In What Ways Are “Blue Jasmine” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” Similar?
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013) can be interpreted as a modern take on A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), updated for the culture and character of a post-Bernie Madoff society. The film’s title role is played by Cate Blanchett, who just a few years earlier performed the role of Blanche DuBois to great acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The broad strokes of Blue Jasmine are distinctly similar to the Hollywood classic, to the point that the film garnered reviews with such titles as A Streetcar Named Madoff and Woody is Back: Blue Jasmine is a Triumphant Take on A Streetcar Named Desire.
Blanchett’s Jasmine French boasts many of the distinguishing character elements of Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh): her neurotic muttering, persistent recollections of songs and conversations from her high-society past, selfishness, alcoholism, and a reliance on the “kindness of strangers” to provide her with the affluent lifestyle she feels she deserves. She’s haunted by the decisions she’s made in the past yet is determined to repeat them, as they’re the only means of fulfillment she understands. She’s quick to judge others but incapable of critiquing her own flaws, existing entirely within a fantastic paper-moon interpretation of the world that eventually catches up with her. The Observer writes, “Like Blanche in Streetcar, Jasmine is a mystic combination of purloined innocence and Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis—exasperatingly manipulative but meltingly vulnerable, always waiting for someone to save her.”
Jasmine’s name isn’t even Jasmine - it’s Jeanette - but she’s so disconnected from reality that she changed it for increased panache. The film opens with the recently-destitute Jasmine traveling to the streetcar-famous city of San Francisco, where she’s come to live with her average, workaday sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) until Jasmine regains her footing in life. Ginger’s boyfriend, muscular and hot-headed Chili (Bobby Cannavale), isn’t thrilled with his would-be sister-in-law’s sense of entitlement and superiority, and things get complicated. At one point Chili pulls the phone off the wall and throws it. Sound familiar, Brando?
The characters of Ginger and Chili are perfect stand-ins for Streetcar’s Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley (Marlon Brando). Ginger isn’t quite as attractive or educated as her cultured sister, is wrought with low self-esteem, works a typical menial job, and is equally in love with and afraid of her blue-collar boyfriend. Chili’s a loud, crass mechanic, who is comfortable with his earned status as an everyman and doesn’t take well to his manhood being questioned by an entitled elitist. Ginger’s idolization of her sister’s superficial preeminence often gets the best of her, particularly when she listens to Jasmine’s suggestion that Ginger needs to find a better suitor. Both Jasmine and Chili try to control Ginger in the same fashion that Stanley and Blanche fight for ascendancy over Stella. But whereas Blanche might have at least a couple valid criticisms of Stanley, Jasmine’s disdain for Chili highlights her own skewed values - she fails to appreciate loyal devotion over worldly status.
Meanwhile, Jasmine’s “focus” while living with Ginger is to “learn computers” so she can “study interior decorating online” and “become something substantial.” It’s almost convincing until another man comes along who offers her a chance of re-obtaining her former lifestyle. Thus, Blue Jasmine gives us Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy and capable man who could restore her to a life of Hermes handbags and Dior dresses. Jasmine’s goal is to be married to a rich man who enables her lifestyle as a socialite. She’s defined by men only insofar as they help her amplify her own image and achieve wealth, whereas Blanche’s identity is defined by the need for male attention. But much like Blanche’s aspirations to marry Mitch (Karl Malden) in Streetcar, Jasmine’s hopes to wed Dwight are disappointed thanks to her lies surfacing at the wrong moment.
One of the great components of Woody Allen’s screenplay for Blue Jasmine is the backstory it provides for Jasmine’s fall from grace. Told through time-jumps punctuating Jasmine’s present life in San Francisco, it elaborates on the questionable business practices of her late husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a fellow who crafts a Bernie Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme to achieve incredible wealth while indulging in various infidelities under Jasmine’s nose. This history helps the audience comprehend what has fueled Jasmine’s insanity and personality disorders and contrasts with the muted and censored backstory that leads to Blanche’s mental issues in Streetcar.
Woody Allen’s film echoes both the film and original play versions of Streetcar with a dialogue-driven script, and Allen even stages whole scenes to recall Streetcar. For instance, in one scene, Chili and his boys are rowdily watching sports on television with Jasmine in the next room when Ginger enters, closes the door dividing them from Jasmine, and tells them to keep it down. Chili isn’t interested in silencing his enthusiasm for the sister who openly hates him. The scene plays much like one in Streetcar where Stanley and his boys play poker as a curtain separates them from Blanche.
Allen also builds into Jasmine’s character a schizophrenic repetition of the song “Blue Moon,” which serves as the emotionally-shattered socialite’s theme song for her former life with Hal. It was playing when they first met, and her memory of its lyrics decays as the film advances her madness. Streetcar employs a similar device with The Varsouviana Polka and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” the former triggering memories of Blanche’s young husband’s suicide and serving as symbolism of her descent into fantasy and madness. Blanche can’t escape feeling to blame for her husband’s suicide because she confronted his closeted homosexuality, just as Jasmine, in a moment of jealousy, revealed her husband’s crimes to the police, serving as the catalyst for Hal’s arrest and subsequent suicide. Despite leading everyone to believe that she knew nothing of Hal’s indiscretions, financial or sexual, Jasmine lets slip in the climax of the story that she has known everything all along. Both she and Blanche - grappling with the violent consequences of acknowledging the secrets they’ve been avoiding - retreat back into a fantasy world of feigned ignorance and fragility.
In the end, Blue Jasmine finishes with Ginger and Chili staying together (different from Stella and Stanley’s fate in the film, but the same as Tennessee Williams’ play ending) and Jasmine losing her mind in the same chimeric manner of delusion as Blanche.
All the above is the “nutshell” version of how Blue Jasmine correlates to A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s arguably a bit odd that Woody Allen was awarded an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay when there are so many cases for its being an adaptation. But the more important observation is that Allen built upon a Hollywood classic from the 1950s to create one of his better films of the 2000s. Blue Jasmine is a great film in its own right and a dramatic examination of society today. Strikingly, the continuing relevance of Streetcar’s themes illustrates that the same class and gender conflicts continue to permeate American society over 60 years later.