In a frisky segment of Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 omnibus comedy, Coffee and Cigarettes, Cate Blanchett plays a dual role as Cate, the Armani-clad rising movie star taking time out from her hectic interview schedule, and as her cousin Shelly, a sullen lump of a would-be rocker in a shagged black wig. The skit speaks volumes about Hollywood and its discontents: Cate is disingenuously modest and dying to get away; Shelly is snippy, barely in control of her jealousy and determined to catch her cousin in some insincere gesture of largess. Neither persona describes the real Blanchett, who’s unaffectedly gracious as she pours mint tea and does valiant battle on my behalf with a cookie wrapper in a hotel interview suite not unlike the one in the movie. Still, there is an oppositional edge to Blanchett, whom you can picture as the girl voted most likely to succeed in high school and also imagine as the spiky goth lolling in the back row, rolling her eyes at the brownnosers.
Tall, blond and rangy in heels and a fitted bronze suit (at 5 feet 8 inches, she says, she’s “the shrimp of my family”), Blanchett is every bit as fabulous offscreen as she is on, even after flying in from Australia to do two days of publicity. Her skin is as creamy as we see it onscreen, and you could cut yourself on those priceless cheekbones (“You have to light them, though, otherwise I look like a pumpkin”) as easily as you could on her quick, mercurial intelligence. Though she’s smart and funny and ready with an answer to almost any question almost before it’s out of my mouth, her own agenda is clear: While I may be here to noodle around Blanchett’s résumé, which is impressively long for a 37-year-old, and wonder why one of the most gifted actresses on or off Hollywood’s radar hasn’t had more leading roles, she makes it clear that she’s here to promote the three movies that have arrived, nicely bunched up in awards season, at least one of which may earn her a second Best Supporting Actress Oscar. (She won in 2005 playing Katharine Hepburn opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.)
As a very unhappy hooker trying to buy her way out of post–World War II Berlin, Blanchett is one of the best things about Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, an exquisitely mounted but bloodless black-and-white homage to Casablanca and other war movies of the 1940s. Slinky and elegant in to-die-for vintage threads by costume designer Louise Frogley (the actress got to keep the girdle, though looking at her slender waist, one wonders what use it’s being put to), Blanchett is at once a sinister and tragic stand-in for the destroyed soul of Germany. Shrouded in noir shadow, her sculpted face has the air of an ineffably beautiful ruin. Though she seems to channel Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich, in fact Blanchett boned up on a host of other movie stars of the period — Joan Crawford; beautiful, blond 1950s star Hildegard Knef, who’s famous for filming the first nude scene in German filmmaking; and, of course, Ingrid Bergman. She has a whole subtitled scene in German so fluent it wouldn’t have disgraced Dietrich or Greta Garbo.
“I think everything’s an accent, isn’t it?” she says when I venture that her oeuvre boasts a mastery of accents not her own (a robust Melbourne twang) to rival the Meryl Streep collection. “If I was directing someone and heard their accent slip, I’d say, ‘You’re not connected to the thought.’ It’s not just about slapping an accent on top of your performance. It has to emerge organically.”
Casual though she is about her own talent, Blanchett has a stage actor’s precise attentiveness to craft, and she’s extremely articulate about The Good German’s Brechtian theatricality and artifice. She wasn’t just channeling a siren, but slipping on the mantle of a ’40s movie star with a vastly different relationship to her director than most actresses enjoy these days. “Today you can feel, sometimes, that you’re an actor for hire,” she says, a touch wistfully. “With the great actresses of the 1940s, the director looked for projects that showcased, celebrated and developed an actor’s persona onscreen. In that sense, my relationship with Steven was quite old-fashioned.”
Like Martin Scorsese, who cast Blanchett as Hepburn, Soderbergh was astute enough to see Blanchett’s diva potential, but she may be living in the wrong movie era. Set her down among the emaciated twigs who pass for starlets these days, and she’s enormous in every sense. She has the charisma, the unorthodox beauty and the dramatic intensity of a 1940s superstar. She doesn’t “disappear” into her roles — that would be mere proficiency — but puts her own stamp on them, and she’s way too versatile to be pegged as a character actor. That wide, mobile mouth promises infinite possibilities of strength and vulnerability, and there’s a goofy screwball comedian in her who doesn’t get used nearly enough. Yet more often than not, she finds herself in subordinate roles that may help sell a movie, but sell her capabilities short. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, as Brad Pitt’s troubled wife, who’s shot by a sniper in the first few minutes, Blanchett has little to do but writhe filthy and half-naked on the dirt floor of a Moroccan hovel. Blanchett reveled in the intensity of working with Iñárritu, and she shrugs off charges that the director bit off more than he could chew with a huge ensemble and a global reach. “Things that are different always come in for criticism,” she says matter-of-factly. “You just have to brace yourself for it.” She’s less thick-skinned about the mixed advance word on Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal, an atonal melodrama in which Blanchett plays a disoriented high school art teacher who allows herself to be drawn into an affair with a 15-year-old pupil, then further entangles herself with a manipulative closet lesbian played by Judi Dench. It’s true that Blanchett and Dench’s overwrought dialectic wrings whatever fun there is to be had from a movie that feels like a cheap parody of a Muriel Spark novel. But when I tell her that Notes on a Scandal has already raised hackles among women who found both characters pathetic and demeaning, Blanchett bridles. She doesn’t lose her cool, but she’s clearly not amused, and shoots back with a prickly “I think its purpose is to raise everyone’s hackles. It’s a very spiky, difficult subject, about two women who are deeply, deeply lonely, and utterly isolated in their loneliness. It’s always disappointing when you make something and people take it on the shallowest level.”