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Dressed for Distress

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Recently, while dining together, a friend launched into a new topic with the following opener: "I was having a conversation with the voices in my head the other day...."

"You do realize that's a captive audience?" I teased. "Of course," he replied, "but at least they all agreed with me."

Those intimate, all-too-knowing kinds of conversations can get a girl in trouble. While it's easy enough to invoke the "On the one hand this, but on the other hand that...." approach to analyzing a situation, it can often lead one down the slippery slope to delusional thinking and bizarre behavior. Consider Dorothy Loudon's brilliant mashup of two songs during 1992's Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall.

Often, when we envision a damsel in distress we imagine characters like the protagonist of the 1914 silent film serial entitled The Perils of Pauline, Lois Lane hoping to be rescued by Superman, or the beefy Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters) demonstrating her swimming technique in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. But as the following delightful collage demonstrates, women have been at the mercy of screen villains for nearly a century, starting with Pearl White's oft-imperiled Pauline and Gloria Swanson's portrayal of Gloria Dawn in 1917's Teddy At The Throttle.

While audiences have grown accustomed to the sight of frantic female faces enduring suspense scenes that involve grave physical danger, there are many more instances in which strong women are torn apart by deep psychological, emotional, and/or spiritual conflicts. Two new works offer spectacular examples of this phenomenon.

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Celebrities tend to bring out the strangest behavior in people. Whether they encounter starstruck fans, cynical critics, or frustrated fetishists, celebrity interactions with the public can verge from fawning adulation to ludicrous attempts at authenticity. For proof, consider this Virtual Reality Karaoke video from 1993.

I tip my hat to Morgan Ludlow, the artistic director of Wily West Productions whose beguiling new two-character play turns the celebrity interview upside down and inside out with dramatic deftness and a rare depth of perception. Starring Susan Jackson as an aging Joan Crawford and Ryan Hayes as an aspiring young journalist, Gorgeous Hussy does a spectacular job of exploring the mind game Edward Albee liked to call "Truth or Illusion."

Directed by Brady Brophy-Hilton, Ludlow's play uses film clips of Crawford in numerous screen roles as the actress endures a day at the Beverly Hills Hotel that includes a press conference, a book signing, and an extended interview that transforms both Joan and Roy in the strangest way. In his program note, the playwright explains that:

"From the beginning of the process, it was important to me that this be a two-person play (rather than just a monologue) in order to show how movie stars and celebrities are a reflection of us, our culture, our dreams, and how we see ourselves as a society. Joan Crawford wanted to be a movie star more than anything and she became one -- but at a significant personal cost. We are thrilled to take Christina's word for it and write Joan off as an abusive bitch, but the story is much more complicated than that. While much of what Joan says and does in the play is based on biographies and public record, much of it is also my own personal hallucination about Joan Crawford and what she might have been like if you got her really drunk. The play is not a photograph; it is more of an impressionist painting."

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Susan Jackson as Joan Crawford in Gorgeous Hussy
(Photo by: Quinn Whitaker)

Having an interviewee turn the tables on an interviewer is an old theatrical gimmick. What makes Ludlow's use of this technique so strong is the sheer perversity of it.

  • Ludlow's Crawford is acutely aware that most of her public and professional life was scripted by studio publicists. As a result, she's never been all too sure of who she is and has always been interviewed by people whose research about her was based on multiple levels of fiction.
  • Roy's initial impression of Crawford is based on his diligent research coupled with the subversive sense of curiosity that is a natural trait of many journalists.
  • Because Crawford holds most of the power in their meeting, it's easy for her to bully Roy into submitting to her fantasy -- namely that she will dress Roy up as Joan Crawford and interview him in an attempt to gain insight into her private life and public career.
  • As she applies lipstick, makeup, and wig to the male reporter, Roy's transformation takes the interview in surprising new directions.

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Joan Crawford (Susan Jackson) prepares Roy (Ryan Hayes) for
his big moment in Gorgeous Hussy (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Susan Jackson and Ryan Hayes deliver compelling portrayals of Joan Crawford (with or without her wig). But what Gorgeous Hussy really achieves is a clinical dissection of the perverse power of celebrity and the dangers of trying to live up to one's publicity.

Whether the viewer is a devoted Crawford fan or someone with minimal knowledge of Crawford's life and legend, it become obvious that while Ludlow's Joan is a lonely and intelligent woman, she's no fool. This Crawford can easily spot an alcoholic and peel away his emotional armor with the same investigative rigor he had intended to apply to her.

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Susan Jackson as Joan Crawford in Gorgeous Hussy
(Photo by: Laylah Muran)

Ludlow's writing has muscle, depth, and delivers the kind of surprise ending that could only happen in Hollywood. Performances of Gorgeous Hussy continue at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco's Tenderloin District through August 16.

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Abraham Lincoln has often been quoted for his observation that "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." As I sat watching the credits roll for Woody Allen's new film, I noticed that the legendary filmmaker took care to thank many people for their contributions to Blue Jasmine. Alas, there was absolutely no mention of Tennessee Williams in either the film's credits or its press kit. According to Wikipedia:

"Plagiarism is the 'wrongful appropriation' and 'purloining and publication' of another author's 'language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,' and the representation of them as one's own original work. The idea remains problematic with unclear definitions and unclear rules. The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement. Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions like expulsion. Plagiarism is not a crime per se but in academia and industry it is a serious ethical offense."

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Cate Blanchett as Jasmine when the money was good.

Watching Blue Jasmine is like auditing an industry workshop or master class in which writers are taught how many (and what types of) changes they must make to an acknowledged literary masterpiece before they can legally call their work original. While Allen and his publicity team have carefully omitted any mention of either Tennessee Williams, his 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Streetcar Named Desire (which starred Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy), the 1951, 1984, and 1995 screen adaptations, or Andre Previn's operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire (which received its world premiere from the San Francisco Opera on October 11, 1998), the ghost of Streetcar haunts the screen throughout this slickly-filmed ripoff.

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Jasmine's sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), argues with her
boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), in Blue Jasmine

Although David Edelstein (the film critic for New York Magazine) titled his review "Grand Theft Streetcar," what audiences are actually witnessing is a gross act of artistic nonfeasance (in layman's terms: a sin of omission). I stress this because Mr. Allen (who cast himself as Blanche DuBois and Diane Keaton as Stanley Kowalski in a topsy-turvy reenactment of A Streetcar Named Desire in his 1973 film, Sleeper) should fucking well know better.

Older writers have not hesitated to cite Streetcar as a major source of material/inspiration for Blue Jasmine. However, at the press screening I attended, several young film critics couldn't stop gushing about how brilliant and original Woody Allen's ideas were (they seemed to have no awareness that the basic characters and plot are more than 65 years old).

Set in New York and San Francisco, Blue Jasmine is bicoastal, beautifully filmed, and features a cast of solid character actors ranging from Bay area veteran Joy Carlin to comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay. The film's main character, however, is a modern-day cross between the delusional Blanche DuBois and, as many have suggested, the debased, disillusioned, and demoralized Ruth Madoff.

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Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) makes do with cheaper booze
at her sister's apartment in San Francisco

The core of the film rests solidly on the shoulders of Cate Blanchett (whose ferociously layered performance as Jeanette/Jasmine is already being hailed as deserving an Academy Award). What makes Blanchett's performance so breathtaking is the blazing evidence that so much of her characterization was originally shaped for a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

After Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, became co-directors of the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008, they invited Liv Ullmann to direct Blanchett in a production of Streetcar. In December 2009, when that production traveled to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Ben Brantley's review in The New York Times noted that:

"Most interpretations I've seen of Blanche, Tennessee Williams's greatest contribution to dramatic portraiture, ride the glistening surface of the character's poetry, turning Blanche into a lyric, fading butterfly waiting for the net to descend. What Ms. Blanchett brings to the character is life itself, a primal survival instinct that keeps her on her feet long after she has been buffeted by blows that would level a heavyweight boxer. Ms. Blanchett's Blanche is always on the verge of falling apart, yet she keeps summoning the strength to wrestle with a world that insists on pushing her away. Blanche's burden, in existential terms, becomes ours. And a most particular idiosyncratic creature acquires the universality that is the stuff of tragedy."

Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast as Jasmine's slickly devious shyster husband, Hal, while Sally Hawkins shows remarkable strength as Jasmine's younger, less deluded sister, Ginger. One look at Ginger's two little sons will instantly bring to mind Tennessee Williams's description of the bratty "no-neck monsters" from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Bobby Cannavale's Chili, Michael Stuhlberg's dentist, Andrew Dice Clay's Augie, and Max Casella's Eddie are all objects of Jasmine's derision for their all-too-human imperfections. Peter Sarsgaard scores strongly as a social-climbing diplomat with political aspirations who initially thinks that Jasmine could be a perfect trophy wife. Alden Ehrenreich has a beautifully tense scene with Blanchett as Jasmine's justifiably embittered son.

Oddly enough, the press kit for Blue Jasmine contains the following statement "Jasmine's flaw is that she derives her worth from the way she's perceived by others, while she herself is blind to what is going [on] around her." In some ways, those words could be applied to Woody Allen. As I left the press screening, I imagined a Jan Brewer-like crone pointing a crooked, accusatory finger in Allen's face as the filmmaker stuttered and swore that he was not a plagiarist.

"But ya'are, Blanche!" shrieked the woman, who loudly stressed that she was referring to Blanche DuBois rather than the wheelchair-bound Blanche Hudson in 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Here's the trailer:

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