Blanchett channels Blanche for Oscar-winning role in ‘Blue Jasmine’

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

When actress Cate Blanchett took to the stage at this year’s Academy Awards, winning the best actress Oscar for her performance in “Blue Jasmine,” she delivered a memorable and eloquent speech.

It included these fighting words: To “those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money.”

“Blue Jasmine” also earned Oscar nods for supporting actress Sally Hawkins and for best original screenplay by Woody Allen.

However, “Blue Jasmine” isn’t totally original, inasmuch as it’s strongly influenced by the classic Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Many have noted how Blanchett’s role was either based on or inspired by the play’s main character, Blanche DuBois.

“Of course (Jasmine) is,” Blanchett tells The Japan Times. “I think it was an excellent idea for Woody to revisit one of the great female roles of modern times and do his own version, adapting it to more current times and circumstances.”

Coincidentally, it wasn’t too long ago that Blanchett played Blanche on stage, and in her Oscar-acceptance speech she also mentioned the Sydney Theatre Company, where she and her husband, Andrew Upton, were artistic directors from 2007-2012.

“Playing Blanche prepared me for Jasmine only up to a point,” she stresses. “Of course there are similarities. Of course they are sisters under the skin — not to coin a new phrase. But the authors imbue each woman with their own personalities and worldview. Williams and Allen are very different men. Apart from which, these women live in different eras. Apart from that, one is a creature of the stage, while Woody’s protagonist is fully intended for the screen.”

Blanchett says Allen’s Jasmine character was the main thing that drew her to the project.

“I like complex characters, every actor wants layers,” she says. “Who wishes to play a two-dimensional character? That might be fun for a sketch. Period.

“Also, Jasmine is very much a self-made woman, although not necessarily in the best sense. She has re-created herself, or tried to, via self-image and a new name — she was Jeanette, now she’s Jasmine … the symbolism of a beautiful-smelling, ethereal flower. Yet she’s very tough . . . and very vulnerable.

“She drinks too much, which is a choice. She is much too self-involved, that is, to a degree that harms her and other people. And she simply goes off the top at times.”

Critics have referred to Jasmine as one of Allen’s most rounded female characters, but some have said “Blue Jasmine” is one of his cruelest films.

“Woody doesn’t coddle his characters,” Blanchett says. “He puts them through their paces, and they react the way they do — he’s not manipulating them into a so-called happy ending, or not usually at any rate.

“But it is true that he can be callous in some instances. I recall . . . ‘Manhattan.’ I wasn’t appreciative of the way he treated Meryl Streep’s character. Woody does have a certain ambivalence about women.”

Perhaps more so toward older female characters?

“Ah. Yes. But isn’t that true of Hollywood itself?” This brings Blanchett back to the underlying message of her Oscar acceptance speech. “Most young female characters are treated with some degree of delight. Older ones are usually written to intimidate or to frighten, and are usually brought down by the end of the film.

“Women are generally more open about things, therefore more interesting to watch, don’t you think?” she says. “A repressed female character may be interesting because that’s an oddity, but only for a while. Eventually the emotions and drama have to flow. And they did, partly because of what Woody wrote.”

Working alongside Blanchett in the film is U.S. actor Bobby Cannavale, a two-time Emmy Award-winner. He plays Jasmine’s sister’s working-class boyfriend, and his presence shows how “Blue Jasmine” is one of very few Allen movies that tackles class issues.

“Cate is Australian and she does this flawless American accent,” Cannavale says of his co-star. “But she seems to bring this touch of English-type class to her work. Jasmine definitely looks down on Chili, my character. She’s from money, he’s not. He’s an intellectual lightweight, let’s face it. I don’t think he’s despicable, but . . . now and then there’s physical violence. He’s with Jasmine’s sister, Ginger; Jasmine thinks Ginger could do a lot better. She thinks Ginger should escape from Chili.”

Cannavale says he enjoyed playing Chili, but that he still has mixed feelings about the character.

“I think sometimes he hates himself — disgusts himself — but he sure doesn’t like Jasmine flying in from out of the blue — sorry,” he says with a snicker at the pun — “and upsetting everything and everyone.”

Cannevale adds that he was thrilled to step into a role that corresponded to that of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” who was played by Marlon Brando in the 1951 film adaptation. Cannevale also has kind words for co-star Hawkins.

“It couldn’t have been easy having to play opposite Cate,” he says. “Cate is an actor’s actor, and she’s in just about every scene. It really is her movie. Like, Brando wouldn’t have gone this route, because ‘Streetcar’ was more about both him and Blanche. Here, it’s Jasmine . . . and company — which is fine.

“I was just real proud to be part of this. It really is one of Allen’s best. I think it’ll stand the test of time.”

As Blanchett mentioned in her Oscar-acceptance speech, films featuring women, though relatively rare, do make money.

“This film may become more popular in its aftermath, although it has been making money, particularly for a Woody Allen film,” she says. The film had a budget of $18 million and is approaching a global take of $98 million.

Is the star finding leading roles more difficult to come by as she ages?

“You mean how often do I get to take center stage on the big screen, as opposed to helping decorate the landscape of J.R.R. Tolkien,” she quips with amusement, referring to the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy.

“The thing is, motion pictures aren’t my primary outlook,” she says. “As someone who’s not a box-office name and habitue, I can afford to wait until a suitable script comes along. I’m not actively pursuing that. Something like ‘Blue Jasmine’ is in the nature of this surprising business. Somebody writes a good part and thinks of me, and serendipity unites us. If it happened much more often . . . it would be nice in its way, but not as special. However, by all means I do encourage people to write stories about women. Factually and on the whole, women are more cinematic than men.

“Rather, professionally and personally I’m busier by far with stage work and being a working mother.”

The Oscar recognition came at a somewhat difficult time for Blanchett as director Allen had been accused of sexual abuse from his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow (whose mother is actress Mia Farrow), in an open letter published a month prior in the New York Times.

Blanchett has remained largely quiet on the issue, but has said she hopes the family can work through the pain of its past. She hopes, however, that if audiences take one theme home with them after seeing “Blue Jasmine,” they’ll conclude it’s not a typical Allen film.

“He has really reached this time,” she says. “He’s usually entertaining, but this time there’s more. I think a major theme here is self-deceit. How we all tend to build up defenses and beliefs about ourselves that may be quite untrue, but they’re how we cope. I’ve read reviews that say the picture is too cynical, but we do live in a cynical age, and how does one cope with that?

“One can’t be cynical all the time. We need our little self-delusions — or even big ones. But unlike with most of the characters in ‘Blue Jasmine,’ what we need to do in real life is to periodically check that our illusions and self-delusions are helping us . . . helping us and those in our lives. Otherwise, we need to get a new set.”

“Blue Jasmine” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.sonyclassics.com/bluejasmine.