The parallels between Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois and Woody Allen's title character in "Blue Jasmine" have been well-documented. But the complexity of Cate Blanchett's performance puts Jasmine in a class of literary predecessors that includes Jay Gatsby and Tom Ripley, dissemblers who will stop at nothing to convince themselves and others they are to the manor born -- not by birthright but by deceit and more than a little self-delusion.
Of course, financial fraudster Bernie Madoff's spouse, Ruth, factors in as a real-life model for Allen's Upper East Side trophy wife -- disgraced by her husband's transgressions and stripped of her leisure-class comforts -- but it's Blanchett who does something astounding with the role, straddling that delicate line between loathsome materialist and tragic dreamer. "I'm not particularly interested in playing for sympathy with an audience," says Blanchett, who's being honored Feb. 1 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival as Performer of the Year. "I think you've got to present a character warts and all. The point of compassion I had for her is that she's a woman who changed her name, who was estranged from her biological beginnings. So she's been born into a fantasy and created a fantasy."
As Blanchett tells Variety, Jasmine is the architect of her own "spectacular downfall" by giving up her own aspirations, by calling the feds on her husband when she learns of his marital transgressions, by continuing to live a lie when honesty might have earned her some measure of salvation.
Blanchett played Blanche, a part that drama critic John Lahr calls "the Everest of modern American drama," on Broadway in 2009 to great acclaim. "Blanchett, with her alert mind, her informed heart, and her lithe, patrician silhouette, gets it right from the first beat," wrote Lahr in the New Yorker at the time. And similarly with Jasmine, Blanchett -- a critics' darling ever since her breakthrough role as "Elizabeth" in 1998 -- has earned some of the best reviews of her film career.
"Cate Blanchett tops anything she's done in the past," wrote Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal; "beyond brilliant," exhorted exulted Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, "this is jaw-dropping work, what we go to the movies to see."; "stupendous centerpiece performance," said Rex Reed in the New York Observer.
Unlike many actors who take the occasional stab at stage work to keep themselves legit, Blanchett's theatrical roots are planted deeply, as she runs the Sydney Theatre Company with her playwright husband, Andrew Upton, and has tackled some of the medium's most challenging roles, including Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," Mamet's "Oleanna." and Susan Traherne in David Hare's "Plenty."
It's hard to think back to a time when Blanchett wasn't a force to be reckoned with. Just like Jessica Chastain in 2011, she seemed ubiquitous in 1999 and has been highly in demand ever since. She has since become Australia's version of Meryl Streep, a chameleon with the need to continually challenge herself dramatically. She has played English royalty ("Elizabeth"), Hollywood royalty (Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator") and rock royalty (Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There") with equal intelligence and razor-sharp instincts -- as sharp as those famous cheekbones of hers.
And the directors with whom she has worked -- Allen, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Todd Haynes, Shekhar Kapur, Anthony Minghella, Peter Jackson, Joe Wright, Wes Anderson, Gillian Armstrong -- have all benefitted from an actor who manages to elevate their material in mesmerizing ways.
"The thing that's wonderful about Cate is that she is an incredible actress who can transform; she can play anything," says Armstrong, who directed Blanchett in "Oscar and Lucinda" and "Charlotte Gray." "There's a real sense of, I don't know whether it's strength, inner fiber or intelligence, that's there, but that's her."