This is not intended to be a rave about Woody Allen's new movie, Blue Jasmine. It is a modest effort from the writer-director. Cate Blanchett, as the fragile heroine, is receiving a lot of Oscar buzz, but Oscar buzz in August is largely meaningless. Steven Spielberg would have another statue on his mantel for directing Lincoln last year if early buzz meant anything. But you certainly don't want to count Blanchett out. She is marvelous. And Woody Allen has a track record with these things. He has directed four actresses to Oscars (one of them, Dianne Wiest, twice).
But this isn't about actresses or Oscars either. It is about a writer who has spent a career exploring female characters and who probably has never gotten he recognition he deserves. Part of that lack of recognition is self-inflicted. His very public and very sordid split with long-time companion Mia Farrow cast him as a misogynist and a pervert, and there are some people who never have forgiven him. Whether actresses such as Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz passed moral judgment on Allen, I can't answer. But they all chose to work with him after the scandal, as did dozens of other leading actresses and actors.
Some of the lack of recognition comes from viewers who genuinely find his work flimsy. Critics are quick to point out that comedy in Allen's films often acts as a shield from deeper exploration (as if that weren't comedy's raison d'etre in the first place.) He is no Renoir. Fair enough. No one is. But I would argue that amongst 20th century Western dramatists, only Tennessee Williams and Allen's muse Ingmar Bergman more successfully explored the modern woman over a long period of time. Allen is on par with Pedro Almodovar, another comic writer-director who had to labor a long time before he was taken seriously.
Blanchett's Jasmine, along with Sally Hawkins' Ginger, are two more examples of complex, flawed, poignant characters that have populated Allen's films since he shifted an idea originally called Anhedonia, about a comedian named Alvy Singer who was incapable of experiencing pleasure, away from Alvy and onto one of his failed romances with a woman named Annie Hall. With all the baggage that Allen carries, it's hard to remember how important a creation Annie was. It was also the first time Allen directed an actress to an Oscar. He has gone on to create such memorable female characters as the dreamer Cecilia (Purple Rose of Cairo), Hannah, Holly, and Lee (Hannah and Her Sisters), the smart philosopher facing mid-life crisis Marion Post (Another Woman), feminist prototype Alice (Alice), Linda Ash, Vicky, Cristina, and Mary Elena, leading up to Jasmine and Ginger. And those are just the headliners. Is there a more simply poignant female character in American film over the last twenty-five years than Diane Wiest's Aunt Bea in Allen's magnificent Radio Days?
There's something important to understand. Part of the reason Woody Allen has been able to explore the female psyche to the degree that he has is that he has been able to make a lot of movies. There are two ways to look at this, and they are not mutually exclusive. There could be many other writers out there who are capable of delving as deep or deeper than Allen, but they have not gotten the chance. I have thought for a long time that if Nicole Holofcener could make twenty more movies, she would merit a spot on the list with all the men mentioned above. Holofcener has made four movies to this point and none have been hits. She primarily works on television now and who knows when she will get another chance to make a movie.
That leads to the second thing to understand about Woody Allen. He has basically written and directed an original movie every year for the past forty years. Some have been brilliant. Some have been painful. But he keeps working. That is astonishing on many levels. It is closer to the pace of a television writer, and television writers often burn out in five or ten years. His creative stamina is super-human. He has done, and continues to do, what all writers profess to want to do, and what precious few actually do. He gets up every day and writes new stories. If he puts out some sub-par work, or if he fails to reach the heights of Bergman and Renoir, I don't really care. Modest Allen, Like Blue Jasmine, at this point is significantly better than most of what Hollywood is creating, and for that, I am thankful.