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SANTA BARBARA — The third night of the 29th Santa Barbara International Film Festival was highlighted by the presentation of the fest’s Outstanding Performer of the Year Award to Blue Jasmine‘s Cate Blanchett, the prohibitive favorite to take home the best actress Oscar on March 2. The elegant leading lady, who would have fit in beautifully during any age of cinema history, was previously honored at the fest in 2008, when she received its Modern Master Award. This go-around, her Q&A was moderated by Deadline’s affable awards columnist Pete Hammond and her award itself was presented to her by Rooney Mara, her admirer and costar on Terrence Malick‘s next film.
“It was the most astonishing part,” the 44-year-old said of the one for which she was being honored, Jasmine French, a rich wife who loses her husband money in one fell swoop. Written for her specifically by Woody Allen, it was a part-comic and part-tragic character she says she “couldn’t have done” had she not previously played Blanche DuBois and Hedda Gabler on the stage, explaining, “They expand your sense of what’s possible.” Noting that the present-day shots in San Francisco were filmed before the flashback scenes in New York, she expressed gratitude for the fact that Allen has produced so many great opportunities for actresses: “There’s been role after role after role for women.”
Blanchett credited luck and fate with her own career becoming what it has. After pursuing general academic studies, she went to drama school, after which she gave herself five years to either find work as a professional actress or move on to something else. She got her first big break in her native Australia because Oscar and Lucinda (1997) director Gillian Armstrong was adamant that an Aussie should play the title female part; that film brought her to the attention of Shekhar Kapur, who cast her in Elizabeth (1998); and the rest, as they say, is history.
Over the 16 years since, Blanchett has played everything from the Queen of England, in both Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), earning best actress Oscar noms for both, to an elf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003); from Katharine Hepburn, in The Aviator (2004), for which she won the best supporting actress Oscar, to Bob Dylan, in I’m Not There (2007), for which she was nominated for it again; not to mention a scandalous teacher in Notes on a Scandal (2006), which bagged yet another Oscar nom, a tourist whose shooting sparks international crises in Babel (2006) a woman in love with a backward-aging man in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and, in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), both herself and her fictional disgruntled cousin — in the same scene.
Clips of most of these films and others were shown throughout the evening.
Blanchett has one of the highest batting-averages of any actor or actress, in terms of consistently being a part of quality films, and, upon being asked how she picks her parts, made one remark that was probably most telling of all: “The role is the most secondary part of the process… for me, it’s about who you’re being directed by and working with.” But one got a clear sense from listening to Blanchett that her affection for the stage exceeds her desire to work regularly on the big screen. Particularly over the last few years before Jasmine, she has kept kept “two feet firmly planted on the stage,” acting in theatrical productions and running, with her husband Andrew Upton, the Sydney Theatre Company, the largest state theater company in Australia. In theatrical productions, she said, she gets to “keep working to try to rectify previous mistakes,” a luxury not afforded by the cinematic medium.
Eventually, Mara took the stage and, referring to a recently-shown montage of Blanchett’s amazing body of work, cracked, “I feel like I need to go home and rethink my entire life.” Mara then recalled seeing Blanchett for the first time in Elizabeth, when she was just 13, after which “I knew for sure I wanted to be an actor… an actor like Cate.” Blanchett subsequently received a standing ovation as she made her way to the podium, embracing and thanking Mara along the way, and then remarking, “I just can’t believe that you’ve chosen to give this to me, but it’s a great honor indeed.”
The next film in which Blanchett stars, George Clooney‘s The Monuments Men, premieres nationwide next Friday.
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