It’s well documented that many actors undergo a kind of transformation, sometimes physical, often emotional, to ‘become’ their character. Laurence Olivier apparently started with the shoes, and according to the director Lewis Gilbert, Michael Caine ‘became’ Alfie only when he went to the tailors and discovered Alfie’s sharp suits. Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are among the most famous protagonists of The Method, across a massive range of iconic roles from Daniel Plainview to Tootsie to Travis Bickle, from King of Comedy to Straw Dogs to My Beautiful Laundrette.
Many of my favourite actors are interesting in dull films, steal scenes where there seems like there’s nothing to steal, and most of all make me connect with their characters, beyond their star status. One of the most interesting actors working today is (the luminous) Cate Blanchett.
Before I start, let’s accept that not all her choices have been outstanding. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a pretty tawdry project, which seems to turn Elizabeth into some kind of heroic Pirate Queen, fighting the Spanish Armada from the rigging of her fleet…
On the other hand, her break-out role as Elizabeth is a stunning performance in a storming role; full of vulnerability, determination and courage. She was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love (I’m not sure what The Academy were on that year, as SIL also beat out The Thin Red Line for Best Picture).
As she demonstrated there, she can carry a film, and doesn’t take stereotypical studio choices. Perhaps my favourite performance of hers is in the overlooked Notes on a Scandal. She plays a fairly unappealing character who makes some terrible choices, and has to do all of this alongside an amazing performance by Judi Dench as Barbara Covett. However, she makes Sheba Hart entirely believable, full of vulnerability and unfulfilled passions. She behaves like the children she teaches, reaching out for people to take notice of her, utterly uncertain of who and what she is.
Her range is tremendous, and she brings something to supporting roles that could either sink without trace or descend into farce.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is a tremendous work of cinema, but they’re not blessed with female characters. Liv Tyler usually graces the posters, as the heroic Elven princess Arwen. But Arwen is a character for heroes, and boys who don’t need to play Dungeons & Dragons to get the girls. For the rest of us non-heroes, Galadriel is the real reason teenage boys play D&D. She helps the unwilling protagonists discover their quest, she’s smart, she’s nothing like the other girls and she’s just so floaty.
She glows through The Talented Mr Ripley, she makes Katharine Hepburn her own in The Aviator. Most of all, she’s always interesting. I like her performances more than many of the films she’s in; The Shipping News, The Gift, Charlotte Gray. She glowed again and sailed through The Curious Story of Benjamin Button, which frankly wasn’t curious at all, just dull. In Babel she had the good sense to get shot(!) early on to avoid the turgid nonsense that followed, and she even played Bob Dylan. And although I’ve not seen it, by all accounts she’s the most authentic element in the new blockbuster Robin Hood, in amongst historical anachronisms and wandering accents…
If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m a massive fan. I will watch something if she’s in it, because she’s always interesting, never seems like she’s ‘dialling it in’ and commands attention whenever she’s on the screen.