Monday, September 16, 2013

Of Courtesans, Trophy Wives, and Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine"

In our time, it is acceptable for highly successful men to ditch a dowdy and child-worn wife and trade her for a new super-model spouse.  But what are the values inherent in such relationships?  What's left when it all blows up?  

Tennessee Williams explored this question in his 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire.  His answer:  what's left is more fakery and phoniness than is pretty to look at.  Here is a quick synopsis,  just so we're on the same page:  
Blanche DuBois is a fading, though still attractive, Southern belle whose pretensions to virtue and culture only thinly mask her alcoholism and delusions of grandeur. Her poise is an illusion she presents to shield others (but most of all, herself) from her reality, and is an attempt to make herself still attractive to new male suitors. Blanche arrives at the apartment of her sister Stella Kowalski, ... on Elysian Fields Avenue in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans; one of the streetcars that she takes to get there is named "Desire." The steamy, urban ambiance of Stella's home is a shock to Blanche's nerves. Stella, who fears the reaction of her husband Stanley, welcomes Blanche with some trepidation. As Blanche explains that their ancestral Southern plantation, Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi, has been "lost" ...  her veneer of self-possession begins to slip drastically. Blanche tells Stella that her supervisor allowed her to take time off from her job as an English teacher because of her upset nerves, while in reality she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. .... A brief marriage marred by the discovery that her husband, Allan Grey, was having a homosexual affair, and his subsequent suicide, has led Blanche to withdraw into a world in which fantasies and illusions blend seamlessly with reality.
In contrast to the self-effacing and deferential Stella and the pretentious refinement of Blanche, Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, is a force of nature: primal, rough-hewn, brutish, and sensual. He dominates Stella in every way and is physically and emotionally abusive.  [Yet] Stella tolerates his primal behavior as this is part of what attracted her in the first place; their love and relationship are heavily based on powerful – even animal-like – sexual chemistry, something that Blanche finds impossible to understand.
Marlan Brando made  a hell of a Stanley Kowalsky.  

In Blue Jasmine, the Woody Allen homage to Streetcar, Bobby Cannavale is no Marlon Brando.  Allen's "Chili" is but a poor Elvis caricature.   Sally Hawkins is a delightful Ginger,  the South of Mission grocery clerk sister to Jaenette Francis (Jasmine).  She's as self-assured and solid as Jasmine is weak and without a center.  Ginger is alright, despite her unpromising men.  But the center of gravity of Blue Jasmine is squarely on the Blanche DuBois character.  Cate Blanchett puts in a tour de force as Jasmine, falling apart because her center will not hold.  

The other main source for Jasmine is the Bernie Madoff story.  Surely Woody Allen must have run into  Ruth Maddoff in New York.   But, whereas in real life, Ruth Madoff is rumored to have been knee deep in the books of the Madoff Ponzi Scheme empire,  a powerful and savy co-conspirator with her husband, Allen's Jasmine character is all trophy wife courtesan.  

Is that misogynistic?  I don't know.  It's not a new phenomenon.  

There is a new book out by Julie Kavanah, The Girl Who Loved Camellias:  The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis, about a famous 19th century Parisian courtesan.  Anka Muhlstein describes these women thus, in her review in the New York Review of Books:
A courtesan never burdened herself with any career other than the one she pursued flat on her back ....  These temptresses have existed throughout history but they took on a special status in post-revolutionary France.  That's when they were ushered into French literature, by writers ranging from Balzac to Proust.  
The licentiousness that marked the high society of the eighteenth century did not survive the French Revolution.  Virtue, piety, and decorum reigned in respectable houses and men were bored.  The wives--married too young, deeply ignorant, and regrettably, as noted by Georges Sand, raised to be saintly--had no way to keep those men at home....  The only salons where you could laugh freely, tell a risque joke, or start an affair---all while enjoying an excellent repast in the company of lovely women--were those presided over by one of these women.  
 And she includes this delicious image:  
Noone reported that Marie Duplessis uttered a witticism.  Housaye insisted that she talked nothing but nonsense, but so charmingly that no one wished to stop listening.  
We guys can relate.  Some of these courtesans, like some trophy wives today, became fabulously wealthy.  But life being what it is, that kind of fame and fortune is harder to maintain than a Ponzi scheme.

In 1980, relative newly-weds, Bobbi and I attended the opening of Paul Verhoeven's Spetters at the Pike Place Cinema in Seattle.  Paul Verhoeven was there and the film was followed by a question and answer session.  That film also features a striving vixen, searching her fortune by successively hitching her wagon to  the most successful of three friends .... the constellation and power relations change throughout the film.   Just like  Blue Jasmine, Spetters drew some strong negative reactions.  One viewer, a woman, reacted to the mercenary portrait of marriage in the film.  Verhoeven's response rose to the bait of her anger:  "All marriages are an economic relationship at heart," he said.

That's not wrong, it strikes me.  Man or woman, whether courtesan, corporate CEO, shop girl, grease monkey, Stanley Kowalsky, Jasmine, or Ginger, ultimately we've got to stand on our own two feet.  In the end we die alone.  In the meantime we've got to roll with the punches and make our own center, hold it together, and try to have a good time, no matter what.   If, in the process, we can create loving and long lasting and supportive relationships...well, so much the better.

In the end, Versace, fancy houses, cars, and first class flights notwithstanding, we want to live like Ginger, not like Jasmine.  And if you can have both .... well, hell, then you've really got something.

1 comment:

  1. I may be alone here but I did not like Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Woody Allen has been ensconced on his bed on the upper East Side that he has become unfamiliar with "the people." Namely, those who don't live on the upper East Side or expensive neighborhoods in Paris or London.
    So he spoon feeds the audience with broad characters. Which works well when he is going for laughs. But is off putting when he wants us to care about his characters.
    As to your assertion about life styles...right on.