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Once again, a great actress and a great character confront a date with destiny
Once again, a great actress and a great character confront a date with destiny

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

It was a theatrical convergence of three continents. Over lunch in London, the actress from Australia and the actress from Norway decided they had to find a way under the skin of the neurotic belle from the American South.

At that meal, Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann sketched out the beginnings of their assault on Blanche DuBois, the high-strung butterfly of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Ullmann, ethereal star of Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" and "Cries and Whispers," by now a director, had wanted Oscar-winner Blanchett for the role of Nora in a film version of Ibsen's "A Doll's House."

But the money could not be raised and now, puzzling over what else they might do together, the duo turned their thoughts to Tennessee Williams and the stage. Which was fortunate, because Blanchett was running a major theater company full-time back in Sydney with her husband, writer-director Andrew Upton.

"Liv got really excited about that," Blanchett is recalling, as she munches on a salad of greens and chicken one day last week at the Kennedy Center, where the U.S. premiere of Sydney Theatre Company's "Streetcar," directed by Ullmann and starring Blanchett, began performances on Thursday. "I think it's really great when an idea creeps up on you from behind, and particularly with a play like this."

Ullmann, in a separate conversation at the center, concurs with Blanchett's characterization, and not only because she loves what the play has to say. At some point in her career, Ullmann says, "I would have loved to have played Blanche."

Haughty, needy, broken Blanche is one of those potentially breath-stopping career markers for a great actress, a role that originally belonged on Broadway to Jessica Tandy and in film to Vivien Leigh, and has been assayed to positive and not so positive effect by star actresses in every generation since "Streetcar's" 1947 debut. Uta Hagen, Blythe Danner, Jessica Lange and Natasha Richardson all gave Blanche a go on Broadway; five years ago, Patricia Clarkson played her at the Kennedy Center in Garry Hynes's uneven production. This summer, Rachel Weisz slipped into the role, to favorable critical reaction, at London's Donmar Warehouse.

And now Blanchett, supermodel-svelte and creamily complected, is taking her turn, a not-so-unexpected development for an actress whose adventurous range has been on display for moviegoers since the late '90s with her breakout turns in "Oscar and Lucinda" and "Elizabeth." That audiences are eager to see what stops she pulls out is borne out by the box office. With Blanchett as the only marquee name in the Australian cast, the entire 24-performance run of "Streetcar" in the center's Eisenhower Theater sold out weeks ago. At the end of November, the production heads to New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it runs for an additional month.

* * *

For all her cerebral glamour, her renown for roles in movies as varied as "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Aviator" -- the last one earning her an Academy Award -- the 40-year-old Blanchett is actually a theater kid. Maybe even a theater nerd. From the time she left Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art and was cast in the Sydney Theatre Company production of David Mamet's "Oleanna" opposite Geoffrey Rush, she has maintained a stage life. Of her wildly provocative 2006 portrayal of the title character in "Hedda Gabler" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which prompted both critical plaudits and finger-wagging, Ben Brantley wrote in an appreciatively amused New York Times review: "Ms. Blanchett is giving roughly a dozen of the liveliest performances to be seen this year, all at the same time."

Now, to that voracious metabolism she has added the role of co-artistic director of Australia's largest theater company, whose 2010 season, formulated with Upton, includes a whopping 15 productions in three theaters. "Uncle Vanya," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Our Town," "The Oresteia" and the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening" are just a few of the enormous heaves in an eye-popping lineup. "Streetcar" closed there a week and a half ago, giving Blanchett, a mother of three young sons, barely time to catch her breath. (With Upton still working in Australia, two of her boys are set to join her in Washington next week.)

"We're now commuters; we leave home and drop our kids at school," Blanchett says of her life as that rarest breed, an actor with an office to go to. She banished the desk, though: "I thought it was too pretentious." And as she is allowed three months away each year for other projects, she can still make movies, such as the new "Robin Hood" flick she recently completed with Russell Crowe in which she plays Maid Marian.

"Andrew had a very close relationship with the company, and was approached and said to me, 'Why don't we do this together?' " she says of their three-year contract with the Sydney institution. "My response was probably his response: I sort of said, 'We have to.' . . . I feel a bit presumptuous, saying it's about giving back. That assumes I have something to give back. I mean, that's for the audiences to decide."

If the actress is sometimes regarded as a bit aloof, that isn't the impression she gives on this occasion. True, she's not disposed to small talk like the still-beautiful, 70-year-old Ullmann, who comes into a room and immediately launches into stories about meeting Jimmy Carter and an abbreviated photo shoot in Florida she had years ago with Annie Leibovitz, whom she says took a look around, told Ullmann the location was "not you" and promptly departed with her retinue. (The famous photographer turned up several months later in Norway to finish the job.)

No, what Blanchett projects is the earnest mien of serious business. Intelligent and congenial, she repeatedly lapses into artistspeak, invoking phrases about her job such as "diverse array of work" and "very collaborative in terms of process" and "inward conundrums." She's a private person who tends to answer questions about herself elliptically; the closest she comes to revealing something personal is to say that she is "quite solitary."

Of her status as one of the world's most in-demand actresses of quality, she's entirely philosophical.

"Look, it's timing and luck," she says of her success. "I was in the theater and very happy working in the theater and of course, it's the 'taxi' measure of success, isn't it? You get, 'Oh, you're an actor, what films have you been in?' And if they don't know anything you've done you somehow feel by the end of the taxi ride your life is worthless and meaningless. . . . It's such an intangible profession and we live in such a tangible world that you can often feel that what you do is of little value. And so I suppose success of one kind externally reminds you that perhaps it does have a small value."

* * *

Part of that value is that she can be sure the world will pay attention after she commits to playing Blanche, whose war with her sister's husband, the brutish Stanley Kowalski, is one of the most harrowing battles American drama has ever conjured. Ullmann and Blanchett have very strong ideas about the character, her pain, the mythology she constructs about herself and the way she ultimately unravels, feelings they explored in rehearsals that both describe as intense and lively.

Blanchett's a great mimic, so the accent of Blanche's native Mississippi shouldn't be a problem. And though she was born in the suburbs of Melbourne, Blanchett has a connection to a place not far from New Orleans, where "Streetcar" is set. While her mother is Australian, Blanchett's father, who died when she was 10, was an American, from Texas. Still, the filters applied by the production originate far from the deep South. Blanchett says her director brought "a Norwegian prism" to the play, and by this she says she means "a rawness."

"It's not a production with a lot of bells and whistles," Blanchett adds. "There's no sort of crazy jungle choreography. It's a very elemental production, very pared back, I think. She wanted to get inside the characters' hearts."

Ullmann talks about Blanche not as a victim of Stanley but as architect of her own fate. "For Blanche," she says, "the truth is mortal. I don't believe she is mad. I believe she's in horrible agony, and I believe she makes her own ending."

Blanchett has been reading Williams's letters, getting a sense of where he and his character intersect -- the fear of loneliness is a common thread, she avers. But she also hopes audiences don't view Blanche in some of the "pejorative" terms with which she is often identified: manipulative, pretentious, vain. Blanchett seems to be groping for the complexity she finds when poring over the dramatist's other writings.

"What I do love about theater is you're reminded your responsibility is to reveal what it means to be human with all those terrible flaws and failings," she says. "And to go out and to try to reach that bar that Williams sets every night -- I mean, it's a workout."

When a visitor suggests that such a grueling ritual might lead one to do something to unwind, Blanchett finishes the thought: "Have a vodka!" she says, laughing. And then adds: "But not before the show!"

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