Cate Blanchett is a deliciously self-deprecating woman, as quick to poke fun at herself as anybody else. And, of course, she’s glamorous, witty and fun.
That’s what I kept thinking as I walked home from Wednesday’s New York Film Festival tribute gala to the Oscar winner (“The Aviator”).
It began with a greatest-hits-of-greatest-hits montage: “Elizabeth,” “The Aviator,” “Notes on a Scandal,” “I’m not There.” The clips were juicy–full scenes, not just snippets–and you could feel the audience almost sigh a little as each one ended. We wanted more.
Instead, we got the real thing, Blanchett herself, who grabbed the mic and addressed the crowd with a husky “Hi.”
Kent Jones, the New York Film Festival’s director of programming, started the discussion off with an Orson Welles quote about theater and film acting being the same and asked Blanchett if she agreed. The difference between them, the actor replied, is the audience. In theater, she said, you know how many seats are empty–going on to joke that tonight there were 37 of them. In film, though, Blanchett stressed, an actor has to perform for the director’s gaze and for the crew.
Jones referenced Blanchett’s film debut during a vacation in Egypt–“My only anecdote!” the actress cried out in response–where she unexpectedly found herself as an English-speaking extra in a part that promised her five pounds in payment and free falafel.
The falafel never came, apparently, because Blanchett and the other extras weren’t good enough, and the director yelled at them–to her astonishment–through a huge megaphone. (Later, during the audience Q&A, a woman stood up and said, “I’m from Egypt and I have the man here who directed you–he’s sorry he screamed at you.” “It’s OK,” Blanchett yelled back, “I survived!” Was it really him? Who knows?)
But that early failure in Egypt led to an astonishing career, one that Jones referenced via the montage we had just watched. “I do apologize,” Blanchett said of it: “Excruciating.” Only for her.
Blanchett was open about the shift of priorities in her life: in her earlier career, she said, she would choose projects based solely on the material and the director. Now, with three children, her first question is, ‘does it happen during school holidays?’
But Jones led Blanchett through the parade of her first-rate directors, and she shared gems from each of her experiences. Discussing her role as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator,” she slipped into an uncanny Martin Scorsese accent and recalled his advice to her: “Make it your own”–the “most liberating piece of direction” he gave her, she said.
She touched on Peter Jackson’s ability to create the alternate world of Middle-earth in “Lord of the Rings”–“no one would have allowed us to suspend disbelief like him.” And her experience on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” showed her that David Fincher is so far ahead of the technology of film that he succeeds in always making it work in service of him.
As for Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There,” in which she played Bob Dylan, Blanchett said it was “utterly liberating” to cross the gender line in a medium as literal as film, and summed up the secret to getting into the character in one word: “Eyebrows.” And working with Terrence Malick, which she did this past year, is almost a “quasi-religious experience,” she said, as if he’s creating a new form as he works.
When Jones asked her what her favorite role was, Blanchett paused for a minute. If you put a gun to her head and made her answer, she said, it’d be “Blue Jasmine,” which features her most recent (and, of course, prodigious) role–one that’s already generating awards buzz.
Blanchett described the “detritus,” to use her word, accumulated by great theater roles that have been passed down through time which expands each actor and makes them show bravery in the performance. So even though she and Allen rarely discussed Tennessee Williams or Blanche DuBois, her previous experience playing Blanche on the stage influenced her role in the film. “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett told Jones, felt like the culmination of all the film and theater work she’d done in her career.
Then Jones said he wanted to share a “little surprise clip.” Blanchett cringed a little and blurted out, “I have to sit here?” “You’re not in it!” Jones tossed back.
It was Woody Allen, praising Blanchett for her work in the film, and apologizing for not being at the tribute as only he could: “I can’t sit through two hours of endless adulation–especially when it’s for someone else.”
Blanchett laughed when it was over. “Was that for Kate Winslet? How’d you get him to do it? Did you promise to finance his next film?” Then she deadpanned. “He was in town.”