Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, for all its brilliance and light, is essentially a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Each movie give us a beautiful, fragile woman who’s fallen on hard times through no fault of her own – but wait, and forgive the spoiler, Allen’s Jasmine does cause her own downfall by tipping off the FBI about her swindler husband, Hal. In any case, both women need to leave the homes they know for less comfortable surroundings. Each moves in with a younger sister. Each younger sister is involved with a man that our heroines find distasteful and low-class. Both Jasmine, and her predecessor, Blanche DuBois, are afflicted with high anxiety that ultimately leads to madness.
But that’s where the similarity ends. And to be honest, A Streetcar Named Desire is a better film. It tells a more complete story than we get from Blue Jasmine. For instance, in Streetcar, we know a lot about Blanche’s past. She is left tending the failing family estate until the money runs out and the place is sold. She’s involved in inappropriate relationships, not only with her students, but with a number of men she meets in hotels. Things pile up, the balance tips against her, and she comes to her sister, Stella, where her troubles continue at the hands of Stella’s brutish husband, Stanley. One silver lining is Stanley’s, friend, Mitch. Mitch is soon smitten with Blanceh’s charm, education, and her lady-like ways. But then Mitch finds out about her past, and abandons any thought of marrying her. When this final failure is too much, Blanche gets carted off to an asylum.
By contrast, we know much less about Jasmine’s past. Both she and her sister are adopted, but the sister ran away because the parents gave Jasmine all the attention. Jasmine says she met Hal during her last year of college, and married him rather than complete her degree. We have scenes of her life with Hal, some lavish and rosy, others painful and jagged. But that’s it. Her fall into emotional chaos makes less sense because we have less to go on. The script doesn’t establish enough of a case for Jasmine living a life of denial and false fronts.
Added to that are two points of implausibility I had real trouble with. The first is with Hal’s son from a former marriage, Danny. Danny attends Harvard, does well, lives a golden life. When his father is arrested for investment fraud, he’s outraged, miserable, and storms out of the elegant country home Jasmine is occupying at the time, one of three the couple owns. Years later, when Jasmine is in San Francisco, living with her sister, she learns that Danny is a stone’s throw away in Oakland, working in a store that sells musical instruments. She goes to him. He shuns her, saying he’s disgusted with her for contacting the FBI. But if he was so outraged to learn that his father stole money for a living, why is he so bent out of shape that Jasmine was the whistle-blower? Isn’t one supposed to hate the criminal more than the one who turns him in?
Another false moment comes from the man who wants to marry Jasmine, Dwight. Jasmine doesn’t tell him the truth about her husband, only that he’s dead. Hal committed suicide in prison, but her version is that he died of a heart attack. She also lies about how he made a living. She changes him from a criminal investor to a surgeon. Dwight learns the truth when they bump into the former husband of Jasmine’s sister, who lost a windfall to one of Hal’s investment schemes. Dwight is outraged, and like Mitch, withdraws his offer of marriage, but his reaction is overdone. Jasmine only lies about the specifics of her life, not the outline. Blanche, on the other hand, misrepresents her past to Mitch entirely by leaving out the crucial detail that she seduced an underage boy, not to mention all the men she let buy her drinks.
In terms of acting, Blue Jasmine is a notch above Streetcar. For all of Vivien Leigh’s shifting moods, elegant sweeps, and crushing woe, Cate Blanchett’s character is more complex, more deeply disturbed, and with a far less certain future. While we last see Blanche being escorted away by employees of the asylum she’ll be committed to, Jasmine fades from view sitting alone on a park bench, her monologue ended, her eyes blank. It’s Blanchett’s performance that gives Blue Jasmine its touch of greatness, and one which will surely earn her an Oscar for best actress.