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JUSTINE SMITH: Acting is all about transformation. Here's why Cate Blanchett is our greatest transformer

 Cate Blanchett in Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019).
Cate Blanchett in Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019). - Annapurna Pictures/via Postmedia

With mainstream and critical success, it’s difficult to think of anyone other than Meryl Streep as a rival to Blanchett’s talent

When we praise great acting, what we’re often recognizing is transformation. We cherish actors who actualize fantasy, who go beyond mere mimicry to seemingly slip into someone else’s skin. Few channel this power of metamorphosis quite like Cate Blanchett.

With both mainstream and critical success, it’s difficult to think of anyone other than Meryl Streep as a rival to Blanchett’s talent, notoriety and appeal. However, where Streep has settled into a routine, sometimes slipping into a strange parody of herself or her roles, Blanchett is hitting her stride. Over her career, she’s starred in movies as diverse as Elizabeth , The Lord of the Rings , The Aviator , I’m Not There and Thor: Ragnarok . She has two Oscars, seven nominations and has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. With her latest, Where’d You Go, Bernadette , she collaborates with Richard Linklater ( Boyhood and Before Sunrise ) for the first time.

Blanchett’s public image is likeable and warm, but she always remains somewhat mysterious. While many stars have embraced the accessibility of social media, she has avoided the online trappings. As a result, her personal life doesn’t bleed into her performances. Instead, she’s able to disappear into roles, unclouded by the machinations of fame and celebrity. Like the characters she often portrays, Blanchett’s true self remains hidden from the spotlight.

This is something about Blanchett that seems so natural, it becomes easy to take for granted. She thrives at playing people in the public eye — Queen Elizabeth, Katherine Hepburn and Bob Dylan are some of her best roles — she’s able to intimate a depth beyond what we think we know of the person. She creates her own character out of a public image. Rather than merely probing the surface, she seeks the brief moments where the curtain of persona is lifted and where these characters’ true selves come to the surface. She knows how to balance the inner world of characters with their public image.

Even her more “civilian” roles in films like Carol and Notes on a Scandal hinge on being watched:These are women weighed down by the expectations of the world around them. Her performances are about finding a sense of control, while elements of their lives teeter on the edge of collapse. At the heart of her work is the tension in how her characters present themselves to the world and who they become when they’re alone.

There’s a specific scene In Carol , an intimate lesbian romance set in the 1950s, that perfectly illustrates Blanchett’s knack for this. On a road trip, Carol stops in a phone booth to make a call back home. Before pressing the phone to her ear, she removes an earring, casting off the carefully calibrated cool that had governed the character up until this point. It’s a minuscule detail that grounds the scene in reality.

When her husband picks up, she hesitates for a moment before replacing the phone, not having said a word. Then, stepping out of the booth, Carol readjusts her earring. Like a switch being flicked on, she moves from invisible to visible: her back straightens, a smile crosses her lips and she gains an unmistakable bounce in her step. That moment of fear and vulnerability has been pushed deep inside, kept hidden from the world around her.

While actors like Christian Bale and Robert Deniro find their characters through the alteration of bodies, Blanchett (much like Streep) finds a voice. “The way people speak reveals how they think,” she said in an interview with the New Yorker. “The rhythm reveals emotion, it reveals intention.” The natural depth of Blanchett’s voice already has a significant draw, but she has an unusual talent for picking up the accents and cadences of others. Even within the same performance, the context and emotions of a scene can have a strong impact on the quality and tremble found when she speaks.

In Notes of a Scandal , she plays Sheba, a new art teacher at a small high school. Caught in a dull routine, she begins an affair with an underage student. Sheba is aloof and feminine: Blanchett’s deep velvety voice is transformed with a higher pitch, softer enunciation and a cloud around it that is full of doubt. She wraps her hair around her finger, blinks frequently and nervously touches her neck.

But the fragility and femininity that Blanchett is performing through Sheba is later revealed to be performative itself. As the character’s life begins to crumble, the walls of this act come crashing down. Stripped of comfort, respect and shame, Sheba’s voice becomes tougher and her gaze becomes hardened. The control she exhibited within the confines of her feminine performance has slipped away, and all that is left is an exposed nerve of anger and ruthlessness.

If our behaviour can be reduced to being nothing more than a series of performances, Blanchett has a unique talent for recognizing how often people in real life portray themselves like actors might. Her greatest moments are found in the confrontations and in the humiliations that force the mask that everyone wears to slip off. She plays characters who want to smooth out wrinkles, scars and imperfections, and she reaches the crescendo of her performance when that smoothness is revealed to be fabricated.

The director Elia Kazan once said, “A close-up reveals absolute truth,” and like all great stars, that’s where Blanchett truly comes alive. We can break down the aspects of her craft, but it does little justice to the magic she achieves on the big screen. When all words and actions are stripped away, and the camera moves in for her close-up, that’s where the tiny little miracle of her performance comes into focus.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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