The talent on stage could pull off the masks, but the audience gathered before them in Alice Tully Hall on Monday night was less blessed. It’s the Covid-Day celebrity red carpet for you!
It took 47 years for Film at Lincoln Center (née Film Society of Lincoln Center) to honor “the Meryl Streep of Down Under”, Australia’s own chameleon-in-residence, Cate Blanchett. To give you an idea of her range: Not only is she able to get away with impersonating Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn, she is nominated for an Oscar and even an Oscar for the effort.
The Chaplin Prize (named after its first recipient in 1972) was accompanied by a phalanx of co-stars from the winner’s brand, who presented a group of clips from films in which they appeared, then retired to shine the after – to party. Times have changed and the number of celebrities is on the decline.
Todd Haynes, who steered the actress to two Oscar snaps (Carol and I am not herethe movie that saw Blanchett’s turn as Dylan), was scheduled to lead “A Conversation with Cate Blanchett” on stage, but tested positive the same day and had to cancel. Strike Two: guest speaker Bradley Cooper, sound alley of nightmares co-star, likewise “didn’t feel well and couldn’t attend the festivities.”
It fell (upward) to Daniel H. Stern, President of Motion Pictures at Lincoln Center, to bring this bad news to the audience at Alice Tully Hall. Of course they answered en masse with a primal moan.
“I am here!” a statuesque celebrity trilled in the orchestra section. It was the winner of the evening, and the moans immediately and memorably turned into roars of delight. She proved enough.
Blanchett wasn’t entirely let down on her big night. Several of its directors have sent filmed testimonials of its considerable value. Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, who guided her through Where did you go, Bernadette, took it upon himself to make The Big Reveal: that she is half-Texan, half-Australian. Her father was an American naval officer who moved to Australia after World War II.
Martin Scorsese admitted that he not only enjoyed doing a movie with Blanchett, he felt a bit blessed by the experience. (His film was the biography of Howard Hughes the aviator and Cate was Kate—Hepburn.) “The role called for her to do something that I think is extraordinarily difficult, which was to take a very famous, extremely recognizable person and bring them to life as a character in our film,” said he declared. . “I discovered that was exactly the kind of challenge Cate was up for, and watching her take on that was truly a learning experience. Have you ever seen such a brave and daring actor of a part and at the same time so confident in its ability to face this problem head on?
Fellow Aussies Hugh Jackman and his wife Deborra-Lee Furness stepped in with happy sentiments. “We were in acting school around the same time and everyone was talking about Cate Blanchett,” he recalled. “You were, for us, the star in the north – your courage, your range of work that you do, your commitment to theater and your community. You are extraordinary.”
Such testimonials served as punctuation for film clips that illustrated the depth and breadth of Blanchett’s performances. Once the clips were over, the evening moved on to the chat part of the program. Deputy co-editor of FALC’s Movie commentary Devika Girish, after recording a previous podcast with Blanchett, took on the interview duties that Haynes had to do.
Blanchett Concentrate’s outburst in the film’s snippets left the actress a little shaky. “Sorry, I’m still in reel shock,” she said as she joined Girish on stage for the seated grill.
At 52, she’s the second-youngest person to ever receive the Chaplin Prize, so Girish logically wondered what about Blanchett’s upbringing set her on this professional path.
The answer was the midday movie on TV – lots of horror, lots of Basil Rathbone “elementary deductions”, lots of westerns his father loved. Also, “I caught Bette Davis at the end of her career, and I was completely obsessed with her.” And by one Davis doozy in particular: a 1973 TV movie titled Shout out, pretty Peggy, in which Bette had a son (Ted Bessell) who put his girlfriend inside a sculpture. (Blanchett, by the way, prefers Bette’s one-syllable pronunciation.)
But the performance that stayed with Blanchett the longest was a rare dramatic turn from an actress best known for comedy – Mary Tyler Moore’s portrayal of a mother mourning a drowned son in the Oscar-winning 1980s film ordinary people. “There was something about the seething frustration, rage and pain – and unexamined grief – about this woman,” she recalled. “I thought his performance was so full of history, but delivered with such restraint. It’s one of the performances that I really remember watching as a teenager and being hugely affected by.
How did growing up in Australia affect her as an artist? Blanchett greeted this question with remarkable candor: “Artists in Australia are not particularly valued by the government. It’s been a long time since Australians consumed their own cultural products, so there’s a wonderful lack of interest in what you have to offer as an artist – which is true, because you expect the oranges are thrown at you, and, when they’re not, you go, ‘Okay, that works.’
“If you had the opportunity to go overseas, you wouldn’t say to Rameau, ‘You won’t travel.’ You enter other cultures by entering their film culture or their theatrical practice, or their literary practice, whatever it is. Australia is a very interesting place to grow up, but I never thought I would be an actor. I sure didn’t feel like I was sitting here tonight. I’m sorry if I sound a little strange, but I’m extremely overwhelmed by tonight’s honor.
She gestured to the “Cate Blanchett” sign above her. “I’m not quite sure who this person is.”
Blanchett might be right to wonder who this person is, given how many other widely varying people she’s inhabited on screen in some 90 films. They all have, she hastens to admit, the same constant:Fear. Absolute fear. I’ve been married long enough now, so I can’t ask my husband anymore. I turn around and say, ‘Andrew?’ And he says, ‘It’s going to be fine.’
“This idea of figuring out how you do it, figuring out who you are, or figuring out your relationship to work, it’s just nonsense, I think. When things work, it’s all about the flow, and you don’t have to ask questions until the flow stops. If it flows, it’s easy, so you don’t think about the process. I think every project, every group of people you’re with, every director, every script, reveals everything you need to do. There is more inconsistency than consistency, but, if there was anything, it would probably be the fear of finally being discovered.
And what makes Blanchett want more? “It’s the conversation with people. I’m not being hypocritical in saying that every time a movie ends, I deeply feel what Liv Ullmann is describing of Ingmar Bergman’s last moment on set. She worked with him on Scenes from a wedding, and they literally didn’t say goodbye. He just walked through the door and left. It’s hard to say goodbye to these things. Every time I finish, I think, ‘That’s it. It is done. I move on to another chapter. There are so many other things to do in the world. Then you have a conversation with someone. It’s a wonderful idea. What they’re asking you to do is weird and impossible, and you think, ‘Oh, okay,’ and you start over. You start thinking about how much time you have left.
This thought led Blanchett to recall the 2010 Chaplin Prize winner, director Robert Altman: “Years ago we were talking about doing a version of Mata Hari, and we were talking about dates, and I was trying to move something,” she recalled. “Do you remember that wonderful documentary that Laurie Anderson did about the face where you split the face in half, and each half projects something different? I said, “I don’t know if we can do it in the next six months,” and he looked at me with the dead side of his face, and he said, “Cate, I don’t have much of time.’ You start thinking, ‘Well, how long do I have?’
But the immediate future of Blanchett seems all mapped out: three feature films and two television series. She expects close encounters of the first kind with Pedro Almodovar (A Handbook for Housekeepers), Warwick Thorton (The new boyin which she plays a nun who must care for a nine-year-old Aboriginal orphan boy) and Francis Ford Coppola (Megalopolis).