Australian politics, society & culture

She’s not there

The curious case of Cate Blanchett

Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies in STC's 'Big and Small'. © Lisa Tomasetti
Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies in STC's 'Big and Small'. © Lisa Tomasetti

Peter Conrad

Medium length read4500 words
 
Rupert is finally reaping what he sowed
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The curious case of Cate Blanchett
Peter Conrad
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Karen Hitchcock
The Anzac cult
Don Watson
The transit of Venus
Ashley Hay
Queen Elizabeth’s Melbourne Visit
Robyn Annear
The Warmun art movement
Sophie Cunningham

The magic can start from something as simple as two empty shoes, patiently waiting for a ghost to try them on. Before the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Botho Strauss’ Big and Small begins, we stare at a pair of ownerless Mary Janes, stranded on an empty stage. As the lights go down, Cate Blanchett sneaks on and wriggles into them; when the lights come up, the shoes neatly define the play’s protagonist Lotte, a version of Lewis Carroll’s elastic-bodied Alice whose wonderland is a bleak contemporary city.

In the play’s opening moments, Blanchett creates Lotte – a woman who is slightly too old for such bright, childish footwear and who should have outgrown the naive amazement with which she regards the world – and goes on to conjure up two ancillary characters. Upstage she glimpses a couple of men out for a stroll; unseen and unheard by us, they exchange banal remarks that for Lotte, who repeats them, are new-minted aphorisms. “Hear that?” is the first thing she asks us, eager to share her excitement. We can’t hear anything, but she can, and she marvels that these spectral presences are “so alive”. As Lotte’s 20-minute monologue continues, Blanchett shows what mysterious physical and psychological feats great acting can accomplish. It remoulds the body and enables a person to become someone else, or many other people; and it confers a visionary capacity on those who witness it, letting us eavesdrop on silence and see things that aren’t actually there.

Later in Big and Small, as Lotte attempts to communicate with indifferent strangers, Blanchett takes us through a course of what I can only call emotional aerobics. She expresses emotion without using words in a scene that consists of breathing noises, hyperventilating and retching in desperation. Stiff, funny walks illustrate her character’s dislocation from the human norm. To semaphore happiness, she does a wild, uncoordinated dance, and when she fantasises about an unavailable lover she uses her long arms and grappling hands to caress and undress her own squirming body, doubling as the man who seduces her. This may be what Edward Gordon Craig meant when he described the “über-marionette”, a “divine puppet” embodied, for him, by the dancer Isadora Duncan – “the actor plus fire, minus egotism: the fire of the gods and demons”.

At times, surrendering to Lotte’s fits and spasms, Blanchett looks possessed. She says that she challenges herself to “inhabit” the characters she plays, though they often seem to have invaded her, like alien spirits who might need to be exorcised. Still, they are seldom in residence for long. “There’s a thousand different mes,” she once told a Vogue interviewer. With freakish, even sinister, ease she re-creates herself from one assignment to the next, leaping across the gap between countries, centuries and genders.

Once, with only a weekend off as punctuation, she walked out of her life as a fey, bohemian London schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal and reincarnated herself as a cynical, serpentine Berlin temptress in The Good German. On another occasion she shed the armour worn by the Virgin Queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and immediately became Bob Dylan, frizzy-haired and twitchy from amphetamines, in I’m Not There. She has a way of reassembling her features – small feline eyes, infinitely flexible limbs, a voice that contains an orchestra of accents and octaves – so that when she turns up as a grimly humorous nurse from Mudgee or a decadent Russian countess in Paris, a pointy-eared elf or an impish male pop singer, a KGB killer or a superannuated New Orleans vamp, you’re initially uncertain that it is Cate Blanchett you’re seeing.

*

Sometimes she, too, has her doubts. This April on his BBC talk show, the cheeky Graham Norton asked about the double whose rear end deputised for hers in Elizabeth. “I don’t know whether it was my bottom or her bottom in the end,” she giggled. “I didn’t really look that closely. But you don’t see your own bottom very often, do you?” She probably enjoyed believing that the editors had grafted a section of someone else’s body onto hers.

The masks of comedy and tragedy, symbols of drama, are both potentially present in Blanchett’s malleable face. Playing a bruised, insecure young woman in Cabramatta in Rowan Woods’ film Little Fish, she deflects a compliment from her boyfriend by crossing her eyes and twisting her mouth sideways. She needs no distorting mirror: she seems to be made of plasticine, not skin and bone. In The Missing, Ron Howard’s Western, she unleashes a primal scream of anguish when she comes upon the tormented remains of her lover, butchered by Apaches. Her mouth stretches wide to unleash her misery until it swallows up the rest of her face: it’s like watching the Munch painting come to life. One morning, when Blanchett was ten, she watched her father leave for work; killed by a heart attack a few hours later, he didn’t return. Reflecting on that terrible day, she combined sensitivity and ruthlessness in a way that is often characteristic of great artists: she called bereavement “a strange gift”. I think she meant that an actor – who volunteers to experience the pain of others – should be grateful for suffering, which confers an advanced degree in emotional awareness.

Acting like this is not a matter of mimicry or a display of technical skill. It is a lie that tells us existential truths about identity and individuality; perhaps it whispers that there is no such thing as either. Only actors have the courage to release alternative selves that the rest of us repress. Re-creating themselves at will, they operate in a shadowy region between being and nothingness. Blanchett, who materialises out of the darkness to put on Lotte’s shoes, always seems to be on the point of dematerialising, vanishing in order to assume another form. A man at a bus stop asks Lotte, “What kind of woman are you?” She is neither young nor old, and he says she looks “chalk-pale – you’d be invisible by moonlight”. Martin Crimp, the play’s translator, may have been remembering Anthony Minghella’s description of Blanchett’s “chalky phosphorescence” when he settled on that phrase.

Questioned about the person behind all her personae, she once said: “I’m more interested in the character than I am in myself.” Required to be herself in interviews, she looks uncomfortable. Her head bobs back and forth, baffling any attempt to get her face into focus; her hands flap to set up a protective screen. She reacts as Bob Dylan does when he retreats behind dark glasses and leads pursuers on an erratic chase in I’m Not There, and the title of Todd Haynes’s film – in which Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale and others also play Dylan at assorted times and in different moods – could be Blanchett’s motto.

The spectacle can be alarming. When Blanchett took the STC production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to New York, a local critic speculated that the crazily volatile heroine might be suffering from “multiple personality disorder, underscored by hyperkinesis”.

Blanchett concedes that a talent like hers might be an affliction. Interviewed in 2006 by the New Yorker, she said: “Acting takes its toll on people. There’s a kind of madness in it that’s thrilling and wonderful but also can be incredibly destructive”; without her stalwart husband Andrew Upton, she reckons she “probably would have imploded”. Talking to the Guardian in 2007, she mused about the vicarious experiences actors enjoy. She had never, she said, committed a murder (except in Tom Tykwer’s film Heaven, where she plays a vigilante terrorist who guns down a drug dealer). “But that’s the fun of the job,” she added. “You enter into dangerous territory, safely.” The adverb was an afterthought. Blanchett is elated by danger, and doesn’t rely on a safety net when performing her high-wire antics.

Geoffrey Rush, who appeared with her in 1993 in David Mamet’s play Oleanna, calls her “amorphous”. From anyone but a fellow actor, this would be a slur, implying that she is bulbous, blobby. As Rush uses the word, it’s the highest of professional tributes. The novelist Will Self interviewed her during her West End run in David Hare’s Plenty in 1999, and later argued with Marianne Faithfull about her size. Faithfull thought she was tall, Self insisted she was short. In fact she can be either big or small, depending on need. Like Big and Small’s Lotte, she shuttles between extremes of stridency and diffidence, self-assertion and what Lindy Davies, who directed her in Electra at NIDA, calls “pure egolessness”. This lack of a fixed outline has made difficulties for Blanchett in Hollywood. Baffled by such originality, the studios have experimented with presenting her as a re-run of various old-time cinematic divas – of Bette Davis in the Elizabeth films, of Marlene Dietrich in The Good German, of Carole Lombard in the goofy comedy Bandits, of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. She will do anything once, and always does it superbly; the problem, for those who want actors to be familiar brands, is that she refuses to go on doing it.

The formless or unformed quality praised by Rush is what makes Blanchett’s rare portrayals of Australian characters so true and touching – sketches of her origins, and of a country that used to view everything beyond its borders with scepticism or wide-eyed bemusement. Her plain, flat-voiced nurse in Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road, captured by the Japanese after Singapore falls, shrugs “Could be worse, I suppose” when her ship sinks; later her eyes moisten with homesickness as she listens to a hummed performance of Dvorák’s ‘New World Symphony’ in a prison camp. In Gillian Armstrong’s Oscar and Lucinda, with a workaday face that no one had yet called beautiful, she is best when staring with unrequited adoration at Ralph Fiennes, a nervy new arrival from an older, more complex world. As the defeated Tracy in Little Fish, she has a laconic stoicism that is heartbreaking. Her mother encourages her to be satisfied with her job managing a video store. All Tracy says is “Mu-u-u-m”, but the longer Blanchett elongates the whining vowel the more regret, frustration and muffled rage she packs into it. Finding her way ahead blocked, Tracy sighs “Right” or “Good”, and the way the words are delivered demonstrates how Australians use them with dry, unoptimistic irony.

Blanchett’s slippery fluidity makes me suspect that she might be some kind of mermaid. Water is a motif in her comments about acting. “Fluency” is what she admires most in a performance; after meticulous research, she likes to discard her notes and “dive in”; when she’s in the audience, she wants to “get immersed” in the show. Sometimes she is literally amphibious. Lucinda first emerges from the depths of a pond, breaking through the muddy surface to splash about, after which she floats on her back and stares at the sky. In The Man Who Cried she performs somersaults in the foetal position in the pool of an ocean liner. Tracy in Little Fish seems happiest crouched underwater in a suburban swimming pool, and at the end she recovers from tragedy with a purging dip in the ocean. One of Blanchett’s shrewdest perceptions about Botho Strauss’ Lotte also uses a metaphor from marine life: during the production’s recent European tour, she remarked that the character is “sponge-like” – though perhaps she was thinking of an octopus with its greedy suckers or some kind of omnivorous ray, rather than something passively porous. With a tough candour that applies to Lotte and perhaps also to herself, she went on to say, “If she sees something or hears it she will absorb it. That’s what is so off-putting to the people she encounters. They find it all-consuming.” I can imagine that to be observed by Blanchett might feel like being eaten alive.

In spite of her desire to disappear into the characters she plays, Blanchett’s performances do offer confidential glimpses of the actor behind the scenes. In Elizabeth, she consolidates power by imposing herself theatrically. We see her anxiously trying out her grand speech about the Act of Uniformity and the Book of Common Prayer; by the time she addresses her disruptive court, she is word perfect, every inflection precisely calculated. The film concludes with the cosmetic manufacture of the icon that established Elizabeth’s dominance, which resembles a movie star’s early-morning session with dressers and make-up artists. Her hair is cut and dyed, her face plastered white. Her head, separated from her body by a frilled ruff, looks as if it were being carried on a plate. “I have become a virgin,” she triumphantly announces. Her final court appearance, ‘persona intacta’, is like a red-carpet walk at the Academy Awards, though no interviews are permitted. Of course this is not Blanchett’s own ‘process’, to use the word that actors favour when describing their preparatory work. Elizabeth’s painted face is impenetrable, whereas Blanchett allows thoughts and feelings to seep through her skin. There’s an astonishing scene in Heaven when the prosecutors tell her that the bomb she planted has missed its target but killed four innocent bystanders. She turns pale and freezes, momentarily stunned by shock. When this merciful anaesthetic wears off, she utters a howl of denial; her spine seems to melt so that she can’t sit upright and slumps to the floor, unconscious. Her brain has stopped working, unable to take in the intolerable knowledge of her guilt. As we watch, she turns herself inside out.

Her virtuoso turn as Hepburn in The Aviator begins with a lecture on the veracity of theatre as opposed to the fakery of movies, declaimed during a round of golf with Leonardo di Caprio’s Howard Hughes. Yet this woman, as Blanchett shows, was made up of defensive affectations – the haughty gait, the strangulated vowels, the explosive staccato laughter. “Stop acting,” Hughes tells her after she announces that she’s leaving him; she denies that she’s putting on an act, and he says that she no longer knows the difference. Blanchett does, however, and unlike Hepburn she lets the actressy mannerisms slip. When di Caprio negligently tosses her an apple, she catches it with an expression that simultaneously suggests her recognition of what he feels and her remorse at her inability to reciprocate; smiling and weeping at the same time, she superimposes the comic and tragic masks. In another scene, Hepburn warns Hughes about the perils of fame and advises him not to “let people in”. Blanchett both flouts the rule and obeys it. We can see into her characters but are barred – by her deceptive insistence that she’s not very interesting – from her private life.

Where, however, does she find all those invented beings? She is an artist whose medium is her own body. In this she resembles a dancer, which happens to be one of her supplementary skills: her great regret is that she never worked with the choreographer Pina Bausch. She dances politically in Elizabeth, using the formulaic poses of the courtly volta to get close enough to her lover Dudley to whisper endearments; in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the young heroine’s expertise as a classical ballerina defines her chilly narcissism; in The Man Who Cried, the spangled nightclub act of the Russian countess – legs sawing through the air at geometrical angles while the rest of her bumps and grinds – tells us all we need to know about the woman’s sexual rapacity.

There’s a different analogy for this business of nurturing another being inside yourself: the character is an embryo to whom the actor gives birth. Blanchett discovered she was pregnant while playing a pregnant reporter in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. A cast of her belly was needed in order to prepare a prosthetic baby bump; she stripped naked and, after being smeared with lubricant, was pressed into a corset of wet plaster that constricted her breathing and made her faint. When she came to, she suspected that life might be imitating art, and a medical examination confirmed her guess. She describes parenthood as a game of genetic chance, a form of biological play: it’s about “knowing what cards you’ve got and then throwing them up in the air”. That’s also a prescription for remaking yourself as someone else, as actors do. Blanchett is a creator, which means that she begets creatures. She uses that word to refer to Bob Dylan – “He was a creature,” she has said, not quite sure whether this spidery androgyne qualified as human – and to the first of her three sons, Dashiell. She told the New Yorker that she worried she wouldn’t be able to flesh out her role in Veronica Guerin, about an Irish journalist murdered while investigating the drug trade, because she felt “so filled up with this creature we’ve created”. (Needless to say, she managed it: her Veronica, looking not unlike Princess Di in her landmine phase, is pushy and reckless, fatally infatuated by the stardom that is a by-product of her crusade.)

Not content to produce only Dashiell, Roman and Ignatius Upton, she splits herself down the middle in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes and gestates a cousin. On a publicity junket in an American hotel, the immaculately coiffed movie star has a few minutes of catch-up chat with a daggy, bedraggled relative from Sydney called Shelly. Blanchett plays herself – or a self-critique, which cruelly catches the celebrity’s noblesse oblige – and a hunched, scowling biological variant of that self. The two women stiffly embrace, and have a conversation that is really a schizophrenic internal dispute. Shelly tells “Catie” that she was only ever stalked by the paparazzi when “they thought I was you”: the family resemblance got her into a club, but she was ejected when the bouncers realised that she was a faint and blotchy copy, not the original.

Having ushered her brood of characters into the world, Blanchett feels obliged to accompany them out of it. She has often rehearsed death. As the American tourist shot in Morocco in Babel, she bleeds on the floor with the mute fatalism of an animal. As the cancer-ridden old woman in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, she writhes in a hospital bed, her eyes lustreless, her lungs wheezing like a dusty accordion. David Fincher’s film is about ageing and the wisdom that, we hope, compensates for our physical decline. Benjamin, played by Brad Pitt, starts as a wizened, apparently senescent infant, then reverses time’s arrow by growing younger as the decades pass. Blanchett achieves something equally extraordinary: out of her ancient, pain-wracked body we see her juvenile self emerge. Reminiscing, she alternates between careless youth and elderly agony, coaxing us to understand and accept the temporality of our lives. The dying woman says she’s not afraid but curious, eager to know “what comes next”: actors seem able to report on experiences that lie outside the body, beyond the reach of consciousness. This is what Blanchett’s Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings shows Frodo when he looks in her magic mirror, where he will see “things that were, things that are, and some things that have not yet come to pass”. The line may be hocus-pocus, but when Blanchett says it – her face a white haze, her eyes glazed, her voice turned down to a murmur – I’m inclined to suspend my disbelief.

Galadriel is one of several roles in which she has been asked to exhibit supernatural powers. Not coincidentally, two of these – her Deep South soothsayer in Sam Raimi’s The Gift, and the New Mexico ranch owner who works as a part-time healer in The Missing – are for me her finest filmed performances.

Annie in The Gift is a psychic in the Georgia backwoods, reviled as a witch by local rednecks. (Billy Bob Thornton, who wrote the script, based the character on his mother, another smalltown seer.) Annie’s insights derive from intuition, not any mystical talent: Blanchett studies her careworn clients with weary empathy, though she can be crafty and brutal in pressing them to acknowledge the truth. Annie explains her gift by saying, “I see things and I sense things that haven’t happened yet, or that happened some place else,” which is exactly what Galadriel’s mirror places on display. In a genuinely prophetic nightmare, Annie has a vision of being bludgeoned to death. Blanchett recoils from the battery, though there is no weapon in view and no one to wield it: she is demonstrating effects without causes, as in an exercise at drama school. This sixth sense saves Annie’s life and solves a murder, so the film validates her gift, and Blanchett’s too.

In The Missing, her aura is more explicitly religious. Maggie is a medicine woman who can tug out diseased teeth or remove bullets and stitch up the wounds; when Apaches abduct her daughters, she engages in a mental battle with a native sorcerer who knows how to kill with a curse. He grabs a brush she has dropped, picks a strand of hair from the bristles, and uses it to cast a spell. She spends the night sweating and heaving, her skin inflamed and her eyes rolling. Next morning, having cheated death, she takes up her gun and mutters a prayer as she aims it at the shaman and his gang of cronies: “Mother of God, you watched your child suffer. Stop my hands from trembling.” As with the ethereal Galadriel, and Annie who conducts séances at her kitchen table, Blanchett makes sense of these occult transactions: after all, acting involves a similar abracadabra. Her profoundest, wariest remark about this occurred in an interview in 2006, when she said, “There’s something about being an actor that is shaman-like. It can produce a great deal of superstition in terms of how you connect to it.” The image of connecting implies that she makes contact, when she sets her mind to it, with some rarefied force field – a kind of spiritual electricity that travels through her like a bolt of lightning. Worried that she had given too much away, she curtailed discussion by saying, “To talk about that is very private.”

The lesson of Blanchett’s tenure at STC, where she and Upton have been artistic directors since 2008, is that she is more at home in this domain of spirits than in the civic arena. The position has made her a public figure, which for someone so metamorphic is an awkward fit. Her political interventions – defending artist Bill Henson against the wowsers, or criticising national deference to America and calling for engagement with Asia – have restated liberal platitudes; the blandest performance of her career is her brief contribution, dressed in the smart-casual uniform of a female CEO, to an advertisement supporting the carbon tax (though I also find her uncharismatic when she endorses the skincare product SK-II or sings the praises of emu oil). She and Upton are due to give up managing STC next year; this will free her to spend more time being other people – arguably a higher calling.

At the end of Big and Small, Lotte sits in a medical waiting room with some of the neurotic characters she has encountered on her wanderings. All the others have their maladies treated, but when Lotte’s turn comes she tells the white-coated doctor, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” He suggests she should leave. “Yes,” Lotte replies, with a quiet, contented gravity; she then strides off, disappearing into the backstage obscurity from which she came. The actor, Blanchett once said, is in part an anthropologist, whose job is “to show what it means to be human”. But doesn’t this suggest that the frailties of humankind are being studied, inquisitively and with infinite compassion, from a position somewhere outside or above the world in which our messy tragicomedy takes place? The man who meets the spookily luminous Lotte at the bus stop guesses she is an angel. I left the theatre in London wondering if the same might be true of Blanchett.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad is a writer, academic and regular contributor to the Observer. His books include Verdi and/or Wagner, The Art of the City and Modern Times, Modern Places.
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