News Column

The Philadelphia Inquirer On Movies column

August 11, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 11--Bernie Madoff's name did not come up when Alec Baldwin was talking to Woody Allen about Blue Jasmine and the role Baldwin would play: a hard-charging Manhattan investment executive, who, it turns out, has been robbing his clients blind.

Then again, not much was discussed at all. Allen is famously reticent with his troupe, and Baldwin, who had worked with the bespectacled auteur on last year's To Rome with Love, was prepared.

"If he did bring Madoff up, I don't recall," Baldwin says. "Woody's someone who doesn't do a lot of explicating, a lot of hand-holding . . .. He's assuming that you get it conceptually. And I think people who he believes would require a lot of explaining -- about how the scene should be played, or what it's about, or what have you -- I don't think he puts himself in that position too often.

"I've worked with directors -- not many, but a handful -- who are the opposite. They want to sit and talk to you not just for hours, but maybe even days. They want to meet and just put a finer point, and a finer point, on what your understanding of the piece is.

"Woody is not that director."

In Blue Jasmine -- which opened Friday at the Ritz Five, UA King of Prussia, and Cinemark at Ritz Center/NJ -- Baldwin is the catalyst for catastrophe, the husband who throws Cate Blanchett's character into the maelstrom. When his epic criminality is exposed, the couple's life -- with all of their riches -- comes tumbling down. She sets off for San Francisco, pockets full of Xanax and not much else, to crash in her sister's (Sally Hawkins) humble, funky digs.

Blanchett's performance is breathtaking -- a sure thing come Oscar nominations time. Baldwin concurs.

"Like great athletes, a great actor or actress has a lot of things in their bag. A great athlete has hand-eye coordination and strength and stamina, and people who are great actors have the dramatic equivalent of that.

"A lot is going on at the same moment. They're capable of bursting out laughing while tears are streaming down their face . . .. They could be sobbing, they could be screaming, they could be throwing something at you, they could be laughing, she could completely stop right in her tracks.

"She might walk up and slap you across the face. She might walk up and take your pants off . . .. The unexpected is the only thing that can be expected."

For years, Allen's m.o. has been to give his cast only the sections of the script pertaining to their roles. That was the case with Baldwin and Blue Jasmine. His character, Hal, figures in extended flashbacks. So when he saw the finished film, there was much that was unfamiliar, much to consider.

And one of the things he found himself considering -- as have critics and audiences who have seen the movie -- is how closely the plot, and the relationships, hew to Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

Blanchett, in fact, has starred as Williams' distraught heroine, Blanche DuBois, on stage. And Baldwin has played the volatile Stanley Kowalski (not in the same production).

Was he struck by similarities between Allen's picture and the play?

"Yes, I was. Very much so."

And he is fine with that.

"Someone once said there are only four or five great stories, and artists just reshuffle them. And I think that the idea of contemporizing that character is fascinating. You know, who is Blanche if she walks among us now?

"If you were going to have a Blanche DuBois in the modern world, a woman who is looking for 'a cleft in the rock of the world,' as Blanche does in the play, well, is a little rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with Sally Hawkins a cleft in the rock of the world? I don't know.

"I think that Woody pulls it off. I think this feels like a very authentic representation of who Blanche would be if Blanche was around now."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629, srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.

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