Monday, May 14, 2012

To Cate Blanchett on Her 43rd Birthday

As much as I love my singing divas and Oscar-winning actresses, I'm not the fanatical fanboy type. I've never seen every single one of anybody's movies, or listened only to the songs of one singer any day of my life. And although I rarely forget important birthdays in real life (thanks to having an excellent memory for such things, and to, well, Facebook -- again), I don't exactly commit to memory the big days of famous people, unless they happen to be turning an age ending in 0.

So there's no reason I can think of why I should have woken up this morning knowing that today is Cate Blanchett's 43rd birthday. I'd like to say that it's easy to remember every year because Blanchett was born exactly one week after I was, but that would be only partly true. The fact is that Cate Blanchett is not just any mere mortal actress. I mean, look at her. The woman is practically a goddess. Move over, Hera! (Speaking of which, why hasn't a film ever been made showcasing the queen of the Greek deities, a role that would fit Blanchett to a G?)

She's been called her generation's Meryl Streep, and the second coming of Katharine Hepburn. Those are accolades most actresses might spend their entire careers trying to deserve. But to call Cate Blanchett the next anyone would be to sell short one of the world’s most singular individual acting talents.

Still, it's easy to understand why people are tempted to throw in vintage references among the many superlatives used to describe Blanchett. Her classic yet unique beauty recalls a time when icons like Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh roamed the earth of Hollywoodland. Who else but Cate Blanchett would dare portray Hepburn onscreen (as she did in 2004's The Aviator) and then go on to win an Academy Award for it?

"She plays the same character every time." "She's always playing herself." It's a criticism leveled at some of Blanchett’s Oscar-winning Hollywood peers: Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon. But you can’t say that about a woman who could pull off playing Hepburn, Bob Dylan and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I (twice) and earn Oscar nominations for perfectly embodying each one of them. The irony? Who could portray Blanchett in 10, 20 years? God help the actress (or actor) who even tries.

Where does the time go? It's a question I ask myself on both of our birthdays every year, and it could be applied to Blanchett's career as well. Her first major film appearance was 15 years ago, opposite Ralph Fiennes in 1997’s Oscar and Lucinda, which came out two years before The Talented Mr. Ripley, a dreadful movie that I recently saw on Thai TV, one that only had two things going for it: Jude Law and Blanchett, BAFTA-nominated for playing a character who wasn't even in the book. Doesn’t it seem like we’ve only just begun to get to know her, only started to tap the surface of a talent that runs so deep that it might take several more decades to get to the bottom of it?

For her vast screen work and high Q score, precious little is known about Blanchett, the woman. We know she is a mother of three sons and the wife of playwright and screenwriter Andrew Upton, but we rarely see her in the tabloids, unless it’s a snapshot of her on the red carpet at some official event. When Blanchett finally made front-page news for something other than her acting, it was in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, for her unpopular support of the country’s carbon tax. She's costarred with Brad Pitt, ultimate movie star (after George Clooney), in two films -- Babel and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- but could any living A-list actress be more his celebrity antithesis?

That's probably why it's so easy for Blanchett to disappear into her roles. If she brings any of herself to her performances, how could we possibly know? She’s beautiful and regal, yet she perfectly captures the white trashiness of a school teacher who would stoop to sleeping with an underage student, as she did in 2006’s Notes on a Scandal, a movie as notable for how successfully she stood up to co-star Dame Judi Dench as for how she convincingly dressed down to the level of a woman committing such a hideously low-rent crime of passion and poor taste. For her effort, she scored the third of her five Oscar nominations.

Like her fellow Australian superstar Nicole Kidman and her fellow Academy darling Kate Winslet, she's spent much of her career negotiating the tricky career path between indie movies and big-budget fare. She can star as Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as Marian opposite Russell Crowe’s prince of thieves in 2010’s Robin Hood and, once again, as Galadriel in the upcoming two-part blockbuster-to-be The Hobbit, while filling her resume with quirky, little-seen art-house fare like last year’s Hanna and The Gift, the 2000 Southern Gothic drama that probably was most notable for containing Keanu Reeves' best performance. It figures: How could he not raise his bar with Cate Blanchett on the set?

Further south, way down under, the Melburnian thespian devotes her time on and off the clock to preserving the art of stage acting in her country. To that end, she and her husband are artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, where she has recently played such iconic stage roles as Blanche DuBois and Yelena in Australian revivals of A Streetcar Named Desire (2009) and Uncle Vanya (2010), respectively. She's one of Hollywood's most-respected talents, an icon home and away, but no one back home would ever accuse her of going Hollywood.

That's the difference between Blanchett and Kidman. One talented Australian beauty marries stars -- first Tom Cruise, then country singer Keith Urban – while playing one as skillfully as she does any of her screen roles. The other lives and loves under the radar, building her reputation in Hollywood without ever truly becoming a part of it, one unforgettable performance at a time.
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