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Is Cate Blanchett Our Greatest Living Actor?

She has a slew of pantheon-worthy performances to her name — and her latest movie ‘Tár’ suggests the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!”

David Fear Oct 17, 2022

A half dozen Cates: 'Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull,' 'Carol,' 'Mrs. America,' 'Thor: Ragnarok,' 'Tár,' and 'Coffee & Cigarettes.' PARAMOUNT/EVERETT COLLECTION; WILSON WEBB/WEINSTEIN COMPANY; SABRINA LANTOS/FX; MARVEL STUDIOS; SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES; UNITED ARTISTS/EVERETT COLLECTION

You probably have a favorite Cate Blanchett performance — if you’ve watched the Australian actor over the last three decades or so of her career, there are undoubtedly a few turns that rank higher than others in your personal Cate canon. Maybe you go for the big dramatic swings: Think Blue Jasmine, the forever unstable heroine of Woody Allen’s character study that won Blanchett her second Oscar; or the title character of Carol, Todd Haynes’ swooning adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel that lets her give a masterclass in repression and passion. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to catch Blanchett’s theater work, which runs the gamut from Shakespeare to Chekhov to Tennessee Williams. Or you might have a soft spot for the more eccentric supporting roles, like the perfectly calibrated, just-north-of-kooky Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator that earned Blanchett her first Oscar, or her wild-haired personification of Bob Dylan’s mercurial ’66 phase in I’m Not There.

Voiceover bits (that menacing Kaa in Mowgli), fantasy icons (Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), camp villains (Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, the evil stepmother in Cinderella, a Nazi with a Louise Brooks bob in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull), memorable parts in ensemble comedies both great and grating — you could cherry-pick a handful of first-rate Cate work out of any of these categories. Had someone asked me this question a few months ago, I’d have gone with the Documentary Now! Season Three episode that parodies the 2012 portrait Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. Blanchett’s Izabella Barta is, like her IRL model, a performance artist who stages conceptual pieces involving screaming, self-harm, intense staring, and walking into obstacle-strewn rooms with a bucket on her head. It will eventually conclude with an elaborate revenge plot against her art-world ex. You won’t see a better example of the ridiculous and the sublime. The enigmatic smile on Blanchett’s face at the end would put Mona Lisa’s come-hither grin to shame.

But then came Tár. Director Todd Field’s first film in 16 years follows Lydia Tár, the closest thing that the contemporary classical-music world has to a rock star. A former piano prodigy turned world-class conductor who’s busted glass ceilings and racked up every accolade imaginable, she is an artist at the apex of her profession. We don’t see her rise, but we’re definitely an audience to her fall; by the time we leave Lydia two and a half hours later, her wax wings have melted and she’s plummeted from an extraordinary height. As Field has said in various interviews leading up to the film’s limited release on Oct. 7 (it begins a nationwide theatrical run on Oct. 28), he did not write this role with Ms. Blanchett in mind — he wrote it for her, and crossed his fingers she’d be game to do it. And to see what these two do with this flawed genius of the musical world is to witness another artist at the top of her game. Tár is a film that leaves you questioning whether it really is possible to separate the beauty of art from the morally compromised creator and/or interpreter of it. It also makes you wonder: Is Cate Blanchett our greatest living actor?

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There are no lists, no brackets, no attempts to rank one performer over another here. No one is staging a competition, or asking anyone to ignore the work done by any number of other highly recognized thespians. Yet the way in which Blanchett portrays this complicated woman of the classical world — to see how she plays not just the scales but an entire interior symphony — is more evidence that she is operating at a level that feels leagues apart from her peers. Lydia Tár gives her the chance to strut and fret upon the stage as a giant among mortals, and the opportunity to chronicle a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, completely of her own making. A conductor is someone who controls time itself, as Tár herself reminds The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik during an extended Q&A sequence early in the film. Yet she can’t control her impulses, her desires, her sense of entitlement, or the seismic rumblings beneath her fault lines. It’s a simultaneous portrait of a God-tier talent and a lady on fire.

And though Blanchett went through a rigorous regimen of preparation before the cameras rolled — she learned German, how to convincingly play several piano pieces, and the art of conducting during her off hours while working on other projects — there’s never the feeling that you’re observing the effort at the expense of the end result. So much of modern screen acting reeks of showing you the research and the process upfront: Look at how deep I dug here! Check out how immersed I was in this role! There’s little to no flexing on Blanchett’s part; any performative gestures or grandstanding comes from Tár’s own sense of theatricality, whether she’s behind the podium or exercising her power on everyone in her orbit. You keep forgetting you’re watching an actor, even as you acknowledge that a globally recognizable movie star is the one issuing proclamations, tearing down students, reducing underlings and ex-lovers to tears.

There’s a genuine fluidity to what Blanchett does with this minefield of a part, which is both a singular example of a performer completely in sync with a role and not a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to her filmography. Having logged years treading the boards in Australia prior to making movies, she’d already displayed an impressive range by winding her way through the Western canon. (Blanchett and her husband, the playwright Andrew Upton, were joint artistic director at Sydney Theatre Company for four years as well, which undoubtedly gave her insights into the institutional ins and outs of the arts orgs where Lydia wields her baton like a samurai sword.) She can go big or play things extremely close to the vest, be passive or vampy, switch things up on a dime. Blanchett has played archetypes straight with no chaser and crafted total deconstructions of the same, not to mention acting against herself (Coffee & Cigarettes) or doing her version of reading the phone book onstage 13 different times (Manifesto). What connects all of these different roles is the embrace of a challenge and a sense of flow. Tár taps into both of those aspects of her creativity. No wonder Field thought she was the only person who could pull this off.

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A lot of what makes her work in Tár so dynamic is already in place in what could be considered her breakthrough film: Elizabeth. This 1998 retelling of Queen Elizabeth I fighting off conspiracists and contenders to her throne begins with a very young princess who wants nothing more than to frolic in the fields and flirt with Joseph Fiennes at the peak of his rakish-sexy-cool Nineties phase. Blanchett’s task is nothing less than taking a “Girl, you’ll be a monarch soon” melodrama, transitioning it into a period piece turned pulpy, palace-intrigue thriller and adding a good amount of depth to it. She succeeds in doing exactly that, showing you how Elizabeth gradually finds a comfort with her newfound power without forgetting there’s still a heavy head wearing that crown. By the time she issues a Godfather-style clean-up at the movie’s end and addresses her subjects in the popular “Virgin Queen” persona most folks associate the historical regent with, we’ve watched a cocooned butterfly turn into a hornet.

Jump ahead almost a quarter of a century and several Oscars later, and we find the flip side of that performance: A modern queen who loses her empire and her grip on everything around her. Watch Elizabeth and Tár back to back, and you can see the consistencies in Blanchett’s ability to get under the skin of women who contain multitudes. You also notice how far she has come in terms of honing her talents, and how she seems more willing than ever to take serious chances. “Art is not supposed to be safe,” her thick-accented performance artist from that Documentary Now! episode declares. “It’s supposed to be radical!” It could be the mantra of the performer saying those lines of dialogue as well.

Which brings us back to that central question: Is Blanchett the best we have? In terms of range and her knack for transformation without losing that je ne sais quoi we associate with movie stars, there are few who could match her at the moment. But when it comes to letting you see the human condition in all of its various states and giving you the feeling that she isn’t acting so much as being in front of a camera? Tár merely confirms what we already suspected: The answer is a resounding yes. Lydia Tár is a great artist who finds herself at the end of her reign and end of the road. Blanchett makes you feel like you’re watching a greats artist coming into full bloom right before your eyes.

From Rolling Stone US.

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