Movies and the Mind

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'Blue Jasmine' in Full Bloom

Analyzing Woody Allen's Female Characters

Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine"

In addition to receiving numerous Oscar nominations (and several wins) as a writer and a director, many actors have also received Oscar glory in Woody Allen’s movies—15 nominations and 5 wins in lead or supporting roles (see bottom for details). The buzz is that Cate Blanchett will likely be nominated as a lead actress for her work as the title character in Allen’s current Blue Jasmine (Sally Hawkins is also being mentioned for a supporting actress nomination).

One of the interesting things about Allen’s Oscar statistics is that the success of female actors outnumbers that of male actors almost than 3-to-1 (11 nominations, 4 awards for women vs. 4 nominations, 1 award for men). While credit must be given to the outstanding actresses who have embodied these roles, it is clear that as far as the Academy is concerned, Allen has a gift for creating female characters that are especially praise-worthy.

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This opinion is not universally held. Commentators have noted that most of the women in Allen’s films are presented as objects of male desire (albeit of a much more neurotic and intellectualized variety than is typical of Hollywood—art museums are more common in Allen’s films than beaches, and when beaches do appear, they are the setting for wistful gazing, not jiggling bikinis). Some critics go further by claiming that the filmmaker revels in the psychological faults of female characters in a manner that is misogynistic (Mia Farrow’s “passive aggressive” Judy in Husbands & Wives is a common example). Finally detractors (and more than a few fans) have trouble giving Allen credit for special insight into the feminine psyche after the events of the early 90s in which Allen was caught by his then partner, Mia Farrow, having an affair with her 20 year old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. The close association many people make between “Woody Allen, the artist” and “Woody Allen, the person” is a double-edged sword. If some viewers tend to see Allen as emotionally sensitive and insightful human being, others have a hard time separating his controversial personal choices from his movies. These viewers are hesitant to laud Allen for his psychological perceptiveness, especially in regard to the inner life of women.

Hollywood actresses seem to have gotten over any trepidation they might have had about taking on roles in Allen’s movies, and I have to admit I was mesmerized by Blanchett’s performance. Jasmine is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown after discovering the infidelity of her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). When Hall is then imprisoned for investment fraud, her life in New York high society is destroyed. Jasmine is forced to move to San Francisco to live with her less glamorous sister, Ginger, and her two kids. Ginger has recently gotten a divorce herself because of the stress resulting from the couple’s financial investment in Hal’s schemes.

Like most Hollywood depictions of psychological dysfunction, Jasmine does not perfectly follow DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) categories. Most clinicians would be quick to label her as personality disordered, but she has a hodgepodge of quirks that pull for a variety of labels--“histrionic,” “narcissistic,” “borderline” and possibly others. The constant presence of a vodka glass in her hand also signals alcohol abuse and probably dependency. The behavior I find least convincing from a realistic perspective is her tendency to fall into pseudo-psychotic trances where she speaks to herself in public, repeating dialogue from her past. (It makes for some exquisite close-ups though).

Much more than presenting wanna-be cinematic diagnosticians with a complicated puzzle of symptoms however, Jasmine succeeds in perfectly embodying a concept from a little further back in the history of psychology—Carl Jung’s notion of “persona.” Symbolized by the mask, persona is the idea that all of us play certain roles in our lives. In those roles we put on a public face that does not encapsulate the deeper levels of selfhood. At best, our persona is a reflection of parts of our selves that are struggling to find expression in social reality. At worst, our persona takes over and blinds us to who we really are. We believe the mask is indeed us and we lose track of the other parts of ourselves that don’t match the superficial image. At this point, we are living a lie.

Jasmine’s capacity for self-delusion is extremely high and is made possible by her self-centeredness. We see this early on when she flies to San Francisco from New York in first-class despite being heavily in debt and then is unable to comprehend how her sister might find this to be incongruent. Jasmine is clearly experiencing acute distress brought about by the loss of her posh lifestyle in NYC, but through flashbacks, it is clear that her life and marriage were always an elaborate façade. When her husband is arrested and the government takes all of their assets, the façade come crumbling down.

Some movies use an event such as the collapse of a marriage as an opportunity for characters to “grow” and “find themselves.” It is not giving away too much to say that is not what happens in Blue Jasmine. Instead of dropping her mask, Jasmine seeks only to put it back on, tighter than ever. The audience is forced to watch Jasmine undermine a promising relationship with deceptions that we know will eventually be discovered. Jasmine however does her best to ignore the inevitable as long as she can. She cannot take the mask off because she is so afraid there is nothing behind it.

In the end these observations are not enough to make the case that Allen has some special insight into real women or even femininity as an abstract concept. It is enough to suggest that as an artist (especially when collaborating with other artists like Cate Blanchett), he has the talent to frequently create female characters that are multi-dimensional and feel psychologically real.

 

List of Oscar nominated actors in Woody Allen movies: Michael Caine in Hannah & Her Sisters (won); Penelope Cruz in Vicki Christina Barcelona (won); Judy Davis in Husbands & Wives; Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan; Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (won); Martin Landau in Crimes & Misdemeanors; Samantha Morton in Sweet & Lowdown; Geraldine Page in Interiors; Chazz Palminteri in Bullets Over Broadway; Sean Penn in Sweet & Lowdown; Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (won); Maureen Stapleton in Interiors; Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway; Diane Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway (won) and Hannah & Her Sisters (won)

(Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770)

Skip Dine Young, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and a licensed clinical psychologist.

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