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Cate Blanchett on Her Oscar-winning Role

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By Danny Peary; Photo by Brad Balfour

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Cate Blanchett’s selection as Best Actress was probably the least surprising moment at Sunday evening’s Academy Awards, a show full of predictability.  I knew half-way through Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine that the great actress would finally receive the Oscar that has eluded her.   How deserving she was.  Blanchett gives a tour-de-force performance as a combination of Blanche Dubois and Ruth Madoff, a brittle, selfish, self-delusional New York socialite who loses everything but her knack for pretense after her unfaithful, unscrupulous financier husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested and she comes to stay with her down-to-earth sister, Ginger (the wonderful Sally Hawkins, who got a Best Supporting Actress nomination).  Prior to the film’s New York City release, Blanchett took part in a press conference with Peter Sarsgaard (whose rich politician falls for the dishonest Jasmine), Andrew Dice Clay (Ginger’s unsophisticated husband) and Louis C.K. (one of Ginger’s suitors after her breakup). Finally I am keeping my promise to post more of the conference. Below are the questions Blanchett was asked and her responses.  I note the one question I was able to pose in the crowded room, as well as my editorial annotations.

Q: Woody Allen said this was one of the rare cases when he wrote a part with a specific actor in mind.

Cate Blanchett: Is that true? He never told me. I just got a call from my agent saying that Woody had a script he’d like me to read.  So Woody and I spoke on the phone for about twenty-five minutes and he said, “Can I send it to you?”  I said, “Yes, I’d love to read it,” and he said, “Well, call me when you finish it.”  I read it straight away and thought it was brilliant. Then we spoke for about forty-five seconds and I agreed to do the film. I met him when he started doing camera tests in San Francisco.

Q: How was it working with him once shooting started?

CB: That first day was awful, just awful.  But it bonded all of us and made us want to do better the next day.  In the end, there’s an obvious reverence for Woody and his body of work, and I think the danger of that is the set can become a sacred place where people are sort of laying their offerings at his feet. Woody’s a brilliant dramatist, apart from being a filmmaker, and much of his direction is the script itself, which allowed him to get out of the way on the set, as he likes to do.  I actually found Woody to be really forthcoming.  When you ask him a question, he will give you an answer, and when you set up that dialogue it then becomes really enjoyable.  Then he felt free to say, “That was awful,” and I felt free to say, “Okay, then what are you after?”   I might suggest something and he might then say, “We will try that.”  So he was forced to direct me!

Q: Were you worried at all?

CB: I was worried.  Woody would always say to me, “The audience has already left the theater.”

Q: He’s famous for firing people.

CB: For firing people? You just assume it’s going to happen, but you make it to day thirteen and it’s going well, and then you make it to day twenty, and then it’s the end of the movie. It was like the Disabled Olympics.

Q: To play Jasmine, did you immerse yourself in the stories of people who’d been affected by the recent economic downturn?  Or did the character come from somewhere else?

CB: It’s a contemporary fable. In part, Woody catered to the zeitgeist—and who hasn’t followed the Madoff affair and doesn’t know the epic nature of that catastrophe?  There are thousands of stories he could draw from for Jasmine. Those reference points are there to be drawn upon and that’s what we did.  But also, there’s a strong line in the film from Jasmine to women in American theater who walk along the border between fantasy and reality. Like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  But in the end, you’re acting in a Woody Allen movie, knowing he’s created some of the most iconic characters in his previous films.  So you just play your part.

Q: Having starred in A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM, what are the similarities you see between Jasmine and Blanche Dubois?

CB: Woody never brought up Streetcar. But the other actors on set–a lot who worked in theater–were talking about the set-up [in which a broken woman comes to stay with her sister] being similar to Streetcar. There are parallels, but the texture, the tone, the rhythm, the character portrayals, and the details are quintessentially Woody Allen, not Tennessee Williams.

Danny Peary: While playing Jasmine, were you feeling sympathetic toward her and protective of her?  Or did you think, as I did, that she is deservingly—at least to a point–getting her comeuppance?

CB: I don’t think it’s particularly useful to fall in love with or detest your character. I think it’s up to the audience to have those feelings.  If you’re a bit sentimental, you’re not going to present any nuances. There are plenty of traits to be presented in Jasmine, but in the end her flaw is tragic. [Allen says her flaw is her inability to see what’s right in front of her—DP] Oedipus, for example, fucks up royally–he marries his mother, for God’s sake–but it’s a tragedy because he does it unwittingly. Jasmine is the unwitting agent of her own downfall, in a way. She is riddled with guilt and rage and fear. She’s on Xanax and drinks vodka. And then you add to that the situational aspect. Woody often places his characters in absurd situations. For instance the scene where Peter Sarsgaard’s character [Dwight] and Jasmine are in the car together is completely absurd.  But you have to play it honestly. The situation is real and the stakes are high.

Q: That’s the core of the tragedy, I think, the deception. [Each of the characters is being deceived, deceiving someone else, or deceiving themselves. It’s a dominant element in each story.-DP]

CB: That is what the film actually delves into quite deeply.  It’s what the characters choose not to see. It’s not just people on the Upper East Side, or people with unreal aspirations, but it’s also Ginger, played by Sally, who chooses not to see certain aspects of who Jasmine is. So, going back to the previous question about whether Jasmine is sympathetic or not, there are different ways of looking at A Streetcar.  So you can see that Blanche is a compulsive liar.  Or you can see that the world is set up to stamp out the poetry in her soul.  Is there something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which she finds herself?  Similarly, Jasmine doesn’t land in a San Francisco where there are a bunch of people who’ve got their shit together. Everyone has issues and everyone is fooling themselves to some degree and wanting to live fantasies that are better than their daily existences. Jasmine does this to a spectacular extent, but they all do it.

Q:  Talk about Jasmine and her reliance on fantasy and delusion.

CB: It’s interesting that there’s a level of delusion and fantasy that exists with Ginger as well as Jasmine.  They were both adopted into a lower middle-class family.  Jeanette changed her name to Jasmine, and there began the fiction.  She set about creating a fantasy world and being a princess.

Q: Talk about working with Sally Hawkins.

CB: I absolutely love Sally. She was an absolute ally, and for the first week we cried into our beers together because we thought we were really screwing this up.  She’s wonderful, wonderful actress and one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever worked with.  I don’t know if I would like to take her to a hotel and have sex with her, but many would.

Q:  Did you think about how the film will play to the slightly younger demographic that likes Frances Ha and HBO’s Girls, which both have younger anti-heroines?
CB (laughing): Younger than me, so to say?  Thanks, just rub it in.  Girls is one of my all-time favorite shows, so even though I am a geriatric, I still can connect to a younger crowd.  I think Woody’s genius is that while he seems to be writing about a particular set of people from a very particular socio-economic, intellectual background, he somehow writes them as Everyman and Everywoman. They are archetypical as well as being utterly unique and specific.  Even though his films are really personal, they resonate with a much broader audience.  That’s why people of all ages have loved his films for so many decades. Even though Blue Jasmine seems to be only about the demise or fall from grace of a privileged rich girl, there are a lot of people who have fantasized about what it means to live in America but see that it has blown apart in the last couple of years.  There’s a lot that young people can relate to.  There are people of all ages in the audience who have had to reshape their lives because of the economic circumstances that have been forced upon them.  Like Jasmine, they need to really look at who they are and what their aspirations are and decide how they are going to pit themselves against the world.

Q: Has achieving fame influenced your choice of movie roles?

CB: It doesn’t influence me. That’s why I haven’t made a movie in a while and have been out of this environment for nearly six years. That’s why I run a theater company with my husband in Sydney. I didn’t do Blue Jasmine because I was courting fame but to work with Woody and the cast.  I didn’t do it because it would get me anywhere in particular.  I did it for the experience.

Local Cinephiles Handicap the Oscars

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By Clare Walla

Three-hundred-sixty-five days of production, nearly 1,500 films, hundreds of thousands of cast and crew, and over 6,000 votes from members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—but in the winner’s circle, it all comes down to one.

This Sunday, February 27, televisions across the United Sates will be tuned into The Academy Awards ceremony, broadcast live from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., as many wonder who will take home one of those coveted, gold statuettes.

While Sag Harbor may be one of the furthest places in the continental U.S. from the star-studded streets of Hollywood, ties to the film world are peppered throughout our little seaside village.

So, without further ado, here are some of the voices from our community to weigh-in on the nature of this year’s nominees.

As an organizer for the Haywall Summer Film Series at the Silas Marder Gallery in Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor resident Hilary Hamann is familiar with the art of selection. And she thinks this year’s nominees for Best Picture adequately reflect the best of what this year had to offer.

“What is so great about this year’s selections is that they demonstrate a mature contentment with the small, local, regional,” Hamann wrote in an email. Referencing her four favorite nominees, “Black Swan,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter,” and “Winter’s Bone,” she continued: “Ballet is regional, as is royalty, as is the boxing ring, as is the world of the girl living in the Ozarks. None of these films sensationalize their subject matter. They investigate the soft underbelly of these places.”

While she praised Darren Aronofsky’s directorial expertise on “Black Swan,” and lauded director Debra Granik’s ability to create raw, almost realistic footage for “Winter’s Bone,” ultimately Hamann hopes “The King’s Speech” will take top honors.

“I think the director’s choices here were impeccable—subject matter, performers, direction, etc.” she added.

Screenwriter and Sag Harbor resident Bill Collage—who will pen the upcoming films “Tower Heist,” “Moby Dick,” and “The 10 Commandments”—agreed with Hamann’s praise for Aronofsky, though he took it a step further.

“The best film of the year for me is ‘Black Swan.’ It’s unbelievable visual story telling. Darren Aronofsky is the genius of our era. This was a great companion piece to [his previous film, 2008's] ‘The Wrestler.’ He did something low-brow, then something high-brow,” Collage said, explaining that Aronofsky has a great ability to tap into the troubling side of human emotion from different angles.

While no one seemed poised to push “The Social Network” to the top slot—even though it nabbed the Golden Globe award for Best Feature – Drama last month—Collage did give it credit in the writing department.

“I think the social relevancy of ‘The Social Network’ is on full display,” he said. “Beyond the characters and the story, I think [Aaron] Sorkin gave the audience a challenge that’s very rare in most films.” The film cuts back and forth between two significant aspects of the story and, as Collage pointed out, there are no subtitles to orient the viewer.

“That kind of faith in the American filmgoer is kind of cool,” he added. “I haven’t seen it since ‘Syriana’ [in 2005].”

He believes “The Social Network” should win for Best Adapted Screenplay, and “Inception” (written and directed by Christopher Nolan) should win for Best Original Screenplay.

“‘Inception’ is top-notch,” Collage added.

But of course, as is the nature of art, not everyone agrees.

“Art is a subjective thing,” said Murphy Davis, artistic director at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. Case in point, Murphy said he actually walked out of “Inception,” and although he really enjoyed the performances in “Black Swan,” ultimately Davis shrugged and said the movie was “eh.”

“The films that affect me the most are the films that speak to the human spirit,” Davis noted. In fact, he said his four top films would be “The Fighter,” “The Social Network,” “True Grit,” and the film he thinks should take the cake: “The King’s Speech.”

However, he reiterated, “The awards are voted in by Academy members, and because it’s a human voting system, the members will have a human response,” he said. “They’re voting on their guts. Who knows what affects us and why?”

It is partially for this same sentiment that Academy member, and Bridgehampton resident, Anthony Harvey (who directed “A Lion in Winter” and “The Glass Menagerie”) doesn’t give too much weight to the final outcome of the Academy Awards. In fact, to illustrate his thoughts he goes back to 1968.

Harvey’s film “A Lion in Winter” was up for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Harvey, and Best Actress for Katharine Hepburn. However, Hepburn chose to stay home in New York rather than attend the ceremony because, as Harvey put it, she didn’t like awards ceremonies.

And as luck would have it, she won.

“I called her that night and I said: You’ve won!” Harvey recalled. “And she said, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, I’m asleep—just put it in a parcel and send it to me.’”

Harvey continued, “Eight or nine years later, I was at her apartment in New York for dinner and she was looking in her cabinet for chocolates, or something, and there it was, still wrapped. It hadn’t even been engraved.”

Harvey is still amused by the story, and said he sympathized with Hepburn’s point of view.

“She though all the other nominees were just as wonderful as she was,” he said.

As for this year’s Best Picture contenders, Harvey said they’re all great films. “Being nominated is a pretty good honor in itself,” he said.

By law he’s not allowed to reveal what his pick for top honors would be. But, Harvey did say one of his favorite films this year was also “The King’s Speech.” For what it’s worth.

The Bay Street Theatre will be broadcasting the show live on Sunday, February 27, beginning with Joan Rivers’ annual red carpet commentary at 6:30 p.m.  There will be raffles, champagne specials and a cash bar.  Entrance is free.