Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Cate Blanchett is part of the ensemble of Ocean’s 8, the movie that seeks to place women on an even playing field when it comes to the cultural representation of wisecracking burglars. I haven’t seen the movie, but look forward to it, because heist films present a formula I find almost irresistible, and that cast is a doozy. But let’s pause to consider Blanchett for a moment, and some of the early, lesser-seen entries in the filmography of someone who has quietly established herself as one of the best actors around.
The first time I saw Blanchett was the first time most people outside Australia saw Blanchett: the 1997 WWII drama Paradise Road. I still think this is one of Bruce Beresford’s gutsiest films, despite its wobbly moments, but the movie seems to have no public profile at all (it disappeared quickly in 1997, too). For many years, pop culture had a reluctance to acknowledge wartime Japanese atrocities, so Paradise Road may have been ahead of the curve on that point; it certainly doesn’t skimp on portraying the horrors of a Japanese internment camp. The cast of actresses is even more impressive than Ocean’s 8, with Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Jennifer Ehle, Pauline Collins, Wendy Hughes, and Julianna Margulies crowding the field. In many ways the standout is Blanchett, whose poignant role mysteriously becomes the heart of the movie. Roger Ebert criticized the film for being an anecdote—about how a group of women form a life-sustaining choir while imprisoned—rather than a full-fledged story. I suspect that might be one of the movie’s strengths.
Another under-seen Blanchett picture is Barry Levinson’s Bandits (2001), a very odd item. Like Ocean’s 8, it’s about thieves, this time a three-hander for Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Blanchett, partners in crime and shared affection. When the film is able to ignore the need to keep the story moving, it thrives; the stuff that works is all about behavior and outsider-ness and how actors can create a multiplicity of moods through sheer presence. Willis and Thornton were both in a groove they haven’t often captured since, and up-and-comer Blanchett is right there with them. But then this actress never seemed especially daunted by the stakes.
In this litany of early Blanchetts, I’d love to be more excited about two films directed by Gillian Armstrong, Oscar and Lucinda (with Ralph Fiennes, based on a Peter Carey novel) and Charlotte Gray, but although the latter contains a potent Blanchett turn, I can’t quite see how either movie comes to full, breathing life. Instead I’ll point in the direction of Tom Tykwer’s Heaven (2002). Like Eyes Wide Shut, it’s a project begun by one world-class filmmaker and completed by another—in this case, planned by Krzysztof Kieslowski, but shot by Tykwer after Kieslowski’s death. Blanchett plays an enigmatic woman who appears guilty of a monstrous crime. Giovanni Ribisi—bearable here in a way he rarely is—plays a policeman whose fascination with her leads the film to an unexpected, admittedly arty, but transcendent conclusion. Tykwer seems entranced by the Blanchett’s sharp intelligence and the architecture of her face (her head is shaved for part of the movie), and you can’t blame him. As these early appearances prove, she’s always been that good.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.