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I was at the cinema watching Blue Jasmine, the newish Woody Allen film. I had gone along with the intention of admiring Cate Blanchett’s immaculate complexion while expressing approval-tinged consolation for the way her character suffered in style.

As impressive as her performance was, though, you couldn’t forget for a second she was acting. This is hardly illegal but, in an ideal world, it should not show quite so much, I thought. But then I wondered if all this acting wasn’t rather a relief to someone such as me who is squeamish in the extreme about the cinema.

I can’t take all the agony that you get in films. If people scream at each other, it upsets me. When people are killed or raped, and babies die or even can’t get to sleep, I want to intervene. Most films I leave at half time. Sometimes I carry the characters’ pain around with me all week. It just isn’t worth it.

So, instead of feeling distraught at the ordeal of the Jasmine character – her unfaithful husband dead in a financial scandal, her son disowning her, her money gone and only one seen-better-days Chanel jacket remaining – I began to wonder if it had been a tremendous strain for Blanchett to play someone under such a strain. Or had it made her feel lucky in her own life and grateful and calm, by contrast? I hoped so.

But then came the sweat stains.

There were rings and rings of them, like an elderly oak viewed in section. The sweating in Blue Jasmine was one of the saddest things in the film. Seeing a beautiful actress in a delicate pale silk gown (Chloé, I think) with large dark oval stains – not just today’s and yesterday’s, but several weeks’ worth – accumulated under her arms was quite shocking.

It’s something I’ve not seen in a film before. I have nothing against sweat in real life – I like it more than most, I expect – and yet ... you could almost smell the despair seeping out of her. That sweat was a consummate performer.

It made you think of people living right on the edge of themselves, of their nerves, of their finances. I thought of Lily Bart, the tragic heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), the way her options narrow downwards in a zigzag pattern as she gets poorer and older, so that situations (and men) she would have scorned at the beginning are beyond her reach at the end.

I thought of the way Lily’s parents only really have meals when they have guests, which gave her distorted ideas. I thought of the perils of living for effect in this way, saving the best of yourself for others and for show, for what happens when no one wants to look any more, when no one comes?

. . .

I came out of the cinema, dejected as hell. I ticked myself off – “Listen, sunshine, these are the few problems you don’t have” – but it didn’t seem to make a difference, somehow. All forlorn I walked along Marylebone High Street. “Why does other people’s misery pass for entertainment?” I thought. “Honestly!”

I had been in a good mood all day but now ... what a ridiculous waste of the weekend. I can’t afford this sort of sink of spirits. But just then, passing a corner pub, I heard the unmistakable rinky-tink of an ancient piano. I wandered inside, and there, before me, were six men in their seventies and eighties gathered around an old upright, presided over by a sour-faced man in a cap. They were having a singalong.

It was like a mirage, or one of those extraordinarily fake scenes that crops up in, I don’t know, Woody Allen films set in London. With no time to lose I asked whether I could do “A Foggy Day”, introducing it with a tremulous phrase stolen from Judy Garland: “Do you, d’you like ‘A Foggy Day’? I do.” After I had finished, the oldest man there said, “Let’s have a lovely miserable one.” Then he proceeded to sing a song I had never heard before called “When I Grow Too Old to Dream”, and his voice was so sincere and his smile so warm that this very sad song was rendered a little bit (soul-destroying phrase, I know) life-affirming.

Next it was “The Deadwood Stage” delivered with quite a bit of Doris Day’s whip-crackaway. Then everyone stopped for fresh drinks. Three women walked in, Welsh, and requested “Molly Malone”. “What do you think this is? A bleeding pub?” someone shouted.

We continued in the cowboy vein with “Don’t Fence Me In”, which I do rather well. “Can’t look at hovels and I can’t stand fences,” I trilled, wondering if any cowboy had ever thought, let alone sung, that sentiment. And as I stood in that little circle of old men in tweed jackets, thin of hair, teeth too white to be true all of us singing our hearts out into the brown and orange room, I couldn’t help thinking, “These are my people.”


susie.boyt@ft.com

@SusieBoyt

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