"Clocks, watermelons, the roar of the universe," Cate Blanchett replied in typically gnomic fashion when asked recently what Bob Dylan meant to her.
The Australian star has just won a Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her performance as... Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. Haynes chose Blanchett – one of six actors who portray Dylan in the movie – because he wanted a woman. "I felt it was the only way to resurrect the true strangeness of Dylan's physical being in 1966, which I felt had lost its historical shock value over the years."
Judging by the critical response, it was an inspired choice. "Blanchett is, appropriately enough, truly electrifying," wrote Todd McCarthy in Variety, pointing out that the Australian actress had "uncannily got down the skittish movements, wary eyes, curt mumble and occasional flashes of brilliance, and comes far closer than anyone else to approximating the Dylan the public knows."
At precisely the moment she was being feted by the Venice jury, audiences and critics in Toronto were responding equally enthusiastically to her second stab at Queen Bess, in Working Title's Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
This versatility underlines why Blanchett is one of the supreme screen actors of her era, but also underlines why she is not one of its best-loved stars. She is too quicksilver, too spiky. Contemplating her career, it is hard not to be reminded of another equally imperious and volatile performer from the golden age of Hollywood, namely Katharine Hepburn.
Of course, Blanchett gave a virtuoso – if extraordinarily mannered – performance as Hepburn opposite Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes in Scorsese's The Aviator. She had the Hepburn hauteur and that famous drawling East Coast voice down perfectly. The trick to portraying a real-life character like Hepburn, she has suggested, is to research exhaustively: study the voice and mannerisms, watch the old interviews, read the books.
Then, when the job begins in earnest, "throw it all away and rely on instinct".
It's striking how closely her career resembles that of Hepburn. "Katharine of Arrogance", Hepburn was famously nicknamed. In the 1930s, her headstrong ambition was frowned on in Hollywood. Nor did the studios care for her choice of parts. Like Blanchett, she had an androgynous quality and a strength of character that discomfited her bosses. They couldn't understand why Hepburn wanted to cut her hair off and play a girl impersonating a boy in George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett. She was once voted "box-office poison" by US exhibitors.
Nobody would be as crudely sexist today about Blanchett, yet she has been criticised for her adventurous choices of role. She never plays bland or wholly likeable types. She is not going to be the girl-next-door or the deferential wife. Sometimes, her sheer force of personality can count against her; in Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal, though she gives a typically intelligent, nuanced performance, you simply can't believe in such a strong actress playing the weak-willed and fey Sheba, the north London mum and teacher who begins an affair with a teenage schoolboy.
Sometimes, her performances can seem eccentric and overstated. As Lola in Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried, she adopted a Russian accent so thick it might have embarrassed Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb. In The Good German, her stab at playing a Marlene Dietrich femme fatale was ridiculed in some quarters. "Cate Blanchett should be brought to justice by some military police force for those ridiculous contact lenses that make her look as if someone's stuck two liquorice allsorts into her eye sockets," complained The Guardian.
At least, Blanchett is never bland. When she is bad, she is spectacularly bad. This comes from boldness. "If you know you are going to fail, then fail gloriously," is one of her slogans. Her interpretations are so recklessly full-blooded that if she is hitting a discordant note, the performances can be painful to watch – and listen to.
Thankfully, the off-key performances are rare. She is notoriously picky about her roles. "I've got a great agent," she once said in explanation. "She said to me, when I first made a film in America, 'Do you really want to do this? It is going to be on the video shelf for the rest of your life and you'll always know you made it.'" Ever since, if a film hasn't passed the "video shelf" test, she has refused to do it.
Nor is she keen on small-talk with journalists. I interviewed her before The Aviator came out and made the mistake of mentioning her bath in Brighton. At the time, she lived in the seaside town. A story picked up in the press suggested that Blanchett had caused Brighton to come to a standstill while she had a huge bath installed in the top floor of her house. It had been a complicated manoeuvre involving cranes and – it was alleged – massive traffic disruption. Bathroom refurbishment, it turned out, was not a subject she was eager to pursue. "I was astounded at what they [the press] said it cost," she grumbled, adding that "when you live high up in a terraced house with narrow stairs, anything big needs to be taken up with a crane." One guesses that the British media's interest in her bathroom may have hastened her decision to leave the UK and re-establish her home in Australia.
The irritability and defiance she sometimes shows in interviews were there V C right at the start of her career. It's telling that Blanchett originally thought the play that made her name when she was starting out in Sydney was "a misogynistic piece of crap". When she was cast as the student who accuses her professor of sexual harassment in David Mamet's Oleanna, her instinct was to turn the part down because of its dubious sexual politics. She ended up appearing with Geoffrey Rush (an actor almost as protean as she is) in a production she now acknowledges as a pivotal moment in her career. In hindsight, what she relished about Mamet's play was precisely what she disliked at first: the way it provoked such strong opinions, from loathing to wild enthusiasm. "It punches an audience senseless," she said admiringly.
"Before we did Oleanna," Rush said of her, "I had seen one of Cate's school productions and was pinned to my seat, thinking, 'Who is this extraordinary creature, with this maturity of performance yet still in drama school?' Even when she's doing nothing, you get this interplay between vulnerability and assurance."
Rush's remarks hint at what has always made Blanchett so distinctive: the mix of arrogance and fragility, of harshness and introspection. It helps that she's beautiful in a Garbo-esque way; she has one of those strong, expressive faces the camera loves.
Blanchett's best performances haven't always come in her most feted films. One of her finest (and surely most underrated) was as the frontierswoman in Ron Howard's The Missing. She plays Maggie, a mother in search of her teenage daughter, who has been kidnapped by Indians and white carpetbaggers planning to sell the daughter into prostitution in Mexico.
What makes Blanchett's performance so striking is that blend of doubt and defiance. We understand Maggie's maternal devotion to her missing child. We know she has suffered indignities and hardship (it is implied that she has been raped) and also that she is full of prejudice. At the same time, Maggie is utterly dogged in her determination to get her daughter back. She has the same zeal as John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.
Before The Aviator and The Lord of the Rings, Blanchett seemed to be on a run of flops. Charlotte Gray (2001) failed at the box office and helped to sink the old FilmFour, one of the UK's most adventurous film companies. There was a sense at this stage – Elizabeth in 1998 notwithstanding – that Blanchett couldn't carry a film on her own. There was a tension at the heart of Charlotte Gray that reflected the doubts about the actress playing her. The film couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a hard-hitting, realist drama about treachery in wartime France or a romantic epic. Her character, a Scottish woman parachuted behind enemy lines, is supposed to be in fear for her life but is still made up and dressed as if for a Dior commercial.
Bandits (2001) didn't catch audiences' imagination either, even if it proved that Blanchett, playing a housewife embroiled with mobsters, had a knack for screwball comedy to match that of Hepburn. Heaven (2002) showed Blanchett in a much more sombre groove, playing a young woman who commits a terrorist act (she plants a bomb but kills several innocent people by accident). There was a self-consciousness about the film-making – and Blanchett's performance – that stopped the film from pulling at the emotions.
Still, no one had doubts about Blanchett's ability. "She's heart-stoppingly good, an exhilarating actor," said Anthony Minghella, who directed her in The Talented Mr Ripley. The problem wasn't so much her as the films she was appearing in. They had all the right credentials, but she appeared to be taking herself too seriously.
Blanchett (born in 1969 to an American father and Australian mother) could have pursued a career as a stage actress. She was a star pupil at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art, from which she graduated in 1992. She won plaudits for performances in such plays as Sweet Phoebe, Hamlet, The Tempest and The Seagull.
Throughout her career, she has tried to continue working in theatre. The problem is that her celebrity now gets in the way of her stage work. When she took the role of Susan Traherne in a London revival of David Hare's Plenty, she was warned that taking six months off to appear in a play was – in Hollywood terms – career suicide. It's a refrain that has been repeated again and again, but it only seems to drive her on to do yet more stage work.
"Blanchett prowls the stage with a splendid combination of restless energy and helpless languor. She is like a beautiful but dangerous animal... it is marvellous to watch," The Australian wrote of her performance last year as Hedda Gabler in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Ibsen's play in a new adaptation by her husband, Andrew Upton. When the play transferred to Broadway, The New York Times was equally complimentary, calling Blanchett "a moody perpetual motion machine, twirling among several centuries' worth of acting styles. She variously brings to mind the deep-toned grandeur of a Bernhardt or Duse, the refined screwball stylings of Katharine Hepburn and a very contemporary self-satirising malcontent. All of which would be merely entertaining or irritating... except for the instances of genuine, revelatory brilliance that suddenly sear the air like a camera flash."
As such reviews attest, Blanchett has a grandeur that most contemporary screen stars can only dream of. Now, directors have to wait for her. Shekhar Kapur admitted that he could not have conceived making a sequel to Elizabeth unless Blanchett had been ready to play the Queen again. "It's like with The Godfather," he says. "You couldn't replace Marlon Brando. You could replace everybody else, but you couldn't replace Marlon Brando."
The challenge now will be to find screen roles that really stretch her. Ibsen heroines and Virgin Queens will put her on her mettle, but there is the danger she will lapse into mannerism and give more of those eccentric, overblown performances in parts she does not regard as a challenge.
Longevity, at least, shouldn't be a problem. Blanchett is such a striking actress, so adept at switching between leading roles and character parts, that her screen career should continue to thrive. Now 38, she is unlikely to become one of those stars who slowly fades from view.
When she made her film debut in 1996 in Bruce Beresford's Paradise Road, about prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War, she was cast opposite such formidable actresses as Glenn Close and Frances McDormand. She held her own. She equally assured opposite Ralph Fiennes in Gillian Armstrong's Oscar and Lucinda (1997), as a wealthy, poker-playing heiress. Then, early in her career, came the plum role in Elizabeth, which won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.
Blanchett dominates many of the films she is in. It's telling that her character often gives the movie its title, as with Elizabeth (1998), Charlotte Gray (2001) and Veronica Guerin (2003). Somehow, she combines a family life (she and Upton have two children) with a prolific film and stage career. Last year, she and Upton were appointed co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company; they take charge next year.
Again, Hollywood producers must fret that such a demanding job is career suicide. "The acceptance of the role as artistic directors of the company is not a dalliance," Blanchett insisted. She's on a three-year contract that allows her to take three months out each year to pursue other endeavours. There is little chance that she will ever again be as prolific on screen as she has been; in 2006 alone, she made Babel, The Good German and Notes on a Scandal.
Still, Blanchett is astute enough to mix and match her projects. Cinema audiences may fear that she is about to disappear to Australia to appear in high-minded stage plays, but at about the same time she and Upton are taking the reins in Sydney, she will be seen opposite Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There's little chance she will slip from public consciousness.
A Brilliant Career: Cate Blanchett's Top 12 Films
By Alice Jones
Paradise Road (1996)
A fresh-faced Blanchett makes her debut playing a nurse opposite the dauntingly experienced actresses Glenn Close and Frances McDormand in Bruce Beresford's Second World War tale.
The role which put Blanchett on the map. Her steely but mischievous portrayal of the Virgin Queen earned her many awards – including a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as well as her first Oscar nomination (eventually losing out to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love).
The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)
A typically cool performance from Blanchett as Meredith Logue, a bored heiress who strikes up a friendship with Matt Damon's Ripley.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003)
Probably Blanchett's highest-profile role – and the only one for which she has had to don pointy ears – Galadriel, High Queen Elf in the box-office busting trilogy brought the actress's icy, regal talents to an even wider audience.
The first of a projected trilogy written by Krzysztof Kieslowski before he died, this Anglo-Italian film stars Blanchett as a desperate bomb-planting vigilante.
Veronica Guerin (2003)
Another serious role, this time playing the Irish journalist who was murdered in 1996 – but many critics found it hard to reconcile the true story with the Hollywood treatment it received in Joel "Batman" Schumacher's film.
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Indie director Jim Jarmusch challenged Blanchett to play herself and a fictional cousin called Shelly in his collection of caffeine- and nicotine-fuelled vignettes.
The Missing (2003)
Blanchett puts in a heart-rending performance as a mother trying to find her missing daughter in 1880s New Mexico.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Displaying her good nose for a cool indie project, Blanchett plays the object of Owen Wilson's and Bill Murray's desires in Wes Anderson's quirky homage to Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
The Aviator (2004)
Once again playing a real person – this time Katharine Hepburn – Blanchett's exhaustive research for Martin Scorsese's biopic of Howard Hughes paid off as she was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Blanchett teams up with Brad Pitt to deliver an intense performance as Susan Jones, an American tourist who is shot in Morocco.
Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Although far too beautiful for the part of a school-teacher who falls for a spotty adolescent, Blanchett more than holds her own opposite Dame Judi Dench's terrifying spinster-stalker in one of the best films of last year.