New York Film Fest: Cate Blanchett Tribute Bolsters Already Strong Oscar Case

The evening featured a gushing toast from the actress' "Blue Jasmine" co-star Alec Baldwin and videotaped congrats from the film's writer-director, Woody Allen.
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Cate Blanchett

NEW YORK – Cate Blanchett, already the prohibitive frontrunner to win the best actress Oscar for her performance as a rich wife who loses her husband and her money -- to say nothing of her sanity -- in Woody Allen's indie hit Blue Jasmine, further boosted her case Wednesday night at the New York Film Festival. The 44-year-old, who already has a best supporting actress Oscar on her shelf for The Aviator, was celebrated with one of two "gala tributes" that the fest will present this year. (The other will be for Ralph Fiennes in a week.)

The evening, for which Blanchett flew in from London, where she is shooting Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, consisted of an invitation-only dinner in the Hauser Lounge above the auditorium in Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall and then a career retrospective Q&A with Blanchett, which was open to the public and moderated by fest director Kent Jones. Blanchett's Blue Jasmine co-star Alec Baldwin gushed about her in person at the former and writer-director Allen praised her in a videotaped tribute at the latter.

Blanchett was joined at the dinner table by one of her three sons, her longtime CAA agent Hylda Queally, Baldwin and Sony Pictures Classics co-chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who are distributing Blue Jasmine, which has earned rave reviews and grossed more than $30 million at the box office since its July release, more than all but four other Allen films: Midnight in Paris (2011), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Manhattan (1979) and Annie Hall (1977). Others in attendance included Allen's sister and longtime producer Letty Aronson, writer-director Jim Jarmusch, who directed Blanchett in Coffee and Cigarettes, and writer-director Oren Moverman, who wrote the script for Blanchett's forthcoming directorial debut The Dinner.

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Baldwin, holding up a wineglass that he borrowed from another guest, described how impressed he was with Blanchett's ability to make every take fresh and different -- especially when Allen "kind of wrung Cate out a bit" by demanding many takes of a particularly emotional scene in which he wanted her to be "at your wit's end" -- and by her decision to "play opposites," as in bursting out laughing when one might expect her to cry and vice versa. "I want to tell you it was really such a great honor for me, and such a great joy, to be around that," he said, adding, "I've worked with a few [actresses with tremendous God-given abilities], but I will say that I've worked with none better than her. Let's have a toast to the star of Blue Jasmine."

The tribute portion of the evening kicked off with extended clips from several of the five-time Oscar nominee's films. These included Elizabeth, in which she plays England's Queen Elizabeth I, a part she would reprise nine years later in Elizabeth: The Golden Age; I'm Not There, in which she plays Bob Dylan; The Aviator, in which she plays Katharine Hepburn; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which she ages from a very young woman into a very old one; Notes on a Scandal, in which she goes toe-to-toe with Judi Dench; and Coffee and Cigarettes, in which she plays both herself and her fictional disgruntled cousin -- in the same scene. When she took the stage to a partial standing ovation, Blanchett, a tough critic of her work, said that watching the clips from backstage was "excruciating."

Reflecting on her work at the Q&A, Blanchett was generally self-deprecating and funny in response to questions from soft-spoken Jones. They discussed, among other things, theater versus film acting ("I never expected to make a movie," she said); her big-screen debut, at the age of 18, as an extra in an Egyptian film for which she was offered a small amount of money and falafel ("The falafel never came, so I left"); the pressure of playing Hollywood legend Hepburn ("Well, she died and she couldn't play that role, and I was the schmuck who got that job"); and the biggest hits of which she was a part ("I didn't know how to be an elf before I arrived in New Zealand" for The Lord of the Rings trilogy) -- and even whether her son recently asked her, "Mom, when are you gonna make a blockbuster?"

The cineastes in the audience were particularly interested to hear about Blanchett's experience working with the mysterious Terrence Malick on the recently wrapped Knight of Cups. "It was a cross between cinema, philosophy, poetry and a quasi-religious experience," she said. "It was certainly an extraordinary experience." She continued, "He kept saying he wanted 'to catch life on the wing,'" adding, "You weren't so much playing characters as you were states of being."

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When audience members were eventually invited to ask questions, one asked Blanchett to name her favorite acting experience. She was initially reluctant, but said, "gun to my head," Gross und Klein, a German play in which she appeared in 2012, was her favorite in the theater, and that Blue Jasmine was her favorite on a film. Of the latter she said, "It felt like it was a culmination of my work in theater and my work in film, so it was satisfying on a number of different levels."

Eventually, Jones announced that he had a surprise clip to show Blanchett, who asked if she was in it and was relieved to learn that she was not. Instead, it featured Allen, apparently in his home, cracking, "I'm sorry I couldn't be there tonight, but I find it impossible to sit through two hours of relentless adulation, especially for somebody else." He went on to describe how impressed he was by Blanchett and that he appreciated the kind words for him that she had shared with the press, noting, "It was a great experience for me." He closed by saying, "I hope we can do it again, and I wish you all the best." When the lights came back up, Blanchett said, "That's so lovely," and joked, "How did you get him to do that? Offer to finance his next movie?!"

At the end of the Q&A, Blanchett received a standing ovation from the full audience, many of whom stuck around for a special screening of Blue Jasmine. Blanchett did not, though. She mentioned feeling jet-lagged and said she had to get her beauty sleep before a Peggy Siegal-coordinated lunch with Academy members the next morning, which she was able to squeeze into her brief visit.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg