Oscar Talk: Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen, and Cate Blanchett’s Dilemma

E: What’s an overwhelming Oscar front runner to do when the writer/director she’s praised extravagantly might just be the slime of the earth? If you know me, you know I’m all about trying to be fair.  And that I spend a lot of time dissecting problems that I can’t solve.  And that I don’t just love the Oscars, I have pretty strong opinions about acceptance speeches. And that I think Cate Blanchett is all that’s best in acting. But as I do spend my time thinking and writing about the Oscars, I’d like to share some thoughts the film, Blanchett’s role, and her role in the larger discussion.  What does it mean for this year’s race to talk about this now, to grapple with such pain and confusion?

First, a little background. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Woody Allen’s films.  Having been introduced to his work by a very pretentious college boyfriend, many of those films charm me while others leave me cold. Somehow, Woody still seems like a very smart, very smug college student: privileged, classist, sex-obsessed, self-obsessed, always conscious of his cleverness.  Sometimes, as with Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets over Broadway and Midnight in Paris, that charisma sweeps me off my feet. Often, however, the profound lack of empathy displayed even in his best-reviewed films (Crimes and Misdemeanors for instance) makes me squirm.  When I say that I don’t live in Woody Allen’s world, I’m not simply talking about the millionaire’s corner of Manhattan. His characters share a childish inability to resist even the slightest temptation, a callous indifference to the feelings of others.  In fact, it often seems that none of his main characters can get out of their own heads. Given that his works feature large ensembles, there’s a marked degree of isolation. His people are not real even to each other.

And then we come to this revelation; that Woody Allen not only fell in love with and married his long term girlfriend Mia’s teenage daughter, he also molested one of Farrow’s other children.  Somehow, I missed this accusation the first time around.  Well, I know how–I was in college then and didn’t I have a TV or read the newspapers consistently. I know, I’m old; this was in the days before our pervasive internet news culture. I very much remember Woody Allen leaving Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter, something I found incredibly gross.  The fact that Woody and Soon-Yi have remained married all these years seemed to support his contention of an unconventional love. So I suppose like most people, I was willing to hope for the best and believe that none of it was my business.

The day after I rented Blue Jasmine — the smart, sour, often cringe-inducing Bernie Madoff-aftermath story — I read Dylan Farrow’s words starkly detailing the abuse she sustained at her father’s hands, and I wanted to vomit.  Legally he is due a presumption of innocence — I am trying very hard to remember this — but I find it very difficult not to credit Dylan’s frank account. It’s hard to imagine the point of lying in such a painfully public way.  Woody has always called the accusations falsehoods, though he could hardly answer any other way; his supporters suggest that Dylan’s mother Mia Farrow viciously planted lies which her children have somehow internalized as memory. I’m not a prosecutor, obviously, or their confessor; I have no way to sort the truth from the lies.  Neither, it must be said, does anyone else.

Now, unlike his fizzy concoction Midnight in Paris, Woody’s most recent flick didn’t make a large splash with Oscar. Of the three nominations Blue Jasmine has received, Blanchett’s is the likeliest by far to bear fruit.  Best Supporting Actress is a dogfight between omnipresent It Girl Jennifer Lawrence and amazing newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (and therefor Sally Hawkin’s honor is the nomination). Original Screenplay leans toward Spike Jonze’s futuristic romance Her, with American Hustle as a distant second. From the moment Blue Jasmine debuted, however, Cate Blanchett has had a stranglehold on this year’s Best Actress trophy. I’ve seen all five lead actress performances, which are all brilliant and all award-worthy.  Though the oft-nominated Amy Adams’ con artist gains traction, I was most deeply moved by Sandra Bullock’s scientist faced with the choice to fight for her tragedy-stricken life or let it slip away.  Meryl Streep terrifies as a truly horrible wife and mother, and Judi Dench channels innocence and grace as a woman confronting her traumatic past.  But at least in terms of buzz, Cate — magical, magical Cate — towers above them all.

There are so many layers to what she does as the very blue Jasmine: we see her memories of the luxe life with her white collar criminal husband before the feds closed in, ghosts so real she talks to them even while she attempts to build a new life for herself, bunking at her sister’s apartment and working as a receptionist to make end’s meet.  (Of course Woody being Woody, he mocks Jasmine as much as he empathizes with her.  She drags herself to computer classes so she can get an interior decorating license online.  Why not just take interior design classes?  And don’t even get me started on the preposterous idea of a medical receptionist who can’t use a computer.)  The pills she depends on to smooth the edges seem to push her into those memories till she doesn’t know where she is. Throughout the whole, you’re never sure of the extent to which she’s lying not just to the people around her but to herself.  Of course, she can still pull on her cultured persona to woo a wealthy bachelor (salvation!), but the fault lines between that person she wants to be — the person she might have been — and the truth of her situation widen.

This is all to say that Cate Blanchett earns the Oscar she’s been well on her way to winning.  It’s a difficult role, and it’s an even more impressive feat that she makes you care about a woman who in other hands would have been merely a preening object of disgust.  But obviously this news presents a problem.  Controversy and smear campaigns are nothing new in Hollywood; earlier this season, the delightful Saving Mr. Banks’s Oscar chances were utterly derailed by allegations that the movie deviated too far from historical fact.  In a more shocking turn of events, the nominated song “Alone Yet Not Alone” (from the film of the same name) was disqualified from contention after private investigators suggested that the writer might have unduly influenced music branch members. Voting is still going on; the natural question is, how much does Hollywood care about Dylan Farrow and her appeal?  I’m sure there are plenty of people in Hollywood to whom this was not the fresh news it is to me.  Will the members of the Academy use Farrow’s plea to stop rewarding her abuser as reason to vote for someone Woody didn’t direct?  In this year without a Best Picture frontrunner, voters are apparently spreading their love around, picking performances strategically to show their support for various films.  Perhaps they won’t want to support Blue Jasmine anymore — and since Lupita Nyong’o seems to be besting American Hustle‘s Jennifer Lawrence, beloved Oscar bridesmaid Amy Adams might be the locus where fans of that movie concentrate their appreciation.

Or will it be a question of how Cate has to restructure her press interactions and her eventual acceptance speech?  She’s already fielding questions about it. Now, I’ve been a fan of Blanchett since Oscar and Lucinda.   Not merely an extraordinary actress, Blanchett exudes intelligence, wit, grace and warmth.  You don’t need to be a fan to guess that she’s not in favor of pedophilia, and you don’t need to follow the Oscars to see that this puts her in a terrifically awkward position. Does she support the person she knows? The person who gave her a professional opportunity she found invigorating and meaningful? Does she avoid the issue, or does she presume guilt and speak to the issue of sexual abuse as a whole?

In her acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes and at SAG, Blanchett heaped praise and gratitude upon Woody Allen particularly for writing brilliant roles for women when such roles are generally so hard to come by.  And indeed, it’s a fair contention.  Absurd as it is to say, it IS hard to find good roles for women, and Allen’s done more than maybe any contemporary writer/director to bring colorful women to the screen. Whatever I might think of his characters, women are a huge part of every story he tells. And I appreciate her desire to spin her acceptance speeches into a broader theme. There is little so wearisome as a gushing celebrity listing off insider names, award show after award show. I can see the point of that, but my goodness.  You have a minute with tens of millions of people watching; say something!  Say something about life, something real about yourself, about your movie, about Art.  So many people don’t even make an effort to be entertaining, let alone substantive. Blanchett made a great tribute in that SAG speech particularly, but I can’t help feeling it’s spoiled now.

In a way, this choice between competing truths or principles relates back to the central dilemma of Blue Jasmine; what did Jasmine know about her husband’s dealings, and when did she know it?  Was she truly callously indifferent to the fate of all those people he cheated – including her own sister — so long as he kept the extravagant gifts coming?  Was she truly as blind to his infidelities as she claimed?  And how culpable would knowledge make her?   There’s an interesting resonance, too, between the way the movie ultimately treats Jasmine (its morality voiced through her son), and the way Woody’s apologists are castigating Mia Farrow as a vengeful lover with Dylan as her deluded puppet.

So there it is.  Can you thank Woody Allen the artist for writing such a complicated part — for speaking so brilliantly to the poisonous influence of secret vice — and ignore Woody the man, who may or may not be a secret beast?  Can you separate the two?  How do you distill the truth from the lies?  Do you believe Allen because you know him and you can’t believe he was capable of such perfidy?

Dylan Farrow appeals to Blanchett directly: “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?”  It’s such a devastating question.  What on earth can Blanchett do with this information?  I’ve had the courage to speak out because my life has eventually become a good one, Farrow explains. “But others are still scared, vulnerable, and struggling for the courage to tell the truth. The message that Hollywood sends matters for them.”  And so it does.  She pleads explicitly for Hollywood to repudiate Woody. But who sends this message?  Blue Jasmine has already been nominated. Allen has already been bestowed (in absentia) with the Hollywood Foreign Press’s Cecil B. DeMille award.  His next film is months from theatrical release.  As Farrow realized, the person likeliest to send the most direct message is Cate Blanchett — either through her words at Oscar’s podium, or in her absence from it.

If Amy Adams takes the BAFTA, I can’t help thinking this scandal will be a large part of the reason why.  Hollywood likes an underdog almost as much as they like a winner, and Woody’s scandal could give them a reason to switch their votes.  Still, Blanchett’s lead is so vast it seems unlikely that she’ll be dislodged; many critics consider her turn the acting triumph of 2013.  Either way, through no fault of her own, many viewers will look for Cate Blanchett to produce some kind of satisfying unified truth in a way that Jasmine never could.  It’s a burden unlike any we’ve seen on an awards show in recent.  Perhaps it is as simple as acknowledging the unseen victims of crime — financial and personal — or speaking of the way secrets undo those who keep them for too long.  But more likely, there’s nothing simple about it at all.

5 comments on “Oscar Talk: Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen, and Cate Blanchett’s Dilemma

  1. Gina says:

    Very well said, E.

  2. M says:

    Ok, so I agree that Cate is in a very difficult spot, but I will also say that she put herself in that spot by working with him, and by praising him so effusively before. And yes, I know his WORK is highly respected and widely praised, but these latest allegations are not remotely the first time anyone has questioned his actions. Now, to make a few points….

    First, in the spirit of full disclosure and fairness, I have never seen a Woody Allen movie that I liked. I have not seen some of the biggies (Annie Hall, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Midnight in Paris, etc), but nothing of his that I have seen has made me say “you know, I really should give some of his other movies a try”, in fact it’s been quite the opposite. Plus, he always seems like he’s playing himself. No thanks.

    Second, a quick drive down the Soon-Yi lane. You technically correctly referred to her as “Farrow’s adopted daughter”, and incorrectly questioned whether or not Allen is a “secret beast”. I said technically correct, because Allen never officially married Farrow, and never officially adopted Soon-Yi. However, he and Farrow began their relationship, which close observers referred to as akin to a marriage, about one year after Soon-Yi was adopted, an the girl was no more than 8 at the time. Allen and Farrow continued that relationship for 11 years, being described a year before their break up (I’ll get to that) as the most loving, committed couple, by friends and close acquaintances. The relationship didn’t end until Farrow found out that Allen was sleeping with Soon-Yi, who he had a that point been in essence a father to for much of her childhood, and all of her “formative” years. Years after this Allen described the start of his relationship with a teenage girl who was for all intents and purposes his daughter, and 37 years his junior, as “not a scandal” and didn’t understand what the big deal was. There’s nothing “secret” about it, he’s a beast.

    As for the accusations by Dylan Farrow, and the presumption of innocence, that applies to a court of law. You are able to come to any presumptions that you want based on the evidence provided to you. Those may prevent you from serving on his jury, if he were to be brought to trial for this, but it is perfectly legit for you individually to presume guilt.

    Now, as for Blanchett, In my opinion she needs to distance herself, or she will just come off as sounding like a sycophant, which as best I can tell she is not. If she doesn’t, I think she’ll put herself in the category of people who turn a blind eye just because he makes movies people like, or was fine to her, or whatever. Not a good place to be, in my opinion.

    Lastly, on acceptance speeches in general, I have a large difference of opinion from you on those. I think the best are speeches that genuinely, and either emotionally or humorously, thank their loved ones and those who helped them get where they are. What I don’t enjoy is when people who, in essence, play make believe for a living, and are honoring each other for being the best at it, get on a soap box. I get turned off, whether I agree with their point or not. I have trouble believing someone is an expert on something because they pretended to be one, or pretended to be someone who actually made a difference in the world. Yes, I understand that they have a giant audience, and a platform, but they almost always just come off as pretentious and thinking they know more than everyone else.

  3. […] note, finally, that Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett has found away around her acceptance speech dilemma.  I’m not implying that it’s a cynical move at all – I’m sure she was […]

  4. […] family began to speak about him.  If nothing else this has presented a moral dilemma for her potential Oscar speech, one rather neatly solved by the terrible loss the film community recently suffered.  I’ve […]

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