The historic Arlington Theatre hosted the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Outstanding Performer of the Year Award Ceremony on Friday, Feb. 10. 

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Fans gathered to bask in the presence of the award recipient Cate Blanchett, “the most spectacular creature that ever walked the planet,” in the words of Russell Crowe. This was Blanchett’s third time being honored at Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), and it was her second time receiving the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award. The two-hour event was a seamless intertwining of Blanchett’s professionality, poise and charm that made audiences feel comfortable sharing a space with the high-status actress.

Blanchett was recognized for her performance as the fictional, world-renowned classical composer Lydia Tár in Todd Field’s “Tár.” Her admirers flooded the aisles, anxiously scoured for available seats of the sold-out venue and shared their admiration for the actress with one another.

Roger Durling, the executive director of SBIFF, welcomed audience members and shared in the collective excitement of honoring such a groundbreaking actress for what he calls “one of the greatest performances in film history.” Durling then introduced The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, who was in conversation with Blanchett for the majority of the event.

Feinberg took the podium and spoke in affirmation of Blanchett’s talent, claiming that she had tended to minimize her brilliance in their past conversations. He cited actor Brad Pitt who described her as “exquisite” and “otherworldly,” as well as the late American film critic Richard Corliss who once wrote, “Years from now, when cinephiles are asked to name the movies’ golden age, they’ll say it was when Cate Blanchett was in them.” Feinberg pointed the audience’s attention to a montage of moments from Blanchett’s career, and upon its conclusion welcomed “Cate the Great” to the stage. A standing ovation commenced and continued until Blanchett, Feinberg and audience members alike took their seats together. She immediately evoked a laugh out of the audience by transparently admitting she was “not wearing knickers” as she took the seat exposed to the larger portion of the crowd. 

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Feinberg first prompted Blanchett to reflect on her family, upbringing and journey from studying fine arts and economics in university to her acceptance into drama school in Australia. “This is a deep dive. Do you want me to lie down?” Blanchett jokingly responded.

Blanchett was initially trained in the theater. She said she has always appreciated “the very direct relationship you have with an audience” and the way “the mood, the atmosphere, the texture of the moment changes because of all of [the] people in the seats.” She reflected on how “Tár” had “that performance component to it,” which made it a homecoming for her. While learning how to conduct for the role, Blanchett’s mentor told her, “Plant yourself on the podium, do not apologize for being there — work from your core” and Blanchett thought, “That’s exactly what I do on the stage.”

Feinberg and Blanchett discussed how it was her work in the theater that led to an accidental ticket into the film industry. Acting in films was not necessarily on Blanchett’s agenda prior to her recruitment to play Queen Elizabeth I in Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth,” when a casting director saw her in a theater performance. 

The recognition that came with her performance in “Elizabeth” resulted in Blanchett being summoned for roles that were “the same character [as Queen Elizabeth], just in different costumes.” Uninterested in such opportunities, she took a “little nugget of a role” as Meredith Logue in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” noting her appreciation for how different this character was from the Elizabeth-esque roles she had been offered.

Feinberg and Blanchett briefly discussed her era of films including “The Shipping News,” “Charlotte Gray,” “Bandits” and “The Lord of the Rings,” in which she plays Galadriel. She shared a laugh with the audience when she recalled that “someone in the agency in Australia said ‘You don’t want to go to New Zealand to play an elf.’” 

Clips of Blanchett performing as Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” and Sheba Hart in “Notes on a Scandal” played on the screen following light-hearted tellings of shoving Judi Dench into a crockery cabinet and Scorsese’s reassurance that she was just right for the part of Katharine — “She should’ve been a blonde!” said Scorsese — which relieved the pressure of playing such a profound figure in her industry. 

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The two discussed her role as the iconic, electric Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” and her character Jasmine in “Blue Jasmine,” which scored her the first of her two SBIFF Outstanding Performer of the Year Awards back in 2014. Blanchett explained that “[Jasmine is] somebody who’s holding on in a way that living in a diluted state becomes the safest place to be, because the present and the past is so absolutely painful.” Subtle “oohs” and “ahhs” radiated from the audience upon Blanchett’s intelligence and insight; this type of response ensued many times throughout the event as a result of Blanchett’s thoughtful answers.

Feinberg asked about her “hiatus” from film acting in which she and her husband, Andrew Upton, were co-directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. Amid this five-year period between 2008-13, Blanchett stepped into the on-stage role of Blanche DuBois in a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” directed by Liv Ullmann. Field, in his speech toward the end of the event, referred to The New York Times’ critic Ben Brantley who wrote that “Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have performed the play as if it had never been staged before, with the result that, as a friend of mine put it, ‘you feel like you’re hearing words you thought you knew pronounced correctly for the first time.’” 

Blanchett and Feinberg reflected on “Carol,” which many fans consider to be one of their favorites of her performances and what she herself described as “a lesson in ambiguity.” They then brought attention to a project called “Manifesto,” which was originally an art installation held in multiple locations but was eventually screened at the Sundance Film Festival in a linear form. Filmed in just 12 days, Blanchett plays 13 characters who each deliver a personal artist manifesto monologue. She said “they assert their difference in such a passionate way, how they want to destroy the artistic movement that has come before them.” She revealed that as all of the monologues played at the same time on respective screens, they eventually all reached the same pitch of voice, making all of the individual manifestos sound exactly the same.

Feinberg highlighted her role as Phyllis Schlafly in the limited series “Mrs. America,” and described the titular character as “anti-feminist” and assumed her values to be opposite of Blanchett’s. Blanchett agreed, saying “I find it tragic that women are being divided from each other along political lines that are often drawn, generationally, by men.” She went on to explain that this show can be important for exploring why human rights violations happen in the first place, which was immediately met by cheers from the audience. 

The conversation then shifted to “Tár.” Blanchett described her character Lydia Tár as “a master of her craft,” and Feinberg added that she is a woman “who’s being accused of essentially being a … bad man.” She explained that the film showcases how Tár herself is “manufacturing her identity” because “[maestros’] behavior absolutely cements their reputation and an orchestra’s expectation about how they might deal with that particular conductor.” Blanchett stated that although she is “one of the world’s great classical music performers … in a way, her greatest performance is herself.”

As she reflected upon this “utterly once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Blanchett revealed that she had to learn piano, German, conducting and stick technique just to get to first base in the process of the film. She earned laughter from the audience after she stumbled slightly to find her words, saying “stick technique, not dick technique … anywho!” 

As their conversation came to a close, Feinberg introduced six-time Oscar nominee and director of “Tár,” Field, to the stage.

Field delivered a speech that left Blanchett teary-eyed. He began by speaking from personal experience, sharing that “when you’re in dialogue with [Blanchett], it changes you, completely, forever.” He referred to her as “an activist, a humanitarian, a working mother and the best-dressed woman in the world,” and joked that she had a list of “accomplishments that would make Lydia Tár pale by comparison.” 

Field highlighted her major contributions in climate work and actions taken for providing global aid to refugees fleeing genocide. He said that she put her “superhuman efforts” into passing a carbon tax for which she received “a whole lot of shit for.” “Did this dissuade her?” Field asked rhetorically. “No fucking way.” The audience burst into laughter.

He confirmed to audience members that “who you’re seeing up here, and who you’re hearing up here, that’s [Blanchett] … she truly is one of the great hearts and minds that you’ll ever come across.” 

“How lucky I am and how lucky the world is to live in a time when Cate Blanchett graces our stages, our screens and walks the earth for our common good,” Field said, obviously sharing the audience’s infatuation with Blanchett. 

Field presented Blanchett with the physical award, which was met with an extended standing ovation from the crowd as she took the podium.

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Blanchett began by thanking SBIFF for her third honor — “You got me again!” — and recognized how many “outstanding, idiosyncratic performances” there had been this year “by women of wildly different shapes and sizes and artistic ambition.” 

She shared that, for her, “acting is a sort of physical, visceral form of anthropology … [where] you get to excavate a character or a set of relationships.” 

“In the last 30 years, my passion in the film industry has been the craft of acting, and this passion has led me to seek out roles that deepen and challenge that craft, and in doing so, you fail. And you fail, and you fail and sometimes, it works,” Blanchett said.

She laughed as she said, “‘Tár’ consumed me whole and spat me out and I’m not quite sure of where I am. It shifted my sense of what is possible.”

“I accept this honor, a hundred million, trillion percent, in the name of one of the most generous and inspiring collaborators that I have ever had the great, good fortune to work with, and that is Todd Field,” Blanchett said. 

She concluded her speech giving many thanks to Feinberg for their conversation, the film’s composer, editor, production designer, costume designer, the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, the SBIFF and the audience. Met with yet another standing ovation from the crowd, Blanchett was handed a bouquet of flowers as she grinned gratefully at the audience.

The murmurs of awe that chorused through the Arlington Theatre as crowds began to leave perfectly captured the collective gratitude to be graced with the presence of Blanchett for the evening. In the words of American theater critic John Lahr, “Blanchett, with her alert mind, her informed heart, and her lithe, patrician silhouette, [got] it right from the first beat.”