Cate Blanchett, essentials

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.

Elizabeth Cate Blanchett

Elizabeth” (1998)
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 Blanchett

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."