BY GENE TRIPLETT
LOS ANGELES – The 86th annual Academy Awards had just been announced that morning and Cate Blanchett’s name had come up in the Best Actress category for her work in writer-director Woody Allen’s emotionally grueling “Blue Jasmine.”
But she fended off the congratulatory remarks of reporters with polite “thank yous,” knowing the business at hand at this particular press conference in the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom this morning was the promotion of “The Monuments Men.” a fact-based World War II adventure drama about a group of middle-aged, not-ready-for-combat artists, museum directors and architects who donned steel helmets and fatigues and took up rifles to march to the front lines of battle on a mission to retrieve great works of art that had been looted by Hitler’s forces.
The film stars its co-writer, co-producer and director George Clooney, plus Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Bob Balaban, all of whom shared the panel that morning with the only female lead in the cast, Blanchett.
“Projects don’t come along very often with ensembles like this,” Blanchett said in that low, Brit-accented voice of hers, which she actually refined in her native Melbourne, Australia.
“And for me, the power of the story is that it shines a light and a perspective on what we previously thought were very well known facts,” she said. “I guess a shot in the film, my children saw it last night, George (Clooney) quipped that they were really not the proper demographic, but when they find the barrel full of wedding rings and gold fillings, and we all know, we’ve seen those horrendous pictures, and the power of cinema as it draws on that collective history, I feel like the film harnesses our understanding of the second world war, but yet opens a door into a very particular and notable and quirky bunch of guys – and girl – who really changed where we are now, and what we understand our contemporary cultures to be.”
Blanchett’s character in the film is based on Rose Valland, a Frenchwoman in occupied France who is working as a curator at the Jeu de Paume, a former art museum that became a depot for art stolen by the Nazis.
By night, Simone keeps records of the stolen art works and where they’re being spirited away and stored. The Monuments Men know she has this information and have to gain her trust, because she doesn’t know whether the Americans or the Russians will keep the art for themselves, or be willing to return the works to their rightful owners within Europe.
Damon’s “Monument’s Men” character is based on James Rorimer, who later became director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rorimer’s relationship with Valland, when she finally decides to trust him, results in the recovery of tons of stolen art.
“I was deliriously happy about this movie,” Blanchett said. “…Because I felt like, in a way, George, as we all know, is such an incredible raconteur, and I think that carries across into the way he makes films and also the way he tells stories about what’s going on in the rest of the world, in the other part of his life. And in a way, this film is a synthesis of those things.
“But in a way,” Blanchett said, “the way George would come to each of us and obviously pitch the story of ‘The Monuments Men’ was not dissimilar to his character in the film, going around gathering people, the characters, in the film.”
Damon joked that his only motive for doing the film was the chance to work with Blanchett.
“‘Monuments Men’ was made before ‘Behind the Candelabra’,” Blanchett said with a laugh, referring to the HBO movie in which Damon played one of pianist Liberace’s gay lovers. “Fortunately I hadn’t seen that before …”
“We had,” George Clooney said with a laugh, while Damon looked sheepish.
“Mama mia!” Blanchett exclaimed.