Saturday, November 08, 2003

Daphne Merkin's Cate Blanchett Profile in the NYT Mag

For quite some time Cate Blanchett has obsessed me strongly but I could never quite figure out why. I mean, Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Streep and Liv Ullman are also lo ultimo, or the best at what they do, which is acting. But there is something more about Cate Blanchett's project, the great work of her life, than there is to the other actors.

I think the key to Cate Blanchett and what makes her so haunting is Liv Ullman, who makes a brief appearance in Daphne Merkin's perceptive piece (p.78, Sunday Times) -- the most perceptive interview, incidentally, I have ever read on the mysterious subject of Cate Blanchett. Merkin mentions that Blanchett and Ullman have been talking. Apparently Blanchett is a fan of Ullman as director. Interesting. Ullman is definitely in that rarified stratosphere of world directors, after her work on Kristin Lavransdatter and Faithless, which made a strong showing in Cannes in 2000. But Ullman is more famous as perhaps the greatest female actress in the history of cinema, which, I would argue, also means that Ullman may be the greatest actor in cinema, period.

Ingmar Bergman is in my opinion the greatest filmmaker in the history of cinema. That lone Victorian-Modernist voice, so full of harsh close ups, post-Christian angst, Freud, Bach and Mozart, strange civil wars, failures of communication, discordant romantic betrayals interspersed with familial comfort all
served as background, in a way, to highlight Liv Ullman's historic performances. Ullman's strong work braught Ingmar's deepest feelings on human existence in the world. Bergman's pick up line on Ullman, it has been said, was "I believe that I will have a beautiful but painful tie to you for the rest of my life." Who wouldn't fall for a line like that?

Of course saying that is simplifying things greatly. Max Von Sydow served as Bergman's animus even while Ullman served as his anima, but I still believe that acting in cinema in the 20th century begins and ends with the Bergman-Ullman collaborations of high modernism. But this is a blog, so forgive me if I simplify a bit.

So that brings me back to Daphne Merkin's perceptive article on Cate Blanchett. Why would Merkin not draw the obvious comparisons to Blanchett, who is clearly Ullman's successor, or at least would-be-successor, in acting and not directing. Well, for one, we may be treated to Liv Ullman directing Blanchett as Nora in a film version of "A Doll's House." When Blanchett approached Ullman as a fan of her directing, it was a courtship of sorts. And the courtship appears to have borne fruit.

To a film geek like me this is big stuff. Then again, aren't we all film geeks now? Don't we all apply thought to the countless films we see -- on tv at the neighborhood bar, on TiVo, on Movies on Demand, on HBO, on DVD, at press screenings?

Anyway, back to the scariness of Cate Blanchett. I have never seen an actress so disappear into their roles in the manner that Blanchett does. That quality of acting is particular to her. She disappears into, say, the single southern mother in The Gift -- accent and all-- charging that character with her own peculiar cool energy. Meryl Streep also does this brilliantly, of course, with flawless accent, as well, but Streep does it with humanitarian intent in mind. Her characters are often (always?) flawed people whom she inhabits and makes touching, human, worthy of compassion. I'm thinking here of The French Lieutenants Woman, the tormented mother in Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie in Sophie's Choice. All of these flawed characters do not immediately elicit sympathy, but through the strength of her performances, Streep ethically forces the viewer to turn towards the characters and engage them as flawed but all too human.

Ullman's project, on the other hand, has evolved from the Bergman-centered expressions of angst and infinity rendered startlingly in the claustrophobic close ups where emotions are pushed to their outermost limits. I am thinking here of the scene in Cries and Whispers where the two sisters Kirin and Maria, long stranged and cold towards each other, put aside all differences as their third sister lies dying. In the close up, the two sisters come towards each other, fall into one anothers arms, embrace, kiss, and let all the years of animostity evaporate on screen. Dialogue dissolves into a particularly intense Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite No. 5. An infinity of emotions in one scene.

The evolution of Ullman's "activity" has now progressed from playing those roles for Bergman into a sort of multidimensional "conversation," or, rather, competition with Bergman in the realm of directing. Ironically she directs many films in which he actually writes the screenplay. A complex relationship, to say the least. Beautiful ... just like Bergman said in his pick up line.

But what does that have to do with Cate Blanchett? Well, Blanchett's project is not Meryl Streep's or even Ullman's, nor is it Daniel Day Lewis', who, though brilliant, sometimes seems on the verge of giving himself a mental breakdown, not so much dissolving into his characters, but conquering and enslaving them through violence, at risk to his own sanity. No, Cate Blanchett is the most interesting and strange case in that strangest profession of them all: acting.

Daphne Merkin gets it just about right here:

"A day or two before I meet her, I admit to a movie afficionado friend that I cannot remember the role she played in 'The Talented Mr. Ripley,' and he sheepishly concedes that he can't remember either. It was said of the great English character actress Peggy Ashcroft that she didn't have a face, and in the sense of not seeming to be fixed in her own physyognomy, Blanchett doesn't have one either."

That is precisely what is so scary about Cate Blanchett. Not the impossible talent, though it is doubtlessly there: but the fact that when one looks back to the actor of any one of her brilliant performances ... one doesn't know who to cheer. Who is Cate Blanchett? Is she the face of Donna Karan? Is she the fashion icon who appears on countless magazine covers yet displays absolutely no emotion to Merkin on the subject, even going so far as to show disdain for, what she calls "lipstick talk"? Is she Veronica Guerin? Is she the pregnant mother of a child and a wife? Who is she?

Merkin askes Blanchett if she considers Veronica Guerin's lack of box office success despite her strong work as a result of taking on a Julia Roberts-type role:

'''Who knows,'' (Blanchett) asks, putting her finger on the existential mystery that underlies the construction of any screen persona, ''who Julia Roberts really is?'"

And then I finally figured out what is so scary about Cate Blanchett. Blanchett is the mother and wife and actress and model-spokesperson who stares at us from the magazine covers and the screen, she is all of those things. But they are all roles, waystations on an unknown destination. Asking who is Cate Blanchett is like asking What is a Self.

Note to self: See if you can interview Cate Blanchett on her next press junket.

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