, either way, painful, even disastrous, and either way wrong for me. That’s what a difficult decision means: Either way you go, you lose.” Elia Kazan made sure he “lost” with his director’s chair and his Hollywood mistresses and swimming pool intact. If On The Waterfront’s Terry Malloy character is Kazan (and fellow namer of names, Budd Schulberg), and Johnny Friendly is American Communism in some fashion or form, just how do the nefarious Joseph McCarthy and J. Parnell Thomas* fit into the allegory? They don’t. The story would only be true to life if corrupt powerful feds said , “If you don’t rat on your fellow lowly dockworkers you’ll never work again. ” Not by Johnny Friendly stating that Terry won’t work again. (If you mix apples and oranges up enough times (together with brilliant artistry — Boris Kaufman, Marlon Brando, et al) no one will really bother to sort out the whole powerful, effective, political, emotional miasma. (Actually, it’s even more complicated than that, because Kazan was hardly a lowly dock worker. He was a big name. And he sold out many people who weren’t big names. People who couldn’t survive being blacklisted as well as he would have.) In addition, was Terry Malloy being a washed up fighter part of some sort of confused tragic musing about what would have happened if Schulberg and Kazan had taken a “fall” for the Commies by not naming names and losing their Hollywood careers? Or were they saying that their compromised values made them tragic victims? Boy, talk about having your cake, eating it, and flaunting it while you thumb your nose at ten heroic guys in prison who not only needed a cake but a hacksaw inside it.

  12. Bob Smith says:

    Congratulations to Carrie Rickey for seeing this movie for what it was — a thinly veiled attack on Mia Farrow and further proof that Woody Allen is a pathetic bitter man.

    • Michael Greenwald says:

      Bob Smith’s shallow, reductive analysis of a rich and fairly complex work of art makes Carrie’s obsession with judging Woody Allen’s film on the basis of his life look subtle by comparison, although it really isn’t. You would have done much better, Carrie sticking with your original mantra–trust the tale not the teller, as D.H. Lawrence put it–instead of slipping into kneejerk feminism. And if you insist on taking that tack, I suggest that you pay a bit more attention to the role of the Sally Hawkins character and consider how she fits into your interpretation.

      • Bob Smith says:

        You are good at calling fancy names, but when it comes to analysis, not so much. There was nothing either “feminist” or “anti-feminist” about Carrie’s point, just the observation that Woody Allen is still nursing a grudge which is the obvious point of this insignificant and mean-spirited film to anyone but the large number of dilettantes who confuse this and many other of his movies with art.

        • Michael Greenwald says:

          “Dilettante” is a pretty fancy name too,as is “philistine,which seems about right for you. But this is nothing more than namecalling, which says nothing meaningful about the film in question. Since in your view, the film is apparently nothing but “a thinly disguised attack on Mia Farrow,” I’m left with the impression that if you knew nothing of Woody Allen’s life, you would either have nothing to say about the film or you would be saying something completely different about it. Unlike you, I judge films as films, not on the basis of tabloid journalism or gossip columns. I’ll leave it at that.

          • Bob Smith says:

            Wrong again. Even if the film had been directed by Joe Blow, it would still be an insignificant and mean-spirited movie that wallows in the pleasure of depicting the supposed deserved comeuppance of a woman who “betrayed” her philandering husband. That the woman is an obvious surrogate makes the entire spectacle that much more sickening.

  13. darlagirl says:

    I just saw Blue Jasmine last evening (and caught Rickey’s review just now) and I, too, found this movie creepy for precisely the same reasons that Ms. Rickey did. What Ms. Rickey doesn’t mention — but what unsettled me in addition to his harsh condemnation of Jasmine [the penultimate scene with Jasmine and her stepson was not psychologically believable — was Allen’s insertion of the background point that the mother of Jasmine and Ginger loved Jasmine more because of her “superior genes,” an accusation that has been leveled at Mia Farrow about her attitudes towards her adopted children.

  14. Watcher says:

    One further point: in real life Allen’s biological son, Satchel now Ronan, is a brilliant Yale graduate/Rhodes scholar who refuses to speak to Allen and has bonded with his mother and carries on her charitable work. In the movie, the Ronan substitute attends Harvard, drops out because of his stepmother’s actions and ultimately refuses to speak to the stepmother because he blames her for depriving him of his father. Finding out that the Ronan character has finally rejected her is a significant reason for the stepmother’s complete mental breakdown at the end of the movie. Talk about an active fantasy life.

  15. jack says:

    The filmmaker/artist whose films I still struggle to appreciate because of his controversial past even more than Mr. Allen’s is Roman Polanski’s.

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  17. CeeCee says:

    In this interview with Mia Farrow, it says that he is in the the same club as Polanski. Besides having an affair with and marrying his adopted daughter, he was accused of molesting his 7 year old adopted daughter Dylan. Repeatedly.

  18. Nick Chris says:

    Here is more tabloid gossip that Allen courtiers may bravely ignore as they go about their business of distinguishing the man from the art.

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