The Beautiful Mess and Why We Can't Turn Away

The Beautiful Mess—the once powerful woman who loses her mental marbles—is an archetypal character and one that not only provides fodder for great performances, like Cate Blanchett's in Woody Allen's new film Blue Jasmine, but appeals to a human cruelty that takes pleasure in watching downfalls.

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The Beautiful Mess—the once powerful woman who loses her mental marbles—is an archetypal character and one that not only provides fodder for great performances, like Cate Blanchett's in Woody Allen's new film Blue Jasmine, but appeals to a human cruelty that takes pleasure in watching downfalls. As the titular character, what Blanchett does with her face is truly remarkable. Meeting a new lover, it's glistening, perfectly pale. Her cheekbones are high, her eyes slim. Then in a restaurant with her sister's kids, it's snarling. Her features melt, her lips sag, she practically foams at the mouth. And finally, in the film's closing moments, a mixture of both. Eerily calm, though completely unhinged, she puckers.

It is the first great performance of the year (the film opens Friday) and, based on the gushing reviews, you will be sure to hear about it during Oscar season.  "You can’t get enough of her, and Cate the most complicated and demanding performance of her movie career," David Denby writes in the New Yorker. "The actress, like her character, is out on a limb much of the time, but there’s humor in Blanchett’s work, and a touch of self-mockery as well as an eloquent sadness." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly explains in his A-grade review: "Blanchett, her eyes shining, makes Jasmine at once ardent, touching, off-putting, and cracked in her grand delusions."

Still, as mesmerizing as Blanchett is to watch, we've seen this kind of thing before. There's a simple reason why we see so many talented actresses playing the Beautiful Mess: they are challenging, meaty roles in a movie economy where there aren't a lot of great roles for women, especially older ones. Our culture is also fascinated by Beautiful Messes in the same way we're fascinated by male anti-heroes. They are standardly attractive, but also repellent. "You look back to Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, that’s what the movies have always been about," said Leslye Headland, writer-director of Bachelorette, to Women's Wear Daily after attending the Blue Jasmine premiere. "If it isn’t about someone getting shot or killed, or some big huge epic, there’s usually a crazy bitch losing her mind."

We meet Jasmine first on a plane, gabbing a way to the seemingly uninterested woman sitting next to her. Jasmine is on her way to San Francisco to stay with her sister (they were both adopted) Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who dates a lug of a man (Bobby Cannavale). You soon learn Jasmine drinks heavily, pops Xanax like crazy, and is broke. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) was engaged in some Madoff-esque dealings and committed suicide in prison. As much as Jasmine is a victim, her misfortune is also self-imposed. She was willfully blind in her previous life, and now she's uncontrollably a mess. Despite her weakening mental state, she still carries Louis Vuitton, still flies first class, and still believes she is better than her grocery bagging-sister. She is condescending and cruel to the people around her.

You'll note that sometimes the words Blanchett's mouth forms have a Southern tinge despite her character's WASPiness, and that makes sense. It hasn't escaped anyone that Blue Jasmine draws most heavily from the greatest Beautiful Mess of them all: Blanche DuBois of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. In the play, Blanche goes to stay with her sister Stella after a traumatic event her in past. Stella is married to a lug of a man. The parallels go deeper: Blanche also lost her husband to a suicide. (For what it's worth Woody Allen has long been interested in Streetcar, see his own take on Blanche in Sleeper to the right.) Blanchett, of course, memorably played Blanche in Liv Ullmann's production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009. In his review The New York Times' Ben Brantley wrote that Blanchett's "Blanche is always on the verge of falling apart, yet she keeps summoning the strength to wrestle with a world that insists on pushing her away. Blanche’s burden, in existential terms, becomes ours. And a most particular idiosyncratic creature acquires the universality that is the stuff of tragedy."

But even Blanche has earlier roots. The tradition of the Beautiful Mess goes long back. When we asked Yale theater studies and English professor Joseph Roach for his thoughts on the type. In an email he rattled off character names from Aeschylus' Cassandra to Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth to Strindberg's Miss Julie. (Jessica Chastain will soon have her stab at that part.) "I think part of the appeal of the archetype (and stereotype) is the freedom from ordinary constraints on women that madness allows," Roach said. That the characters he mentioned all end up dead (or, in the case of Blanche, institutionalized), Roach said "is part of the patriarchal justice of the fifth act—madness allows women to behave as luridly onstage as they will while everyone watches, dumbstruck, but it still cannot extenuate the crime of uninhibited female self-expression, which is punishable by death." Beautiful Messes vary in degrees grotesqueness. In Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard Norma Desmond took Beautiful Mess to the extreme. Perhaps she was once glamorous, but when we meet her she's just gaudy and frightening. They often turn verbally cruel, like Martha from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Martha, like Jasmine, is drunk and bitter, but in her heart lies a secret and a sadness stemming from an inconsolable delusion.

When (we aren't going to pretend it's if) Blanchett gets an Oscar nomination for her performance as Jasmine, she'll join a long line of women who have won for performances in these types of characters. Vivien Leigh got two: first as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, then another for playing Blanche in Elia Kazan's adaptation of Streetcar. Elizabeth Taylor won for her portrayal of Martha in Mike Nichols' film of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In large part we reward these performances for our preconceived notions of how women are supposed to act, not unlike the way actresses who obscure their beauty for a role, think Charlize Theron in Monster. A mental break is just another form of ugliness. And it only helps that, as in the case of Jasmine, the actresses look less than fresh-faced when playing these parts, even while they still look as gorgeous as ever on the red carpet.

So why are these women, these Beautiful Messes, so inherently entertaining? It's because we like to see powerful people do bad things. Often, with men, that means we enjoy watching criminals: from Macbeth to Tony Soprano. With women its Beautiful Messes: from Blanche DuBois to Carrie Mathison. As Matt Mazur wrote of Norma at the International Cinephile Society: "Without the cuckoo Norma, there would be no wannabes, no Anna Nicole Smiths, no Lindsay Lohans, no celebrations of the nutsy, failed actresses' real lives providing ghoulish entertainment for the masses, more than their professional lives ever did." As Roach noted, people — women especially — are not supposed to act this way, so the anomalies, the trainwrecks, remain interesting. (Poor, Amanda Bynes.) Because, yes, there's a tabloid fixation involved in our love of the Beautiful Mess and Blanchett's performance captures that too. The other big inspiration for Jasmine we haven't mentioned yet? That would be Ruth Madoff.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.