Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett received her sixth Oscar nomination for playing Jasmine French, a socialite having a complete nervous breakdown in Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine. At this moment, Cate Blanchett seems to have this award locked up and I believe she will win by a landslide as the only minimal threat to her is Dame Judi, whose film is simply not big enough, despite the love it received from the Academy and the backlash against American Hustle doesn't work in Amy Adams' favor, either. I'm not mentioning this new controversy because when I started to think how that might affect Cate's chances, I really became ashamed how I can analyse the impact of a family tragedy on the Best Actress race. So that's about that. 

Most people don't consider Blue Jasmine one of the best movies of Woody Allen and while I agree with that, I still view it as a more than respectable effort from a true master. It's so tastefully and carefully directed and written that I couldn't stop marvelling at the nuances in the story, which many people overlook. I love its deeply dark tone and sense of humor, its almost wicked parody of the over-the-top story of Streetcar and ultimately, its devastating ending. The cast is also stellar: while I'm actually disappointed that Oprah wasn't nominated (The Butler was guilty pleasure for me), I'm so glad that Sally Hawkins got in. a) She was brilliant in Happy-Go-Lucky (for which she easily should have won), b) she was excellent as Ginger, carefully and gradually revealing her resentment towards Jasmine.

Still, the respective achievements of Woody Allen and Sally Hawkins are clearly overshadowed by the brilliance of Cate Blanchett, who's so obviously at the peak of her career. Cate took six years of (sort of) break from movies, devoting her energy and talents to the Sydney stage and this kind of creative recharing clearly shows in every second of her breathtaking performance in Blue Jasmine. Katharine Hepburn always used to say that you win the Oscars for the wrong roles and Cate proved that by winning an Oscar for playing, ironically, Katharine Hepburn (although I love that performance immensely, it was clear that it wasn't her best). Also, if she hadn't won in 2007, she wouldn't be such a threat to win this time (that win could have taken her career into a different direction). However, the best thing about Cate Blanchett, that she constantly proves what we so often forget: great work is its own reward.

Cate could have done this role in many different ways: she could have coasted on the neurosis and the mannerisms of the character, creating an easy, delightful rich bitch character that I'm sure just as many people would have celebrated and loved. She could have just given another Blanche DuBois and ignored the rest of Jasmine, depriving her from layers that were still there. Had she only chosen to do one of these, I can assure you, she would still be the front-runner to win this Oscar. However, Cate used an amazingly written character and gave it everything she knows and is capable of as an actor as a performer. She really examines all the parts of this character, thoroughly exploring all the areas, revealing all of them to the audience. Even strictly from a technical point of view, this is a flawless turn that should be studied and observed in the years to come.

And it should be studied, because there is a new aspect of a performance that you discover every time you watch this film. I've seen it three times now and frankly, I wouldn't watch it more than once if it wasn't for her. There is this magical performance that becomes so addictive that you just have to get small doses of it regularly. As a whole, it's a lot to take and honestly quite overwhelming and devastating, but even the smallest nuances seem interesting in it.

As I said, what I love the most about Cate here is her decision to really do this character justice and not to surrender to our expectations. This is a marvelous achievement because it doesn't hit you in your face with the tragedy of the character: it's hard-hitting and devastating because she knows when to hold it back and when to let it all out, while also remaining unpredictable and surprising (I suppose that "I saw you, Erica" line will haunt many of us for a long time). There's always a necessary amount of intensity and anxiety to this character, but Cate is seemingly aware that sudden slaps hit harder than being constantly beaten up. Slaps, what slaps? :) Cate basically punches you in the stomach. That punch is, naturally, devastating and shocking but the journey which leads to that point is just as interesting. You keep marvelling at the nuances and details about the character that become subtle hints about the character's fate.

And if the 100% precision hadn't already been enough, Cate also manages to take it a step further. Not only is she able to do everything right, she also knows how to do this seemingly effortlessly, while letting the audience sink deeper and deeper into Jasmine's story. It's like watching a magician: you kind of know that there most a trick, but you just cannot spot it, no matte how much you try. Or does that lead us to the conclusion that there's real magic going on the screen? In my opinion, probably. This is one of those rare cases when you see that everything is working with this character.

Moreover, she doesn't leave you there with all the drama of this character and instead, she also emphasises the dark comedy in it. She doesn't settle for the cheap solution of letting only the craziness and the tragedy have an effect on the audience. Even when you have an actress doing miracles with a role, I cannot really appreciate the role unless there's some humor to it. It gives an extra layer of reality and color to every role, even the darkest, most tragic of all, otherwise it can easily become plain camp or at worst, self-conscious suffering.

Obviously, the stage experience of Cate helps her a great deal with this part. As I wrote about Viola Davis' performance two years ago, if a stage actress uses all the energy inside her that she brought from the stage, it can lead to the most powerful results. Neither of them is theatrical, but they brought this magical aura that draws you in and that's so missing from most of the film performances. As I said, what we see on the screen it's just plain magic.

Still, none of this can prepare you for the devastating ending of Blue Jasmine. SPOILER We get to see Jasmine's past revealed: you cannot really imagine if Cate's performance can get any better after the scene where we see Jasmine find out about Hal's plans to leave her, having a total meltdown, but as we get back to the present we see how this really has taken toll of Jasmine. Although we can see Woody's screenplay severely judging Jasmine (I wonder how much of it is a subtle hint at a previous leading lady of his), Cate avoids that path and she somehow makes us feel sorry for this lady as we see her get completely lost in her conscience and her own insanity. Eventually, she's just crazy homeless lady with wet hair talking to herself (never mind the designer outfits). And Cate does nothing to cut the edges of the brutality of the ending in order to make you feel better about Jasmine. There's no kind stranger to help her, only the Chanel clothes and stories of her vanished wealth and forgotten dinner parties. Cate doesn't give us any resolution or peace about Jasmine; her juicy diva lines fade and you don't see her as a fallen queen anymore, but as that crazy homeless lady with wet hair talking to herself. The pain of all the million promises of "I'll start again" fading away is devastatingly shown by Cate.

In the end, it comes down to this: not only does Cate Blanchett give the best performance of her career on the big screen, it's also one of the most interesting, complex and richly played characters I've seen in years. You see a brilliant actress at the top of her game, completely understanding the character, handling the technical part like nobody's business, while also holding a real emotional (gut-)punch for the audience. Overwhelming, terrific, terrifying and ultimately amazing work for which Cate will deservedly walk away with the Academy Award.

Obviously. :) What do you think?