Thursday, August 6, 2009

There’s something about Cate

‘Our Cate’, as the Australian media love to call Cate Blanchett, has well and truly made it. She’s been in countless successful films, and is regularly on the red carpet at opening nights. But she’s one of the few stars who will always be first and foremost seen as a practitioner of the actor’s craft rather than an empty-headed celebrity. This blog entry is a little treatise of admiration for her – well, sort of – and a meditation on acting styles.

The other night I watched a great documentary on ABC 1, In the Company of Actors, that featured Blanchett. It’s a fly-on-the-wall study of the process of taking a successful Australian production – the Sydney Theatre Company’s Hedda Gabler – to New York.

The original season, directed by Robyn Nevin, was performed in 2004. It starred Cate Blanchett as Hedda, who agreed to the project because it was to be based on an adaptation of the original Ibsen play written by her husband, Andrew Upton. The cast would include actors of the calibre of Hugo Weaving, Aden Young and Justine Clarke.

We watch the cast rehearsing the play in Sydney, in a huge high-ceilinged studio, where they’re dressed casually and horseplay around in between finetuning scenes. Next thing they’re in New York, working out how to buy subway tickets, carrying out a technical rehearsal, experiencing their first taste of New York snow, and taking part in a Q and A with local high school students.

Despite the stellar cast, it’s Cate Blanchett who stands out in the doco, even in the rehearsal room. Cate can’t help but always be acting. In this doco, sometimes I swear she responds to the camera (despite herself, I reckon) and plays the part of an actress rehearsing a role. Not that she’s not actually rehearsing the role as well, of course.

Which leads me to the thesis of this blog entry. Forget the bad actors, I’m not talking about them, the ones who are stars first and actors second. (I’m also talking about film rather than the stage, as the latter necessarily involves exaggeration of movements, voice projection and so on.) When it comes to good film actors, I think there are two kinds – those who overtly dramatise the role, perhaps are in danger of overdramatising it, and those who disappear into it. Blanchett is definitely in the former category.

In the doco, the camera takes advantage of this quality in Blanchett. We see her dressed for her role as Hedda Gabler, hair up in a severe bun and wearing a very fitted Edwardian gown with a high collar, set to make her first entrance on the first night in New York. (We find out later that the audience has included luminaries such as Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep.) In the moments before she goes on stage she stares nervously around, breathes, drinks some water, waits. The camera at this point shows a quick series of stills of her performing these actions, rather than obvious motion. Blanchett’s whole persona lends itself to this beautifully. Again, she’s unconsciously acting being an actress waiting to go on stage.

You can’t fake this kind of, well, fakery. It has to be there, in the litheness of your movements as well as your intelligence, and the way that the two work together. That’s why Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow will never be great actresses – they’re reasonably intelligent but they can’t communicate their characters through their bodies that effectively. When Kidman tries too hard to do this, she’s ludicrous. Blanchett's lanky body, in contrast, drips affect, no matter what she's doing.

This category of actors show off their craft – you know they’re acting, you can see it, but does that matter if the acting’s good? I don’t think it does, mostly, in the same way that you might be able to see the machinations of a favourite writer but still love their work.

The other classic example of this style is, of course, Meryl Streep. Think of the mannerisms she employed in Sophie’s Choice, or the exaggerated accent in Evil Angels. Streep is always on show, always being seen, yet she’s mesmerising. Recently I watched her being interviewed by British talk show host Jonathan Ross about her role in Mumma Mia. She draped herself on the couch and smiled just a little too magnanimously, and she was stately, dignified and actorly. But she was also funny, ironic, willing to laugh at herself.

Emma Thompson’s another obvious example of this category – her style was just perfect for a classic melodrama like The Remains of the Day.

The danger with this kind of actor is that if they are let loose they may ultimately overdramatise, so it’s very important that the director reins them in. One of the few of Blanchett’s performances I didn’t like was her role as Katie Hepburn in The Aviator. A drama queen playing a drama queen? It was way too much (and she was too old for the role, I thought).

I sympathise with this kind of acting because I think I can understand it. It’s fuelled by a particular kind of sensibility that always needs to add another layer to life, to either send it up, ramp up its emotional volume, or both. It’s born of a compulsive need to comment on things, to reflect the world back at itself, through the medium of the body. It runs in my family – my uncle was an amateur thespian and my sister’s a drama teacher, and as a frustrated non-actor I’m always wanting to mimic people and dramatise the stories I tell others. I don’t think it’s necessarily an exclusively feminine tendency, but I think women add to it a further layer of culturally installed self-consciousness that men don’t tend to have.

There is a very different kind of actor that, as I said, inhabits the character so entirely they disappear into it. It’s not a matter of underplaying the role, but of letting one’s ego disappear altogether. Samantha Morton stands out in this regard, for example in her role as Deborah Curtis in the film Control.

At her best Kate Winslet does this too and Aden Young is simply brilliant at it, as he demonstrated in the role of Nat in the recently released film Lucky Country. And let’s not overlook Anthony LaPaglia: it’s been said of him that you can see him thinking. Finally, there’s Russell Crowe, bless his cotton socks, who despite his huge ego and the dramatics he gets up to with telephones in real life, is never afraid to play men of every stripe and character, and to ‘become’ them.

Ultimately neither acting style is innately superior to the other. Both styles remind us that no matter how obscenely rich and ridiculously feted they are, and even how absurd their private lives may become, good actors are first and foremost artists.


  1. Hmmm, I disagree with your assessment that Streep & Blanchett don't "disappear" into their roles, I find that they do superbly and that is their hallmark. I do agree with their tendency to overdramatize at times, but most always they bring a part to life and infuse it with such a unique kineticism which is in a way, true to life and form. But everything else I'm with you on. Blanchett & Streep are my inspirations as an actor, they are true artists of their craft and are the best the screen has ever seen imo.

  2. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks heaps for commenting. What I’ve written is very subjective, so I can understand that you might at least partly disagree.

    However, you’ve expressed much better than I what I was trying to say about the ability of Blanchett and Streep: ‘a unique kineticism’ that is ‘true to life and form’. That’s what I find intriguing about this group – I think they are ‘actorly’ and performative but there’s a truth there, an authenticity and talent that you just don’t find in, say, some of Kidman’s attempts.

    Anyway, we agree they’re both clearly worthy of admiration!