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A powerhouse return for Blanchett

| Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

When Cate Blanchett was last in New York, in between her nightly performances in the acclaimed touring production of “Uncle Vanya,” she would slip uptown, to the East Side, to stealthily research her role in Woody Allen's latest, “Blue Jasmine.”

In it, Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite in breakdown, a modern Blanche DuBois (a role Blanchett played a few years ago on stage), distraught and destroyed by the betrayal of her Bernie Madoff-like financier husband (Alec Baldwin). On Jasmine's stomping ground, the Upper East Side, Blanchett bent her ear to the neighborhood's accents of affluence.

“I drank way too much wine sitting in restaurants by myself,” Blanchett says.

The polished refinement, though, is only a small element to Blanchett's enormously layered performance in “Blue Jasmine.” Her Jasmine is, as she says, “a fragile, combustible cocktail of rage and guilt and fear.” Penniless in San Francisco, where she's forced to stay at the working-class home of her sister (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine is a vodka-swilling, Xanax-popping mess of self-loathing, denial and panic — a woman in free fall who can't bear to face herself in the mirror.

Like many of the 44-year-old actress' best performances, including her Oscar-nominated turn as Elizabeth I in 1998's “Elizabeth,” Jasmine is a mix of ruthlessness (she's brutal to those she considers inferior) and quaking vulnerability. The performance has been called a lock for an Academy Award nomination, which would be her sixth.

While Woody Allen is known for giving his actors wide berth, that such a powerhouse performance comes in a late film of his comes as a staggering surprise. Though Blanchett immediately committed after a brief phone call from Allen, she, too, wondered which direction the film might go.

“The challenge was one of tone, particularly when I began to hear what the casting was like,” she says, noting that comedians Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. ended up giving unexpected, natural performances. “I did think: Is this more in the line of ‘Bananas' or ‘Interiors'? Which way is it going to swing? He did say to me three weeks in, ‘You know, this is a serious movie.'”

Allen had proclaimed his interest to work with Blanchett at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. She was the obvious choice, he says, for the part he had written based on a ruined New York family his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, told him about. (Allen says Madoff “never figured remotely” into his thinking.)

“I needed a great actress, and when you think of great actresses in the world, Cate comes into mind immediately,” Allen said.

Blanchett knew not to expect a lot of feedback from Allen, she says. Of the details of her character, she says: “None of this was discussed or seemed to be of interest to Woody.”

“I'm not particularly needy as an actor,” Blanchett says. “I'm not doing it because I want to be told that I'm good.”

Jake Coyle is a writer for the Associated Press.

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