Editor’s Note: This essay was originally written in August 2013, and later revised in March 2014 for publication in Mediascape.
In an essay I wrote for my co-edited anthology Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (Brandeis Press, 2013), I argue that Allen’s films since the Mia Farrow/Soon Yi Previn scandal of 1992 all to some degree betray (if only unconsciously) the scandal’s lingering effects on the much acclaimed/much maligned writer-director. No film deals as overtly with Allen’s affair with his nineteen-year-old, quasi-step-daughter Soon Yi as his 2011 play Honeymoon Motel, in which a middle-aged New York Jew runs off to a motel with his stepson’s bride on the day of the wedding ceremony. But each film does employ, I suggest, one or more (sometimes overlapping) strategies for coping with the scandal’s (internal and external) fallout. Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, which was released after my essay’s submission for publication, would have made an ideal capper. For besides being one of Allen’s stronger works (and worth seeing just for CateBlanchett’s stunning performance), it fits my post-scandal strategy thesis to a tee.
I divide the strategies into four main categories: struggling, escapist, defiant and accepting. Struggling films, such as Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007), grapple seriously with issues of guilt and morality. Escapist films, such as Small Time Crooks (2000) and Midnight in Paris (2011), concertedly avoid them. Defiant films, such as Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Hollywood Ending (2002), justify problematic affairs or privilege art over ethics. Accepting films, such as Anything Else (2003) and Scoop (2007), evoke a chastened appreciation of human frailty. Several films, such as Mighty Aphrodite, (1995), Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) and now also Blue Jasmine, combine strategies—in the latter case, most prominently, struggling and defiant.
Befitting the two strategies, the film also jostles between two distinct geographical and temporal spaces: one in New York City in the past, the other in San Francisco in the present, both revolving around titular Jasmine (Blanchett). In NY Jasmine was on top of the world, as the beautiful, sophisticated wife of Bernie Madoff-like billionaire Hal (AlecBaldwin). SF is where, in material and emotional distress following Hal’s arrest, financial collapse, and prison suicide, she seeks refuge (and a fresh start) with her working-class stepsister Ginger (SallyHawkins). Adding mightily (if unconsciously) to Jasmine’s anguish is her (largely repressed) guilt over the $200,000 of Ginger and her ex-husband Augie’s (Andrew Dice Clay) lottery money that vanished in one of Hal’s Ponzi schemes—the shadiness of which Jasmine was well aware.
The struggling strategy, in its concern with guilt and morality, is thus front and center. Its specific relation to Allen’s post-scandal predicament, moreover, is highlighted in several ways. First, of course, Hal’s high-profile scandal itself, which, though of a more serious nature (legally and ethically) than Allen’s affair with, and later marriage to, Soon-Yi (discounting unproven charges of sexual abuse of his adopted daughter Dylan), has clear associations with it. Then there’s Hal and Jasmine’s adult son Danny, who, after the scandal breaks, calls his father a con-man and a hypocrite and abandons his parents for good. Allen had lost the custody battle over Dylan and Moses, his adopted son with Farrow, and they along with Ronan, Allen’s then-seeming biological son (recent disclosures by Farrow, and Ronan’s appearance, point to FrankSinatra as the more likely father), would have nothing to do with him.
Errant romance clinches the Allen connection. A key turning point in the flashback portion of the film comes when the fortyish Jasmine discovers the fiftyish Hal’s affair with a teenage French au pair, whom he plans to marry. Allen was in his fifties and Farrow in her forties when he began his affair with Soon-Yi. Hal doesn’t get the chance with his Lolita, as his wedding plans prompt Jasmine to call the FBI on him for his felonious business dealings.
Jasmine’s defiant act also marks the film’s defiant turn—but on Allen’s, not Jasmine’s, terms. For while her lowering the boom on Hal provided a measure of revenge and absolved her of some of the guilt for her indirect complicity in his crimes, it also brought about her own downfall—arguably an even more devastating one than his, as she continues to suffer the consequences. Jasmine’s harshest punishment, however (and Allen’s most defiant moment), comes when she meets the estranged Danny by chance in the Bay Area. Not only does he still reject her; he says he blames her more than Hal for her informing on him. And, once again, the incident has an autobiographical ring, as Allen’s adopted, now adult son Moses has come to side with Allen on the child molestation charge and has publicly accused Farrow of bullying him and the other children into siding with her during the custody battle.
Signs of Allen’s festering resentment toward Farrow had also surfaced in his film prior to Blue Jasmine, To Rome with Love (2012). Near that film’s end, AlecBaldwin’s mentor character consoled JesseEisenberg’s WoodyAllenish type about his break-up from EllenPage’s neurotic femme fatale. “Consider yourself lucky,” he advised; “she would have had you free-falling from parachutes and adopting Burmese orphans”—a statement that begged to be taken as a dig at Farrow’s social activism and adoption of Asian children. Then again, seeing that Soon Yi herself was a South Korean orphan and that one of Allen and Soon-Yi’s adopted daughters is Chinese, the barb, less explicably, seemed to redound to his new wife and child as well.
Less ambiguity surrounds the anti-Farrow stab at the end of Blue Jasmine. At rock bottom since Danny’s knife in the heart, the floundering of a second chance with an aspiring California politician, and estrangement from Ginger as well, Jasmine is left talking to herself on a park bench and staring forlornly into space. And we, thanks to the black blues song on the sound track, Blanchett’s overwhelming performance, and Allen’s still substantial filmmaking skills, are reminded of more than merely Jasmine’s, or Allen’s, existential angst.
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal-State LA, and Pierce College. Besides dozens of journal articles, anthology essays, encyclopedia entries, and reviews, he’s authored or edited five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and (as co-editor) Woody on Rye: Jewisheness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.