There are very few actors, in these days of soundbites and tabloids and gossip blogs and 15-page colour spreads in which we are “invited into their beautiful home,” that we can truly say we don’t get enough of. And there are fewer still, who even in that glare of publicity that surrounds a new film’s release, do not end up somehow diminished by the process, dissected and dissassembled and repackaged and repurposed for use as a tiny cog in a big marketing machine. But Cate Blanchett is one of the rare few who manages that trick, again and again, retaining a cool, inviolate and perhaps slightly detached image, even as the performances she gives can be frightening in their engagement and commitment. And it’s another such that Blanchett reportedly gives in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” which opens this Friday, and for which she’s already garnering early awards buzz. We called it “ an outstanding firecracker turn … that has Oscar-worthy written all over it in flames” in our review.
Aside from her striking face (the alabaster skin, crescent-shaped eyes, cheekbones you could hang a week’s washing on), this quality of aloofness is one of Blanchett’s unique attributes as an actress, a kind of absence of desperation, which makes her seemingly completely unafraid to take on characters who are partially or wholly unlikeable, or to invest even her heroines with a certain moral ambiguity. Blanchett, we feel, doesn’t care if we like her characters, as long as we are convinced by them, and as a result, while she certainly has the grace and the beauty to have more frequently taken the beautiful girlfriend/wife role, or the straight-up romantic interest, mostly she has avoided that trap and turned to characters with much more depth and agency. Or maybe that’s just what she has brought to the films. In any case, we thought this was a good moment to take a look at five of the roles that we consider among her best.
Controversially, no doubt, we left two of the more famous, indelible Blanchett performances off the main list, partly because we wanted to have a chance to shine a light on some other, lesser seen films and partly because, while she’s extraordinary in both, she’s a supporting player in a much larger ensemble in the “Lord of the Rings” and ‘Hobbit’ movies, and in “The Aviator.” But of course it should be noted that her ethereal elf Galadriel brought her to a whole new level of fame (and really, we can’t imagine anyone else being able to walk that line between otherworldly goodness and beauty, and actually being quite uncannily terrifying when she needs), and that her Kate Hepburn brought her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The latter is a turn that proved a little divisive, with some accusing her of straying too far into impersonation, but as bigs fans of Hepburn ourselves we have to say we found it one of the definite high points of the Scorsese picture.
Neither film, however, could by any stretch of the imagination be called a “Cate Blanchett film”—here, instead are five in which hers is a lead role, and which each shows a different side of this versatile, fascinating actress. What they all have in common, though, is that certain restraint, even when she’s playing messy and broken, that is a bravery all of its own: Cate Blanchett always allows herself, and her characters, to retain a sliver of mystery, of unknowability, and far from this creating distance from the audience, for us at least, it almost always invites us deeper in.
Blanchett came out of the gate like a bullet, it seems. After a couple of recurring stints on Australian TV shows and a handful of supporting roles in films, including playing in the formidable female ensemble of “Paradise Road” alongside Glenn Close, Frances McDormand and Pauline Collins among others, she got her first lead, as the titular Lucinda, opposite Ralph Fiennes in Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s Booker winner “Oscar and Lucinda.” That film now feels like something of a missed opportunity all round, but Blanchett’s star was in the unstoppable ascendant by then and her very next role was her breakout: the young Queen Elizabeth I in Shekhar Kapur’s tremendous ”Elizabeth.” Hers is a startling reinterpretation of an oft-visited role, her Elizabeth is many things we had never really seen the monarch as before: youthful, playful, sexy, mischievous, but it retains the essentials of the historical woman’s intelligence and strength of will. The performance earned her the first of her 5 Oscar nominations (3 for Supporting Actress), though ironically she lost out to Gwyneth Paltrow for “Shakespeare in Love” which also starred Joseph Fiennes and which itself won an Oscar for an actress playing Queen Elizabeth I—Blanchett’s future “Notes on a Scandal” co-star Judi Dench. Blanchett was again nominated for Best Actress for the vastly inferior follow-up “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” in 2007, but it was the first film that gave us a new Virgin Queen, and new Hollywood star.
What Did Cate Say About It? “Shekhur [the director] was never interested in historical accuracy when creating the movie Elizabeth. Rather, he was interested in weaving a fantasy around a historical setting, which gave us a lot of artistic license, allowing us to draw on things that weren’t purely fact.”
“Little Fish” (2005)
With Blanchett already a big star due to “The Lord of the Rings” and having won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the previous year’s “The Aviator,” she showed her willingness to switch it up by heading back to Australia for this indie, Rowan Woods’ tale of a heroin-cursed family in Sydney “Little Fish.” (Woods’ last feature had been “The Boys” a film that had been extremely successful in Australia). A gritty story set with an unmistakably authentic eye in the Little Saigon neighbourhood of Sydney (and featuring Vietnamese actor Dustin Nguyen of “21 Jump Street” fame—a fact that probably excites no one but our 12-year-old self), Blanchett plays recovering addict Tracy, who is trying to stay clean and build a life for herself, even while her ex-boyfriend, ex-stepfather and brother (Martin Henderson) are all, whether consciously or not, conspiring to bring her back into that world. But Tracy is the film’s heart (along with her quietly decent and heartbroken mother played by Noni Hazelhurst), and she makes stupid choices but is almost always motivated by nobler intentions. And it’s her conflicted but loving relationship with her “Lord of the Rings” co-elf Hugo Weaving, who plays the junkie stepdad that really lifts the film out of being just another kitchen-sink drugs-and-breadline drama. In its grim, often ugly, suburban aesthetic, and with Blanchett’s luminosity dialed right down under layers of unflattering jeans and greasy hair, it couldn’t be further away from the ethereal suspended fountains of Middle Earth or the Old Hollywood of Katharine Hepburn, but Blanchett disappears into the role here too, treating Tracy with fully as much dignity as any of her more glamorous characters. She makes us care to the degree that the sad little grimy plan that goes awry at the end of the film takes on all the resonance of tragedy.
What Did Cate Say About It? “These are people who have had exciting and hopeful dreams in their twenties, which have all been dashed on the rocks, and now they have to re-apprentice themselves to their parents and try and work out who they are in their thirties. This is a whole group of deeply uncool and unfashionable people who never get represented in cinema.”
“I’m Not There” (2007)
Ok, so the Academy deemed Blanchett’s turn as Bob Dylan Proxy Jude Quinn in Todd Haynes’ baffling, occasionally infuriating, but always interesting homage, as a supporting performance, presumably based purely on the amount of screen time she gets. But in a big, sometimes incoherent jumble of film, populated with other proxies and various other riffs on Dylan’s personas, Blanchett’s Quinn is for us absolutely the central role. The surprise of her playing a man, and delivering a relatively decent physical approximation of Dylan wears off pretty quickly, though, because the really treasurable aspect of this performance is how soon we forget the gender-bending gimmick of it, and become compelled by the character in his own right. Blanchett nails the musician’s mercurial, almost painful, intelligence and twitchy charisma, and especially in those scenes in which an interview with Bruce Greenwood’s BBC reporter seamlessly interweaves elements that sound like they came directly from a particularly prickly Dylan interview, with complete fabrications that make Jude Quinn more a person than a proxy. But again, it’s Blanchett’s reserve that really works in the role’s favor here—the character is one who has an enormous, blinding talent that keeps him in the public eye, but who is also at heart an intensely private person and perhaps sensing a certain kinship, it feels like Blanchett really knows the landscape of that particular purgatory. She doesn’t ever try to explain him to us (in fact Haynes’ film overall is remarkable for kind of never staring directly at Dylan, like he is an eclipse or something), because that would be dishonest—he is ultimately an enigma after all. Instead, as so often with her best characters, she manages to embody all his contradictions in such a way that they all feel part of a single human whole, however odd a human it may be.
What Did Cate Say About It? “I was terrified doing it because [Todd Haynes] and I had no interest in imitating Dylan. But yet Todd was really specific that I wore a suit that he wore in 1965, like the exact suit that he wore in Manchester. And the hair… He wants those iconic references but yet he doesn’t want an imitation. It was a really difficult tightrope to walk, which I hope I walked without falling off too often. “
“Notes On A Scandal” (2006)
On a superficial level, “Notes On A Scandal,” adapted from a phenomenally popular 2003 novel by Zoe Heller that was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, should be a B-movie, one that you might indulge in as, at best a guilty pleasure. But Blanchett, along with an unforgettably tremendous turn from co-star Judi Dench, that elevates the material into something that flirts with greatness, at least to the point of sending it dirty text messages. The film concerns an older teacher (Dench) who works at a private school in London. Her peculiar mix of intellectual snobbery, self-delusion and terrible loneliness have conspired to make her utterly bitter and warped inside, and when a comely young teacher (Blanchett) joins the school, Dench’s initial response to her own attraction is scorn. But their relationship, which could have veered immediately into “Single White Female” territory, is more layered and nuanced and further kinks (pun intended) develop when Dench discovers that Blanchett is having an affair with a young boy at the school (Andrew Simpson). A bizarre love triangle of sorts starts and it’s a testament to Richard Eyre‘s direction, and the sharp script by playwright Patrick Marber, as well as the thrilling actresses on top form, that the modulated tone can flirt with both extreme camp and emotional complexity, sometimes at exactly the same moment. (Bill Nighy, in one of his more subtle roles in recent memory, plays Blanchett’s much older, cuckolded husband.) Set to a propulsive score by Philip Glass, it’s Dench who in a way has the showier role—all twisted, malevolent duplicity—but Blanchett has the more thankless task and still manages to occupy her character’s head to the degree that, while you find her morally reprehensible and often pathetic, she never feels less than real. In a lesser actress’ hands, the character would have been totally one-dimensional, a shrill, selfish, sexual predator unworthy of further consideration. But with Blanchett’s mesmerizing performance, you can’t help but feel her pain, and every sharp jab of emotional complexity, raw eroticism and sheer panic that shoots through her at every turn. It’s a performance that borders on mesmerizing. Even if the movie occasionally broaches kitsch.
What Did Cate Say About It? “I’m not interested in playing characters who see the world through my prism, I think the journey of understanding any character is to see how they tick boxes and how they differ from you. Probably the hardest thing was to liberate her from my own morality.”
A curious film on many levels, Tom Tykwer’s “Heaven” was made from a script written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and his regular writer Krzystof Piesiewicz that was designed as the first in a trilogy (“Purgatory” and “Hell” were to follow) before the great Polish filmmaker’s death at just 54 put paid to that project. And so the resulting film is an unusual hybrid—it’s a Tykwer film in look and aesthetics (in the Turin section especially his trademark preoccupation with the surfaces and confinements of architecture is in evidence) but deals in Kieslowski’s recurrent themes of redemption and guilt, and has a somewhat poetic structure, while also featuring a conflicted central female role that calls to mind his “Three Colors” Trilogy. But if the film doesn’t satisfy overall (it strains credulity almost from the get-go) one aspect that should give it a hallowed position in either man’s filmography is Blanchett’s committed performance. Opposite an underplaying Giovanni Ribisi (it’s a great moment for him too, as he manages to quietly wring something out of a severely underwritten role) she plays an expat British schoolteacher, Phillippa, driven to plant a bomb to kill a drug kingpin about whom the corrupt local carabinieri have done nothing, despite her repeated pleas. Dumb luck intervenes ensuring the bomb doesn’t find its target but instead kills four innocent bystanders, and Phillippa is brought in for questioning. The ensuing plot, involving her interpreter (her “The Gift” co-star Ribisi) falling instantly in love with her, formulating a plan to help her escape and them going on the run is kind of silly, but the tone is so dreamlike that it almost begs to be read as an allegory, and Blanchett is never less than riveting, selling every one of her character’s moral changes, and the ultimate ambiguity in her heart, completely. In fact, the scene in which she first learns that her bomb actually caused the deaths of the four passersby is kind of an acting masterclass—a woman willing to lose everything to do what she believed was right, ends up horribly, irrevocably in the wrong, and it all happens in Blanchett’s face, before your very eyes.
What did Cate say about it? “I knew that the characters would have poetic motivations and exist in an almost unearthly atmosphere. I was intrigued because the characters do the opposite of what you expect them to do.”
Of course, there are a number of other roles we could have chosen. From “Babel” to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” she is never less than accomplished in any the auteur-driven work for which she’s become known. However the ones that came nearest our list are the slight outliers—we liked her OTT turn in “Hanna,” for example, as it’s nice to see her have a little fun, similarly her smaller roles in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and her great double-turn in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes”: it feels like she’s an actress who gets to do Serious and Important quite a lot, so it’s refreshing when she’s neither. In fact perhaps our very favorite turn that we couldn’t find a place for here, is her unrecognizably covered-up cameo in “Hot Fuzz” as Janine.
There were a couple of vocal advocates for “The Gift” too (well, one) and even when the films fall short (“The Good German,” “Veronica Guerin” “The Man Who Cried”) she’s often the best thing in them. But actually, take a look through Blanchett’s filmography and you find a remarkable consistency: not everything may land with quite the impact you might have hoped, and perhaps too often she goes to the well of “worthy but somewhat dull dramas,”, but there are very few all-out duds. If you compare her back catalogue with the (admittedly longer) one of fellow Australian Nicole Kidman, there are really no equivalents for the likes of “Bewitched” or “Trespass” even “The Invasion” in Blanchett’s CV. Of course she spends a great deal of time involved in theater too, and so is perhaps being more choosy over her film roles but with the buzz she’s getting over “Blue Jasmine” sure to build, and a pretty full upcoming slate (including a couple of Terrence Malick films and George Clooney‘s “Monuments Men” among many others) it looks like it’s going to be a busy few years for her. Were she anyone else, we’d worry about potential overexposure, but, hey, she’s Cate Blanchett, so, no, we don’t.
Bonus Item: The Cate Blanchett Movie You’ll Never See /”The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg“
One film that won’t be getting any exposure at all however? Steven Soderbergh‘s “The Last Time I saw Michael Gregg” is an improvised film he shot with Blanchett and the actors involved in his Sydney Theatre Company production of the play “Tot-Mom,” (about the notorious death of Caylee Anthony) which he directed. Blanchett and her husband, writer Andrew Upton have been artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company for some years. A comedy about a theater company staging “Three Sisters,” Soderbergh maintains that it was made solely for the cast and he never wants it shown to the public, making it presumably one of the most impressively directed home videos ever. And some sort of unattainable holy grail for completists.