Pete Hammond

The nascent awards season finally got a big shot of adrenaline this past weekend with the record-breaking limited debut of Woody Allen‘s latest, Blue Jasmine and the strong expansions of The Weinstein Company’s Fruitvale Station and Fox Searchlight’s The Way, Way Back. It’s beginning to look like Fall in July as it is clear the appetite for some serious Oscar fare is heating up. After a steady dose this summer of monsters, zombies, superheroes, guns, garbage and Adam Sandler, things are looking up and names like Fruitvale’s Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer and Way, Way Back’s Sam Rockwell and writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash might have reason to celebrate if they can keep the heat of their mid-summer splash going throughout the next few months.

But no one has started 2013 Oscar talk quite like Cate Blanchett‘s unanimously acclaimed performance in Blue Jasmine. The film’s huge weekend opening in six theaters in LA and NY has now only fueled the buzz with the Sony Pictures Classics release grabbing the best per screen average of the year and for any Allen film, even eclipsing his Oscar juggernaut of two years ago, Midnight In Paris to soar over $100,000 per screen. Oscar voters also got to see the film this weekend and turned out in droves to the Academy in Beverly Hills on Saturday afternoon with a near-capacity crowd that, according to my spies, gave the film a strong reception. “Lots of good chatter on the way out. The woman next to me said, ‘well there’s an Oscar nomination for sure’,”  said one who was there. SAG Nominating Committee voters also sparked to the film and Blanchett at a packed special screening at Harmony Gold Thursday night where Blanchett, appearing for a Q&A with co-stars Andrew Dice Clay and Peter Sarsgaard, received a standing ovation. The film has a strong 85% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes just to put a cherry on top for SPC.

It’s probably always risky to make a bold prediction about anything Oscar-related in the middle of summer but Blanchett seems a cinch for a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as a New York socialite in the midst of an emotional freefall after losing everything in a Madoff-like financial scandal perpetrated by her husband. It’s the kind of complex stuff awards are made of. In fact if the film, a more serious outing for Allen, can maintain the pace it’s setting Allen himself along with co-stars Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale could be contenders.

I talked to SPC’s Michael Barker the other night about the strategy of going out in summer  and he said audiences, particularly adult audiences, are ready at this point. He’s absolutely right  as the turnout in theaters and the Academy proves. Also being a fresh quality picture before the glut of Fall releases all start cannibalizing each other for Oscar attention seems like a very smart move - if you have the goods.

Blanchett was in town for a whirlwind of press activities late last week before heading back to Australia and we talked about all the Oscar buzz surrounding her performance. “Is there? Well, I guess it’s better than disregard and disinterest,” she told me. Of course Blanchett has been around this block a few times, five to be exact, most recently for two 2007 films, Elizabeth The Golden Age  and I’m Not There which brought her a rare Oscar double, nominated respectively for lead and supporting actress in the same year. Elizabeth and Notes On A Scandal also nabbed her nominations and she won Best Supporting Actress as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004).  Although she has worked quite a bit she has spent much of the past five years in stage projects, primarily near home in Australia (she and her husband run an inner-city theatre company). But the chance to finally work with Woody Allen, known particularly as a great director of women (five have won Oscars for his films), was just too great to pass up.

“Yes, I had almost given up hope. So many people I knew had worked with him or at least had met him or auditioned for him and I had never gotten the call. I was thrilled,” she said. Jasmine offered a lot for her to chew on in their first-ever collaboration. “It’s a portrait of a breakdown in many ways…I found it a challenge to play someone who is on the cusp of sanity and reality. I mean she’s on this cocktail of alcohol and Xanax… She’s such a combustible mix of guilt and rage, and fear and longing. There’s a lot to play with.” Indeed there is and she plays it to the hilt adding that even though it’s a drama and Jasmine is a tragic figure she actually laughed out loud when she read the script comparing it in some ways to Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989).  In fact Blanchett said she went back and watched several Allen films in preparation for working with him. Some have called this film Allen’s homage to Tennessee Williams, comparing it to A Streetcar Named Desire and the character of Jasmine to Blanche DuBois, a part Blanchett knows a bit about.

“Yes, in a similar way Jasmine is somebody who is broken and at once naive and world weary but has also spun a web of lies she finds it very difficult to untangle herself from. But in the end, having played Blanche, having thought about it, in the end you can’t play Blanche here. She’s in a very different situation and Woody is a very particular writer, different than Tennessee Williams,” she said.

Jasmine isn’t the only high profile awards bait movie Blanchett will be seen in this year. She recently finished shooting the December release, Monuments Men directed by and starring George Clooney. She’s also listed as reprising her Galadriel character in the second of the Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation Of Smaug but isn’t even sure she will be in that one. Also adding an air of mystery to her recent credits are two Terrence Malick movies she shot back to back. Malick being Malick, and having a reputation for cutting major actors out of his movies, is always a roll of the dice so it’s a good question as to what those movies will be. “If they will be. Who knows?” said Blanchett who found the experience of working with the unpredictable Malick “fascinating”.

One thing is for certain. Place your bets on Blanchett being front and center at the Dolby Theatre March 2nd.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.