“Blue Jasmine” – Social Class Made Simple

August 4, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Long ago, some comedy sketch team did a parody of Tennessee Williams style Southern drama. At one point, the young woman asks what she’s doing that has turned people against her.  The Big Daddy-ish character tells her: “Drinkin’, lyin’, and puttin’ on airs.” 

The joke is that in American culture, all sorts of sins can be overlooked.  Lying, cheating, drinking, robbery, drug dealing, murder and other forms of violence – none of these necessarily disqualifies a character from being an admirable person or what we used to call a hero.  Puttin’ on airs is another matter. 

The line popped into my head as I was watching “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s retelling of the “Streetcar Named Desire” scenario.  A pretentious and slightly delusional woman suddenly falls from her life of great wealth and has to move in with her working-class sister Ginger in San Francisco.  Hilarity does not ensue.  (Come to think of it, “Streetcar” doesn’t have too many laughs either.) We cringe at each scene where Jasmine disdains the tastes of the people in her sister’s working-class world. We egalitarian Americans are put off by the character who takes pride in his or her educated, sophisticated tastes.  That character is heading either for a bad end or perhaps a redeeming turnaround complete with a slice of pizza and a lite beer.

“Streetcar” was a fish-out-of-water story – delicate Blanche in the home and world of the coarse Stanley Kowalski. “Blue Jasmine,” with flashbacks that contrast Jasmine’s former life of opulence in New York with her sister’s working-class world, is more of a morality tale about social class.  And that tale is none too subtle. The elite – especially as represented by Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin)  – are greedy, dishonest, selfish, and narcissistic. Hal is a Bernie Madoff type but with a string of sexual infidelities added to his financial frauds.  Jasmine, like Blanche du Bois, manages to keep herself from seeing the obvious.  (Blanche and Jasmine share a similar neurotic style, though Jasmine nourishes hers with seemingly unlimited quantities of vodka and Xanax). 

Worse, the elite (Hal and Jasmine) destroy the hopes and dreams of the working class Ginger and her then-husband Augie. When they win $200,000 in the lottery, they consult Hal, the successful businessman, about how Augie might use the money to start his own business.  Instead, Jasmine and Hal persuade him to invest the money in one of Hal’s ventures with a promised 20% return. The working-class couple lose everything, and their marriage dissolves.
This negative portrayal of the wealthy (seemingly a requirement in American films) is mirrored in the purity of virtue shown by the film’s working class. It was not always thus. In “Streetcar,” Stanley is not only coarse-mannered and insensitive to Blanche’s mental fragility. He beats his wife Stella, and in the scene that the play has been building to, he deals with his conflict with Blanche by raping her.

Stanley’s “Blue Jasmine” counterparts are Augie, Ginger’s first husband, and Chili, her current almost-fiancé, an auto mechanic.* These characters  are less conflicted, less nuanced. They are basically saints wearing wifebeaters. When Chili gets justifiably angry – Ginger has slept with another man – he breaks a lamp, but he doesn’t hit anyone, and later, he cries. 

Wealthy bad, working-class good.  It’s just about as simple as that.** Of course, you don’t go to “Blue Jasmine” for a realistic and complex depiction of class relations in the US. Movies must simplify some elements for the sake of others.  You go to “Blue Jasmine” to see a tour de force performance by Cate Blanchett in a well-told tale.

[As with most films today, the trailer provides a fairly complete plot summary.]

* The movie follows one other Hollywood convention: to signal working class status, a character must speak with a New York working-class accent.  It matters not whether the film is set in Pittsburgh, Chicago, or San Francisco.  Working-class characters have to speak as though it’s Brooklyn.

** The two middle-class men in the film are not evil but are seriously flawed, principally because of the way they act on their libidinal impulses. 


arnie said...

Your statement that "Working-class characters have to speak as though it’s Brooklyn" is confirmed by Joseph Dorinson, a history professor at Long Island University who asserts that "Brooklyn remains the home of the proletariat."

Source: Cylde Haberman , NY Times "Not Poifect, Dem Movies of Brooklyn"(10/31/03)

PCM said...

I saw the movie and thought,

"Boy... Woody Allen doesn't really do the working class very well."

For starters, the working class sisters rent would probably be well over $2,000/month on Van Ness and her job in grocery store probably pays the exact same!

I know he's not the first director to show people in nicer homes than they can afford, but this movie was about class and economic differences. So it's strange to be so clueless about how low-wage earners actually live.

I suspect he does a better job in his portrayal of the wealthy.