We Need to Talk About Cate
by Delaney Britt Brewer
Folks, Cate Blanchett has taken an Al Pacino style dive into over-the-top, camp absurdity, and no one wants to talk about it. I wish I could exactly pinpoint the moment where this turn happened, much like how Scent of a Woman took Pacino from being subdued and complex, and allowed him to morph into a stark-raving lunatic, tearing through the 90s like a mad king with an affinity for scarves. My theory is that, much like Pacino’s turn came because his pyrotechnic antics garnered him an Oscar, Cate’s two Oscars gave her the greenlight to double down on characteristics that later became cartoonish caricatures. But this turn happened over time, not overnight, which is maybe how she’s avoided the kind of parody that Pacino has endured.
Blanchett took home the statue for her portrayal of Kate Hepburn in The Aviator and her starring role in Blue Jasmine. Here we see the two strains of her acting that are now on steroids: anachronistic, ‘Mid-Atlantic accent’ acting and ‘Woman On The Brink’ acting. That’s it. Those are the two modes. Don’t ask for the nuance of Cate in Elizabeth — ‘cus you ain’t gonna get it.
The two most egregious examples of these binary modes are movies from 2015: Carol and Truth. I’ll start with Truth — a prestige-light film based on the memoirs of CBS Producer Mary Mapes, which centers around the last professional days of Dan Rather and the Killian documents controversy. In it, Cate plays Mary Mapes in full-bore ‘Woman on the Brink’ mode. She barnstorms offices, gesticulates wildly, and throws around papers like a Martian who doesn’t know what they are. It’s sort of like when I was a kid and would play-time “office” or “grown-up” — picking up books and randomly throwing them, as if the act of tossing around objects constituted adult behavior. The whole time watching I kept thinking: has Cate Blanchett never had a normal job? More on that later. I took a cursory glance at some interviews with the real Mary Mapes, who, of course, seems like a thoughtful, nice person. Not a wild-eyed, feral Lady Macbeth on the rampage looking at any moment like she might start feasting on your organs. Did Cate take the time to actually consider doing this woman justice, or was she like, “Nah, she’s getting the Cate makeover special, and she’ll LOVE it.”
Then there’s her turn in Carol based on the classic queer romance novel The Price of Salt (published later as Carol) by Patricia Highsmith. Say what you will about Highsmith’s alcoholic soaked self-loathing, but at the time, the book was revolutionary for featuring queer characters who ended on a note of hope instead of tragedy. As a young gay, I of course gobbled this book up, and found the drawn out tension between its main characters incredibly sexy. Welp. Throw that out the window with this film adaptation. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have the chemistry of an accountant and an excel spreadsheet, a perfunctory working relationship. Rooney phoned it in, but Cate dove headfirst into her other mode: ‘Mid-Atlantic accent’ acting. When the time came for Cate and Rooney’s big sex scene, I slumped in my seat with my hand partially covering my face. Instead of lust and longing reaching a much desired crescendo, I felt like I was watching Faye Dunaway in Chinatown; or Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest — portrayals both campy and terrifying. Was she going to bed Rooney’s Therese or start screaming at her about coat hangers? Still the movie got rave reviews. Cate got nominated for yet another Academy Award. And as of today, it boasts a 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In writing this, I was reminded of one of Cate’s MANY appearances on Charlie Rose. Actually, one interview in particular. In it, Rose leaned over in his signature boozy, predatorial, leering way, and asked Cate if she wasn’t an actor, what would she be? Cate offered up that she would have liked to have been a Butoh dancer. Butoh — a type of Japanese dance theater — was developed after World War II in part as a response to the horrors after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This avant-garde dance form was a revolt against the Westernization of Japanese dance, an expression of the trauma of war and industrialization. But hey, if Cate wasn’t an uber rich, award-winning, Armani Brand Ambassador — she’d be culturally appropriating the shit out of Butoh! To me, this offhand comment spoke to a kind of arrogance and pretentiousness — that strain of white colonial artistry that believes any and all art forms are fair game. And it’s this arrogance that I’m guessing led her to start stomping around a set and shaking her fists while delivering soaring monologues — acting with a capital “A.” But hey, listen, who am I to cast aspersions? I’m sure if Cate Blanchett performed Butoh, people would fucking love it.
Now, if this was a Tweet-thread, all of my mentions might scream: What about Elizabeth? What about I’m Not There? What about Notes on a Scandal! Did you ever see her in the stage version of Streetcar Named Desire?! You’re wrong about Carol! She’s perfect. And, except for that last argument, and the fact that I never saw her in Streetcar — I’d agree. Cate HAS been good. Indeed, brilliant. All the accolades heaped on her from the very onset of her career have been richly deserved. However, something happened. She has since derailed into lazy camp, and I don’t know if she’s ever coming back. And you know what, that’s okay. But this is a safe space for complaints. So I figured I’d lodge one.
Delaney Britt Brewer was a playwright for 10 years in NYC — member of Obie-award winning playwright group Youngblood, Dramatist Guild Fellow, and had multiple Off-Broadway productions, including a sold-out run at 59e59 Theater. Most recently she was Head Writer and Story Producer for Last Night’s Late Night by Entertainment Weekly — a daily show recapping the best moments of late night (in the style of Talk Soup). Before that, she was a Staff Writer for Sorry Not Sorry — an all female sketch comedy show for Go90, produced by Astronauts Wanted (Sony); and a Staff Writer for Season 2 of Tru TV’s You Can Do Better — part sketch/part doc series. She’s also done development work with producers like Lord & Miller (Into The Spiderverse); Mason Novick (Juno); and John Lesher (Birdman).
Photo of Cate Blanchett by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.