Culture

'Blue Jasmine' and 10 Great Literary Allusions in Woody Allen Films

Cate Blanchett in ‘Blue Jasmine’/Image © Sony Pictures Classics

In Woody Allen’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” Cate Blanchett plays a disgraced New York socialite forced to move in with her working-class sister after her wealthy husband’s financial collapse. Comparisons are already being made to the story of Ruth Madoff, the beleaguered wife of the infamous Bernie Madoff -- and Blanchett is reported to have done research into the couple’s precipitous fall in preparing to play the role.

But to us, the saga about the nervous break of a once-poised woman of leisure screams Streetcar Named Desire louder than Marlon Brando can bellow “Stella." From the moment Blanchett’s Jasmine enters her sister Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) “homey” apartment, there are echoes of that iconic Tennessee Williams drama. Just like Blanche DuBois, Jasmine immediately reaches for the bottle and then solicits and parries her sister’s weary compliments. “You look just fine,” says Stella in Williams’s version, to which Blanche replies, “God love you for a liar!” (“You look great.”/ “Now who’s lying?” goes Allen’s exchange.) Blanche and Jasmine are barely clinging to reality, a fragile state both women not so effectively attempt to conceal with booze and constant wistful references to the heady lives they once knew.

Of course, the nod to Williams should come as no surprise for a filmmaker whose work is often fueled by literary inspiration. From somewhat straightforward adaptations like “Sleeper,” the 1973 film loosely based on H.G. Well’s The Sleeper Awakened, to films that draw from a whole school of literature as did “Love and Death” from the Russians or “Mighty Aphrodite” from Greek drama, Allen’s oeuvre owes much to the page. And, of course, don’t get us started on “Midnight in Paris,” which was one delectable modernist allusion after another.

So in honor of “Blue Jasmine,” slated for limited release on July 26, we thought we’d look back at some of our favorite literary allusions in the Allen canon. We’ve forgone most of the biggies listed above in favor of some smaller Easter eggs.

Streetcar Named Desire in “Sleeper”
Continuing with the Streetcar theme, one of the most fantastically bizarre moments in this fantastically bizarre film, about a nebbishy health-food store owner who is cryogenically frozen and then defrosted 200 years later, comes when Allen’s character Miles begins enacting Blanche’s famous “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” scene with Diane Keaton as his Brando. Check out this video comparing Allen’s Blanche to Vivien Leigh’s. The guy’s not half bad.

Heart of Darkness in “Whatever Works”
In this 2009 comedy, the aptly named Boris Yellnikoff is a bitter, cynical misanthrope (aptly played by Larry David), who tries, and fails, to kill himself, taking after his father who committed suicide because he found reading the newspaper just too depressing. Boris explains: “'The horror,' Kurtz said at the end of Heart of Darkness, 'the horror.' Lucky Kurtz didn't have the Times delivered in the jungle. Ugh ... then he'd see some horror. But what do you do?”

Strindberg in “Manhattan”
In “Manhattan,” Allen’s 1979 rueful, self-deprecating romance, his character Isaac, a television comedy writer whose sorry track record with love currently has him dating a high school senior (Mariel Hemingway), says of himself, “When it comes to relationships with women, I’m the winner of the August Strindberg Award.” The line didn’t impress Joan Didion, but in comparing himself to the famously misogynistic Swedish dramatist who penned plays like Miss Julie, Allen’s reference is apt and pretty sad.

Ariel in “Annie Hall”
In the moment that perhaps best encapsulates the differences between the mismatched couple at the center of this 1977 classic, Allen’s neurotic Alvy pulls a copy of Sylvia Plath’s poetry collection from Annie’s (Diane Keaton) shelf. "Ah, Sylvia Plath," he says, “an interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.” The folksy Annie’s response? “Oh, I don’t know. Some of her poems seem neat.”

Faulkner in “Midnight in Paris”
Sure, the 2012 movie is teeming with allusions, but only one spurred a lawsuit. The group that represents William Faulkner’s estate brought suit against Sony Pictures Classics last fall claiming that a line spoken by the time-hopping writer Gil (Owen Wilson) was copyright infringement. “The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party,” says Gil. Of course, the actual quote from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun is “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But you get the point.

Schopenhauer in “Stardust Memories”
Throughout his movies, many brainy artsy types captivate Allen’s attention. But there’s a perfect on-the-nose concision to the fact that his character in this 1980 comedy about a film director on the eve of a career retrospective falls for a young movie extra (Charlotte Rampling) because she can speed-read Schopenhauer.

The Russians in “Husbands and Wives”
Thanks to “Love and Death,” Allen’s 1975 sweeping homage to the Crime and Punishment of it all, we know that the filmmaker has a thing for the Russians. But in “Husbands and Wives” (1992) we learn how they all stack up in his estimation. “Tolstoy is a full meal,” “Turgenev is a fabulous desert,” and “Dostoyevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ.”

Dickinson in “Crimes and Misdemeanors”
Throughout this 1989 comedy-drama, Cliff (Allen), a struggling documentarian, is constantly at odds with his blowhard brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda). It’s a rivalry that comes to a delicious literary head when Lester tries to one-up Cliff by demonstrating his ability to recite Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.”

Cummings in “Hannah and Her Sisters”
In one of the sweetest (albeit a tad creepy) scenes in the Allen oeuvre, Elliot (played by Michael Caine) stages a run-in with his wife’s sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), whom he secretly loves. After an impromptu trip to a bookstore, he insists on buying her a volume of e.e. cummings poetry and then points her attention to the poem on page 112 because it reminds him of her. “I do not know what it is about you that closes and opens;/only something in me understands the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses.” It’s worth noting that the final line of the poem (“Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands”) is the epigraph to The Glass Menagerie by another of Allen’s favorite literary muses, Tennessee Williams.

Books about death in “Annie Hall”
We can trace the rise and fall of the great love affair between Alvy and Annie in books about death. Early on in the relationship, he buys her The Denial of Death and Death and Western Thought because death is a “big subject” with him. Later, as they divide their belongings, they can tell whose books belong to whom because the poetry tomes are all hers and those on death and dying belong to him. And finally, as Annie chooses to stay in L.A. with the wealthy rock star Tony (Paul Simon) over returning to New York with Allen’s character, she out Alvies Alvy. “What’s so great about New York? It’s a dying city. You read Death in Venice,” she says. “You didn’t read Death in Venice until I bought it for you,” he responds. Nevertheless.