You will certainly have a favorite Cate Blanchett performance: if you have followed the Australian star throughout his thirty-year career, there are certainly some high points than others, according to your very personal yardstick. Perhaps you will choose one of her great dramatic tests: I think of Blue Jasminethe unstable heroine at the center of the character study of Woody Allen giving her her second Oscar; or to the character who gives the title to Carol, Todd Haynes’ ecstatic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel that allows her to give us an acting lesson in repression and passion. Or maybe you’ve been lucky enough to witness Blanchett’s work firsthand in the theatre, which has given her the opportunity to measure herself against authors such as Shakespeare, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. Or maybe you prefer one of her quirky sidekick roles, like the perfectly calibrated portrayal of her that she gave Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (first Oscar) or the disheveled personification of Bob Dylan of the mid-60s in I’m not here.
Detour as voice actress (menacing Kaa from Mowgli – The son of the jungle), fantasy icons (Galadriel in the trilogy of Lord of the Rings), ultracamp villain (Hela in Thor: Ragnarokthe evil stepmother of Cinderella or the Nazi with a Louise Brooks bob Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), unforgettable parts in delightful choral comedies (The Life Aquatic by Steve Zissou) or irritating (Don’t Look Up): you could choose a world-class performance from each of these categories. When someone asked me this question a few months ago, I personally chose the season 3 episode of Documentaries Now! in which he gave a parody of Marina Abramović’s installation The Artist Is Present. Blanchett’s Izabella Barta is, like her real-life model, one performance artist which stages conceptual paintings full of screaming, self-harming, staring and walking through obstacle-filled rooms with a trash can on your head. The skit ends with Izabella’s elaborate revenge on her ex, who is still a part of the art world. You will not find a better example of the ridiculous and the sublime at the same time. Blanchett’s enigmatic smile in the finale would dwarf even Mona Lisa’s.
But then it came TÁR (in Italian theaters from February 9, ndt). Todd Field’s first film in 16 years follows the life of Lydia Tár, the closest thing to a rock star in the world of contemporary classical music. A former prodigy pianist turned conductor, she broke through the famous crystal ceiling and conquered all possible recognition, reaching the pinnacle of her profession. We don’t see her rise to fame, but we certainly witness her fall: when we leave Lydia after two and a half hours of filming, her wax wings have melted and she has plummeted from those lofty heights. As he’s stated in many interviews, Field didn’t write her role with Blanchett in mind: he wrote it specifically for her, and he crossed her fingers that the star would accept her part. Seeing what these two have achieved, telling the story of this genius of symphonic music, allows us to witness another artist at his best expression. TÁR it’s a film that leaves you with more than one question. The first: is it possible to separate the beauty of art from the dubious morals of those who create or interpret it? But the second is even more crucial: is Cate Blanchett the greatest living actress?
The way Blanchett portrays this highly complex woman as playing an entire inner symphony demonstrates that she is working at levels that place her on a totally alien planet compared to her colleagues. Lydia Tár gives her the chance to take the stage like a giant among mere mortals, and to find a completely personal way of staging her nervous breakdown. An orchestra conductor is the one or the one who knows how to control the tempo, as Tár herself says to Adam Gopnik of New Yorker during the interview that is seen at the beginning of the film. Yet she cannot control her instincts, her desires, the meaning of her role or the consequences of her actions. It is both the portrait of a divine talent and a woman who falls apart.
And even though Blanchett subjected herself to a very strict regime before filming – she learned German, the art of conducting and even how to play piano pieces convincingly: and all this in the hours off from her other countless projects – you never feel like you’re seeing the outcome of that effort. Many performances, especially in recent cinema, want to show you the process behind it: “Look how much I dug into the character! How I immersed myself in this role!”. There is none of that in Blanchett. Every gesture of hers comes from the theatrics of Tár herself, whether it’s on the podium or she’s exercising her power over whoever stands in front of her. You keep forgetting that you are looking at an actress, even though of course you constantly recognize that behind the character is one of the most recognizable stars on a global scale.
There is a real fluidity in what Blanchett does in bringing this very delicate character to life, which is both an example of an actress wholly in tune with the part but also not surprising, at least if you know her filmography. Blanchett can be great but also do “so small” things, be submissive or femme fatale; she played great archetypes and their own deconstruction, she played against herself (Coffee & Cigarettes) and given his personal version of “reading the phone book on stage” even doing it through 13 different characters (Manifest). What unites all these roles is the sense of challenge and a flow that seems very loose. TÁR it fits into both spheres of his creative process: it is no coincidence that Field thought that Cate might be the only person capable of embarking on this project.
Much of what makes Blanchett’s work in TÁR so dynamic it was already implemented in the film that consecrated it: Elizabeth. This 1998 portrait of Elizabeth I, battling conspiracists and contenders for the throne, began with a very young princess who wanted nothing more than to frolic in the fields with a Joseph Fiennes at the height of his 90s sexyness. Blanchett’s job was to take a melodrama that begins with a simple “Little girl, you will soon be a ruler” and turn it into a period thriller full of intrigue but not without depth. Her ability was exactly this: to show us how Elizabeth is progressively comfortable in her role of power. When at the end of the film we see carnage in style Godfather and the monarch calling herself the “Virgin Queen,” we understand that the butterfly cocoon has become a bumblebee.
Flash forward 25 years – with a couple of Oscars along the way – and we find the other side of that performance: a modern day queen losing her empire and her power over everything around her. Try watching first Elizabeth then TÁR: you will discover Blanchett’s ability to get under the skin of women who contain multitudes. And you’ll also notice how far she’s gone in perfecting her own talent. “Art shouldn’t give us comfort,” she says performance artist in Documentaries Now!, “must be radical!”. It could be the actress’s own mantra.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned question: Is Cate Blanchett the best performer around? In terms of interpretive spectrum and ability to transform without ever losing that je ne sais quoi that we used to associate with movie stars, today very few are able to match it. But when it comes to showing you the whole human condition and all its possible states without giving you the impression that it’s pure acting, well, in that case our suspicion is confirmed: the answer can only be “yes”. Lydia Tár is a great artist who finds herself at the end of her reign. Blanchett makes you feel that you are watching a great artist who reigns before your eyes every time.
From Rolling Stone USA
Is Cate Blanchett the greatest living actress? | Rolling Stone Italy