Thursday, May 14, 2015

Birthday Take: Cate Blanchett in "The Aviator" (2004)

Left to right: Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett in The Aviator
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Cate Blanchett
Born: May 14, 1969 (46 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress - The Aviator (won) as Katharine Hepburn

The Take

There are few things as reliable at the Oscars as playing a historical figure. To make matters even more obvious, playing an Oscar-winning actress is a surefire way to sneak into the conversation in a film all about an eccentric tycoon who makes movies and flies planes. It is a love letter to cinema's perceived glory days in which Howard Hughes whisks away dozens of popular performers and gives Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese one of their finest collaborations to date. However, among the many people to be nominated for this treasure trove of Oscar-bait, the one that walked away with an actual win was Cate Blanchett as none other than the charismatic beauty of Katharine Hepburn, who dated Hughes for a momentary period within the film.

It seems fair enough that Blanchett would be called upon to play this role. While it largely could do to similar physical builds, it also is because both are considered one of the best of their era. True, Blanchett is only halfway to tying Hepburn's Oscar wins, but she nails the accent and demeanor, which were very iconic and indicative of the character. Her accent is thick and her mannerisms are constantly wavering. It can fall too easily into camp if not careful. However, as one of the few times that Hepburn has been portrayed behind the scenes, it becomes at times uncanny and steals the show from DiCaprio. Of course, it is a battle of the egos and neither are allowed to be compatible because of this. However, it builds an impressive reputation that makes it odd that Hepburn eventually disappears from The Aviator and it is mostly Hughes' journey into personal madness. 

For what it's worth, the biopic is a film that is easy to create, but hard to make a lasting impact. Every year, there's a ton of films highlighting various important figures. Last year's Best Picture line-up saw several including Selma, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. However, there were many that missed the cut including Unbroken and Get On Up. It is tough to make these films as more than just literal stories about these people's lives. Whatever drew director Martin Scorsese to this film resulted in something unique and inspiring. He created an epic that was technically impressive as well as featuring some of his more reserved performances and comedic moments. It was a spectacle on a grand scale that tears away the hollowness of its characters and turns into an Icarus parable that features plenty of OCD and tragedy along the way.

It is strange to notice that only Blanchett won because of how little screen time she has comparably. However, it is a testament to either how well she did or how much the Academy loves Hepburn - which has been well documented. Either way, it was no easy feat and Blanchett's ability to play her with poise allowed for the icon that we have seen on film to take a private and interesting tale into new and interesting directions. She consults Hughes in ways that are against the mold of the other characters. She fights for her sanity and independence in ways that are immediately striking and leave one of the better performances of that year. In fact, it was only her second time at bat and she would go on to win another Oscar, her fifth nomination total, in 2014.

If one is to suggest an actress' capabilities by her Oscar nominations, there's few contemporaries on par with Blanchett. For starters, she has a sense of prestige to her role without diving into the pretentious side. She can embody characters that are strong and confident while also being accessible. If anything, she continues to delight with her interesting acting choices, which features this year's Cinderella. However, it seems likely that one of her best roles is playing someone associated with having the best female roles in older cinema. That isn't a bad thing, as she manages to raise the performance beyond passable. However, it does leave quite a legacy ahead of her, for which interesting things are bound to happen and of which she is likely to rack up even more nominations for her impressive body of work.

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