Back on screens this week with the release of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, iconic Australian actress Cate Blanchett is adding a children’s fantasy film to her impressive list of achievements. She is one of the most decorated performers of her generation, counting two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, three BAFTA Awards, three SAG Awards, three Critics Choice Awards, and six AACTA Awards to her name. Accolades aside, her committed, truthful performances have won the love of critics and audiences alike during her two decades (and counting) of global stardom.
Blanchett began her career on the drama school stage and independent Australian cinema before rocketing to international stardom following her turn as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth. BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations followed, and her career turned towards some of the most prestigious productions across genres and budgets. She has created an iconic career: she has lent her meticulous craftmanship to some of the most recognisable historical and literary characters adapted for the big screen, and she rarely turns in an unmemorable appearance.
Blanchett seems to specialise in the otherworldly, supernatural, and ethereal. She excels at bringing a beguiling mystery to her characters, be they queens, goddesses, housewives, or con women. These hallmarks are aided by her complete commitment on camera. Regardless of the film’s genre or realism, she makes it believable and truthful. Her chameleonic talent for disappearing into her role of choice makes her one of the most interesting actresses working today; no films demonstrate this better than I’m Not Here, where she plays Bob Dylan alongside five other (male) actors, and her turns at 13 distinct characters in the film/installation Manifesto.
Blanchett’s rich filmography offers many gems – she can rarely be faulted for a performance, even if the rest of the film does not live up to expectations. She brings tragicomic desperation to her secret-keeping schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal; a worldly elegance to her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (becoming the first actor to win an Oscar for a portrayal of another Oscar-winning actor); and a desperation behind her reptilian mask as Cinderella’s stepmother in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 film. While Terence Malick’s Song to Song and Knight of Cups may not be his best, her performances in both are high points. This summer, she was back on the big screen in Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8, a move that showcases her endless suavity and killer looks.
Below, in release order, are possibly her five most iconic performances that define her range, artistry, and career.
Rather ironically, the Australian shot to fame playing a quintessential English monarch. Alongside countryman Geoffrey Rush and an all-star English cast (plus some puzzlers), Blanchett commands the screen with her portrayal of the titular ruler’s growth from imprisoned princess to European leader. Historical inaccuracies aside, Blanchett’s ability to capture the public and private personas of her Elizabeth I gives a multifaceted glimpse of this oft-depicted ruler. Blanchett reprised her role in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) – a move which made her the first and only actor to be Oscar nominated for playing the same character twice. The second film leans hard into melodrama and revisionism, but it (unsurprisingly) features another tremendous performance by its leading lady.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Casting Tolkien’s legendary characters was no mean feat, but Peter Jackson and company succeeded on almost every front in their stellar, sincere adaptations. Blanchett becomes the elven queen of Lothlorien, Galadriel, capturing the awe-inspiring force of light which generations of fans had previously only imagined. Additionally, Blanchett immediately sets the mythological, epic tone of the films when she delivers (in voiceover) the iconic opening speech detailing the One Ring’s history. She aptly captures both the elven queen’s steely power and a deep kindness towards Frodo and the Fellowship. Galadriel reappears in the other films, expanding her role from the books – a strong decision which adds coherence to the sprawling story. Blanchett’s ethereal presence makes Tolkien’s mythology almost tangible.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
The unfortunate presences of Woody Allen and Louis C.K. aside, this reimagining of A Streetcar Named Desire showcases Blanchett’s ability to command a screen and bring nuanced, honest humanity to a flawed – often hateable – protagonist. Watching antiheroine Jasmine destroy her life and the lives of those around her is massively entertaining and horrifyingly compelling. Blanchett keeps the audience firmly on Jasmine’s side while she lies left and right and manipulates those around her. An actress of less skill might have made Jasmine’s delusions and whims laughable and repellent; Blanchett, however, deals in true pathos. Female antiheroes are all too rare; seeing one played with pitch-perfect sympathy, honesty, and humour highlights this lack.
Blanchett’s latest Oscar nomination came from Todd Haynes’ achingly beautiful period romance, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. Blanchett and co-star Rooney Mara’s understated performances keep the forbidden romance from veering into melodrama, and Blanchett in particular is a master of hinting at the fears and dreams that lie just under her character’s guard. A scene about two-thirds of the way through the film, where Carol states that she refuses to fight an ugly custody battle for her daughter, captures a heartbreak with nuance and dignity. It may be one of the finest pieces of acting this decade, and only Brie Larson’s equally tremendous performance in Room prevented Blanchett from scooping up a third Oscar.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
While not everyone at ORWAV is a fan of Cate Blanchett’s performance or place in Taika Waititi’s screwball superhero outing, Hela is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best villains for the pure relish Blanchett brings to the role. Granted, Hela’s motivations are only slightly more fleshed out than the franchise’s standard universe-destroyers, but it is hard not to (briefly) get behind the Goddess of Death’s mission to take back the place she once inhabited in Asgard: after all, she was cast out to complete the erasure of Odin’s colonialist legacy. Blanchett commits fully to the psychedelic camp of Waititi’s vision, making Hela both a credible threat to Thor and a tremendously fun villainess in the vein of Ursula and Cruella de Vil – except that her sights are set on conquering the universe instead of skinning some puppies. With a sultry voice delivering both believable menace and well-timed comedy, she makes rooting against her delightful.