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Cate Blanchett, as you may have heard, received a Gala Tribute at the New York Film Festival last night. On the one hand, such events are opportunities for actors to bask in the warm glow of others' admiration, in return for doling out a few anecdotes and quotable (usually self-deprecating) reflections on their life and work. On the other, however, they can be key campaign stops for actors on the awards trail, and for Blanchett – the incumbent Best Actress frontrunner for her riveting comeback performance in Woody Allen's “Blue Jasmine” – this was her first significant PR opportunity of the season, considering how unassumingly the art house hit opened in the summer.
And by all accounts – I certainly wish I could tell you this first-hand – she aced it. That's no surprise, of course: 15 years on from her first Oscar season, the Australian star has been on the scene long enough for her intelligence, wit and passion for her craft to have registered as emphatically as her on-screen gifts.
Blanchett's personal charm, meanwhile, is best exemplified by her televised reactions during the presentation of the 2007 Best Actress Oscar: the mortified grimace on her face after watching her own shouty performance clip from “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (not a favorite of hers, one suspects), followed immediately by her palpably sincere surprise and delight when Marion Cotillard is revealed as the winner. The Academy's official YouTube clip of the moment, unfortunately, omits the former, but it remains one of my most treasured Oscarcast moments.
This will be – and I think it's safe, even in early October, to use the words “will be” – the sixth Oscar nomination of Blanchett's career, and could be her second win. It's a formidable number: six will bring her level with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith and Sissy Spacek, and in a shorter space of time to boot.
Yet it's not a haul that's even fully representative of her remarkable career to date, just as that single supporting win for her flashily clever Katherine Hepburn impression in Martin Scorsese's “The Aviator” hardly feels like the pinnacle of her achievements. (I consider that reason enough to hope she maintains the lead for a far more intricate – and leading – performance in “Blue Jasmine,” whoever her eventual competition.)
Indeed, my two favorite Blanchett performances went right over the heads of Oscar voters, both of them in the oddly awards-fallow period that followed her auspicious 1998 breakthrough in “Elizabeth.”
I remember watching her dazzling turn as flighty, awkward extroverted society heiress Meredith Logue in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” a year later, thinking she had to be a cinch for an Oscar nomination, if not the award itself: it's a character and performance so subtly attuned to the manners (and malice) of Patricia Highsmith's writing that's hard to believe Meredith is an original creation by Blanchett and Anthony Minghella.
Given the lingering hoopla surrounding Blanchett's unpopular loss to her “Ripley” co-star Gwyneth Paltrow, she seemed primed for a rebound nod, but the film didn't quite take hold with the Academy and the opportunity was lost. (She at least got a BAFTA nomination for her trouble.) The eventual Best Supporting Actress field was an unusually fine one – Angelina Jolie, if you've forgotten, beat Toni Collette, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener and Chloe Sevigny – but I'd have voted for Blanchett, in a heartbeat, over the lot of 'em.
Three years later, I was never under any illusion that Blanchett would receive any Oscar attention for her transfixing performance as an improbable terrorist in Tom Tykwer's vastly under-appreciated “Heaven,” though that had more to do with the cool, morally vacillating film – scripted by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski – than her own teasing, challenging, profoundly moving work in it.
Blanchett brooks no discussion of character motive in the film, yet her face – granted one glorious close-up after another – suggests endless possibilities. More, possibly, than the character knows herself. Kieslowski may not have directed the film, but her performance is plainly of a piece with Juliette Binoche's in “Three Colors: Blue,” or Irene Jacob's in “The Double Life of Veronique.” I wonder if it came up in the NYFF tribute. I hope it did.
Ditto her wonderfully broad turn as an adventure-seeking housewife in Barry Levinson's largely forgotten "Bandits," the best proof to date of her underutilized skills as an outright comedienne. Her introductory scene, performing culinary karaoke to Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero," has been rewound and replayed many times in this household.
My favorite from Blanchett's gallery of Oscar-nominated performances, meanwhile, remains her Bob Dylan – sorry, “Jude” – in Todd Haynes' “I'm Not There”: a wickedly funny stunt that reflects the political, social and sexual curiosities of an entire generation, but also a spiny, specific feat of individual characterization, not to mention a damn good Dylan impersonation. It's a performance that could be a cold technical exercise and winds up warmly, playfully alive; as pleased as I am that Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for elevating and complicating “Michael Clayton,” in what seems likely to remain her only such window of opportunity, I maintain that Blanchett deserved it in a walk.
That Blanchett is returning to Haynes in the upcoming “Carol” is enough to get me fidgety with excitement; that the project also marks a return to the world of Patricia Highsmith seems almost too perfect to be true. It's the most exciting of a host of projects Blanchett has lined up – including her directorial debut, “The Dinner” – now that her theater-oriented sabbatical in Sydney is over. It's good to have her back in full swing. Here's hoping last night's NYFF celebration, and her imminent Oscar nod, are nothing but mid-career markers.
What's your favorite Cate Blanchett performance? Tell us in the comments, and rank her Oscar-nominated performances in the poll below.
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