In a review of Cate Blanchett’s latest film, Manifesto (2016), The Huffington Post couldn’t have opened with a better quip: “What do a TV anchor, a factory worker, a homeless man, a scientist and a punk all have in common? They’re all Cate Blanchett.” Julian Rosefeldt’s experimental work has Blanchett play 13 roles across different social classes, each quoting from various artistic manifestos (Futurism, Dadaism, Dogma 95, etc.) The goal, Rosefeldt explained, is to question the role of the artist in contemporary society by inserting these famous declarations into everyday contexts. Described as such, the project may sound too cerebral to interest most viewers; the truth is that without Blanchett, Rosefeldt’s inventive homage to 20th century artists would never have attracted the attention that it did – let alone earned a spot at Sundance. But with the immersive environment he creates, coupled with the chameleonic actress, viewers find themselves entranced and curious before this film, like bystanders who’ve stumbled upon a series of absurd, real-life scenarios.
It was Blanchett’s performance as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007) that influenced Rosefeldt’s initial conception for Manifesto, which he turns into a vehicle for multiplying her powers of metamorphosis. The structure of his film is even similar to Todd Haynes’ slyly elusive, “no-one-version-of-Dylan” biopic – undermining our loyalty to any single artistic manifesto by constantly slipping between the competing philosophies that Blanchett performs.
Though Blanchett was only one of six actors playing Dylan, critics were quick to single her out. The Telegraph predicted she would “get most of the plaudits and deservedly so.” Rolling Stone Magazine declared that Blanchett had “extended the possibilities of acting playing the skinny, androgynous Dylan in his electric years” and that the latter’s notorious elusiveness beneath the public eye was “never clearer than in the Blanchett segment.” The New York Times, in its review of the film, recounted Harvey Weinstein claiming that if Cate Blanchett didn’t get nominated, he would “shoot himself”. It also offered an insightful description of Dylan that incidentally pinpointed the creative gift that he and Blanchett share: “From the start, Mr. Dylan has been singularly adept at channeling and recombining various strands of the American musical and literary vernacular, but he has often seemed less like an interpreter of those traditions than like their incarnation.” The same is true for Blanchett when she acts. She does not just interpret her roles. Like the shape-shifting Dylan, she channels and embodies a character until she is that character.
Haynes would reunite with Blanchett for Carol (2015), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking lesbian romance novel. Carol focuses on the forbidden romance between two women in the 50’s – Therese (Rooney Mara), an aspiring young photographer, and Carol (Blanchett), a housewife going through a divorce. When Carol’s husband discovers the affair, he threatens to deny her custody of their child, forcing her to choose between Therese and her daughter. This time, Blanchett’s sheer elegance swept critics off their feet. They described her “sashaying through the textures of the film” – her every gesture amplified by Sandy Powell’s recreation of 50’s impeccability. They noted how she avoided the histrionic qualities that had made her brilliant in Blue Jasmine (2013), relying instead on the intuitive topographies of the gaze, and traversing her character’s fragile world with the exhilarating poise of a tightrope artist. Rooney Mara said that acting with Cate Blanchett “elevates you” and that “you don’t have the right to make a mistake.” In a poll that included 100 film experts, the British Film Institute voted Carol “the best LGBT film of all time.”
If critics had to vote on Blanchett’s best performance of all time, however, they would likely choose her portrayal of Jasmine French in Woody Allen’s film. Like all actresses who work with him, Blanchett was stunned by his brevity when he offered her the part. They talked for 45 seconds before he interjected, “Great, you want to do it. I’ll see you in San Francisco.” He was just as terse on set, boiling down his feedback to two honest responses: “Great” or “Awful!” But the screenplay, Blanchett insisted, more than compensated for his minimal direction. “When you work with Woody Allen, 97% of his direction is in the script,” she said, “And his word choices are so particular, and he has such a rhythm to his writing that you have to rise to that.”
Blanchett explained how the character of Jasmine came easier to her after starring as Blanche DuBois in Liv Ullman’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire (2009), which also happened to be the inspiration for Blue Jasmine. Both Jasmine French and Blanche DuBois are unhinged beneath their haughty demeanors, reeling from a troubled past as they are forced to move in with their “inferior” in-laws. Ullman had long been meaning to collaborate with Blanchett, and when the latter suggested they reprise Williams’s work, she was instantly on-board, despite the play having been staged hundreds of times already. The results defied expectations, proving Blanchett’s ability to completely reinvent a role. The Washington Post’s Peter Marks declared her “the most heart-breaking version of Blanche he had ever experienced.” Unsurprisingly, Blanchett began her career in the Sydney Theater Company after training at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Australia. She would later go on to become co-director of the theater with her husband, playwright Andrew Upton, for six years.
Blanchett first made her transition to film with her role as an Australian nurse in the Asia Pacific war drama, Paradise Road (1997). If her debut predicted anything, it was her natural flair for historical drama. In 2004, she won Best Actress for her portrayal of Hepburn’s relationship with airborne renegade, Howard Hughes, making her the only actress in the history of the Oscars to win the award for playing another Hollywood star. Many felt she deserved a second Oscar for her performance in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).
Now with six Oscar nominations, two Oscar wins, and three Golden Globes under her belt, she continues to blaze new trails. This year, she makes her Broadway debut in The Present, her husband’s rewritten version of the famous Chekhov play, Platanov. She is also making her foray into the world of directing with a new Australian television series, Stateless, about the life of Cornelia Rau, a German national unlawfully detained under the Australian government’s mandatory detention program in 2004.
When asked if she fears being unable to land Oscar-winning roles as an older actress, Blanchett named the women – Helen Mirren, Judi Dench or Maggie Smith – that have gracefully sailed past the looming iceberg of age because “they have never stopped taking risks.” “I don’t understand a way to work other than running towards the possibility of failure,” Blanchett admitted. So far, with boldness as her beacon, she has done nothing but succeed.