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The Essentials: 5 Great Cate Blanchett Performances

Features
by The Playlist Staff
July 23, 2013 2:01 PM
17 Comments
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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."

Heaven” (2002)
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.

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17 Comments

  • willy jerk-off | August 16, 2013 9:35 PMReply

    I want to bugger Cate Blanchett (as the bird was in 1987 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • Simon Paiva | August 9, 2013 9:52 PMReply

    What about her comedic turn in Barry Levinson's "Bandits" ( alongside Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton) or her brief participation in Lasse Hallstrom's "The Shipping News"? I'm surprised these roles were not mentioned in the article. She's luminous and outstanding in everything she does. Also, I'm looking forward to seeing her in one of the short stories of "The Turning". As well as Mia Wasikowska's ( another great australian talent of which I am also a huge fan) directorial debut in the same film. Not to mention the two of them working together in Todd Hayne's "Carol".

  • BRYAN MILLS | August 5, 2013 6:22 AMReply

    movies where i admired her acting...

    2013 Blue Jasmine

    2011 Hanna

    2010 Robin Hood

    2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

    2006 Babel

    2005 Little Fish

    2004 The Aviator

    2004 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

    2003The Missing

    2003 Coffee and Cigarettes

    2003 Veronica Guerin

    2000 The Gift

  • Helluva | August 2, 2013 10:06 AMReply

    I like both Kidman & Blanchett, but I consider Cate not only the best of some very excellent Australian actresses (can't forget Naomi Watts), but also the best working film ACTOR (male or female) of her generation. She is the goods...

  • jingmei | July 27, 2013 11:28 AMReply

    Heaven is a really beautiful one, with the lovely Italian speaking Giovanni Ribisi.

  • Alan B | July 24, 2013 10:36 AMReply

    "Nighy, in one of his more subtle roles in recent memory, plays Blanchett's much older, cuckolded husband."

    Well then, your memory is very spotty. There is nothing subtle about Nighy's performance. Watch that confrontation scene again: Blanchett is giving her character layers and playing different tones, but Nighy just hits the one petulant note over and over again.

  • MIRANDA TATE | August 5, 2013 6:26 AM

    thank you for saying that

    i am so sick and fu**ing tired of people ranting about his versatility

    he was amazing in 'STATE OF PLAY'

    but he has played the same 2 characters ever since

    constipated serious guy
    or cheeky chap that acts younger than his age

  • Guest | July 23, 2013 11:24 PMReply

    Deivith and Jason, my bad.
    It's funny how resentful Kidman fanboys are of Cate Blanchett's overarching success and the fact that she's considered by far the greater Australian actress.

  • kookee | September 13, 2013 8:40 AM

    Ditto Guest. Even Cate's so-called 'boring' movies are more watchable than Kidman's so-called 'good' movies and Cate's acting in movies that are so-called boring movies is so much better than Kidman's and always consistently good. In movies that are supposed to be edgy or avant garde like Eyes Wide Shut or Dogville Kidman just comes across as trying way too hard to be arty. That's not to say Kidman's an awful actress - she's good playing certain characters but is limited as an actress. Cate's acting is definitely in a different league ala Streep, Dench, Winslett, Tilda Swinton that Kidman fans only dream about.

  • Deivith | July 24, 2013 7:54 AM

    I love Cate Blanchett and lots of her performances, I just found unfair your comment, because she has tons of uninteresting, boring movies in her resumé and some performances where I find her just lazy. Don't mind who has the "Greatest Australian Actress" crown.

  • Guest | July 23, 2013 11:22 PMReply

    I'm laughing at the Kidman fanboy, Deivith.

  • Deivith | July 23, 2013 7:05 PMReply

    I'd rather see once a day the awful Tresspass than suffer again just once in my life movies like Charlotte Gray, Veronica Guerin, Missing, Indiana Jones IV, The Man who Cried... Even The Hobbit (where she's horrible!)

  • Jason | July 23, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    Well, maybe there are no Bewitched or Trespass or The Invasion on her résumé, but there are no Eyes Wide Shut, no Moulin Rouge, no Dogville either.

  • CALLIEKYLEE124 | July 23, 2013 2:56 PM

    Great list.

  • Ugh | July 23, 2013 2:17 PMReply

    Not one mention of her work in The Aviator?

  • BOBBY SANDS | August 5, 2013 6:29 AM

    i remember the best actress oscar race was
    lisbeth salander versus marilyn monroe versus maggie thatcher

    this year the best actress oscar will be princess diana versus grace kelly

  • s | July 23, 2013 3:46 PM

    actually there's more than one, but don't let that get in your way.

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