This weekend I was able to catch up with Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine. It's a remarkable movie, and I cannot imagine a scenario in which Cate Blanchett is not nominated for Best Actress come Oscar-time. I'd say she's the odds on favorite to win the damn statue, and not for political reasons, just because her performance as a rich woman brought low and slowly breaking down is one of the best screen performances I've seen in years. It's an all-timer, as they say.
As is the rest of the movie. When you're a Woody Allen fan there's this annual visit to the theater where you're half excited about, half dreading what you're going to see. I'm old enough to have been seeing Woody's films in theaters for decades, which means I've seen some real highs and lows over the years. I think Zelig was my first Woody in theater experience (I was a precocious ten year old), and I've seen pretty much every single movie in theaters since then (except a handful, like You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). I've walked out elated and I've walked out disappointed, and Blue Jasmine definitely fits on the elated side of that list. Smart, funny, insightful and humane, Blue Jasmine uses its flashback structure not only to create a narrative tension but also to illustrate the life of Blanchett's Jasmine, a woman trying to start anew who cannot get out from under the intrusive weight of the past.
It takes a lot to stand out against a performance as layered, nuanced and excellent as Blanchett's, but Blue Jasmine is packed with actors who pull it off. One of the best, though, is very surprising to anyone who knows the guy's past and persona: Andrew "Dice" Clay gives perhaps the second best performance in the movie. A performance so good that he should be in the running for Best Supporting Actor.
Of course his history makes this tough. Dice rose to fame as a really offensive, misogynistic comedian ("Hickory dickory dock, this bitch was sucking my cock" goes one of his most famous routines) who burned out in the 90s after everybody got sick of his schtick and his attempt to cross over to movies - see The Adventures of Ford Fairlane - bombed. And so The Diceman was relegated to the sides of the industry, occasionally popping up on a late night show but mostly doing comedy club stuff and performing in Vegas. He's become not just a joke, but a vaguely unpleasant one. Nobody wants to remember what a big deal it was when EMF's Unbelievable managed to get around MTV's ban on Dice by incorporating his "DOH!" as a sample. That's the stuff from the 90s we like to leave behind.
When it was announced that he was cast in Blue Jasmine (alongside more genial comedian Louis CK) nobody could figure out what the hell Woody was doing. But having seen the film I can tell you the casting is a stroke of genius. Dice plays Augie, the ex-husband of Jasmine's sister Ginger. We're introduced to Augie early in the movie, when we're still learning about Jasmine's fall from rich grace, and Dice's uncouth history helps us side with her as she sees him as a low, base humanoid. But as the movie goes on we begin to learn more about Jasmine and begin to question her point of view, and as that happens we begin to see a more sensitive, sympathetic and human side to Augie.
Dice's last scene has Augie confronting Jasmine on a San Francisco street, and he plays it with unbelievable vulnerability and humanity. Yes, he's a rough around the edges, sort of crass guy, but he's human. We get every bit of that humanity in this scene, as Augie chokes back tears explaining how his life has fallen apart. Every one of Dice's scenes is great, but this moment is a kicker, a really subtle bit of acting that eschews all the tics and grease we expect from Andrew 'Dice' Clay. It's revelatory.
I wonder if this is something Clay can replicate. Is there a career as a real actor ahead of him? Has he just been in need of the right part, written by someone who is equally repulsed and enraptured by the oh-so-Italian emotional aggressiveness and sensitivity that Augie and Ginger's current beau, Chili (an also wonderful Bobby Cannavale) represents? I don't know, but in this movie, in this role, Clay is simply amazing.
It would be interesting to see if he could navigate the political waters of awards season. On the one hand his past will haunt him, and I'm not sure he knows how to tone down the schtick in the press at this point, but on the other hand he gives a truly sublime performance. Dice deserves a nomination for the performance, but the question remains whether he deserves one in spite of his history.