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Feminine Mistake

The high cost, and sweet rewards, of Woody Allen’s vision of women.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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If you are a female performer desperately in want of an Oscar or an award from some critics’ circle somewhere, your best bet is to work for Woody Allen. Since Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall statuette in 1978, actresses in Allen movies have been nominated for 10 Academy Awards and have won 4 of them: Dianne Wiest twice, for Hannah and Her Sisters (released in 1986) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994); Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995); Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). 

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There’s never been anything quite like this in the history of the movies.  Allen does reasonably well by men, too—Michael Caine won for Hannah and Her Sisters, and another three actors were nominated—but his specialty is getting prizes for the ladies.

Which is interesting, because Woody Allen is a spectacular, galling, nearly intolerable misogynist. I don’t mean as a human being, although one might intuit this from his life history. I mean as a creator of female characters. Allen’s award-winning types are: a delusional and lost waif (Wiest in Hannah); a Machiavellian manipulator (Wiest in Bullets); a childlike hooker (Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite); and an unhinged bisexual (Cruz in Vicky Cristina).

Among the characters whose performers received nominations but did not win are Geraldine Page’s suicidal perfectionist in Interiors (1978), Judy Davis’s harridan virago in Husbands and Wives (1992), and Samantha Morton’s mute doorstop in Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Other Allen female characters of note who did not make the final Oscar cut include the clingy and desperate Scarlett Johansson in Match Point (2005), the bitter and talentless sister played by Mary Beth Hurt in Interiors, and the castrating mother (Mae Questel) who literally watches her son from the sky in New York Stories (1989).

Allen often returns to the same woman-hating well. To go with Mira Sorvino’s hooker, there was Hazelle Goodman’s hooker in Deconstructing Harry (1997) and a veritable who’s who of hookers (Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, and Kathy Bates) in Shadows and Fog (1991). Judy Davis played pretty much the same horror-show ex-wife in both Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity (1998). Penelope Cruz’s bipolar lunatic was preceded by Charlotte Rampling’s bipolar lunatic in Stardust Memories (1980), Christina Ricci’s bipolar lunatic in Anything Else (2003), and Radha Mitchell’s in Melinda and Melinda (2004).

And now, surprise of surprises, there’s a brand-new bipolar-lunatic movie from Woody Allen called Blue Jasmine, with Cate Blanchett inhabiting the 77-year-old Allen’s latest iteration of his Eternal Horrible Feminine. Jasmine is the wife of a Bernie Madoff type who has hanged himself in prison after being arrested and convicted. We first encounter her after a nervous breakdown, fleeing New York to take up residence with her estranged working-class sister in San Francisco.

Throughout the movie, Jasmine is rude, cruel, self-centered, pathetic, and unpleasant. She lies, she complains, she demands. She looks down on her good-hearted sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who has a habit of hooking up with goombah louts—even though it was Jasmine and her husband who lost Ginger’s life savings, which led to the breakup of her first marriage. When she’s not being cruel, Jasmine is talking to herself, consuming Xanax as though it were Pez, and lying through her teeth about her past.

It’s a meaty part, to be sure, since it requires Blanchett to spend most of the movie barely controlling her emotions. So there’s a lot of trembling and a lot of shaking. And when she isn’t loathing her life in the present, she’s remembering her past glories as a Park Avenue matron. But even in these scenes, Jasmine is shown to be a brittle and humorless perfectionist who is very tightly wound, beautiful but unattractive. But then, that is true of many, if not most, Allen women—Annie Hall always excepted.

This overdrawn and overwrought character is the sole focus of our attention for all but about five minutes of the movie. The only relief comes from the 1980s shock comedian Andrew Dice Clay, who gives a moving and layered performance as Ginger’s ruined husband—and from the British actress Sally Hawkins, who underplays beautifully as Ginger.

What pleasures Blue Jasmine affords come from the telling. The movie is gripping because of the structure Allen has imposed upon it, which keeps you guessing about Jasmine’s spiritual and mental condition and ultimately pays off with a major plot surprise. But it’s highly contrived, and Allen seems to have derived his ideas about mental illness from melodramatic plays of the 1930s rather than the way people who suffer from it actually behave.

All of this is beside the point. Blue Jasmine is practically designed to win Cate Blanchett an Oscar this year, and even though she already has one for playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004), she’s the odds-on favorite right now. And why not? She’s the most hateful character of Woody Allen’s career. The deeper question is why so many people find Allen’s remorselessly hostile depictions of women so alluring.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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