In today’s The Toast series, we celebrate the May 14th birthday of two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, whose daring, bold, versatile acting skill is beloved in both her native Australia and around the world. From Mrs. America (2020) to Carol (2015), we pick the best Cate Blanchett movies.
Some actresses burst onto that glittery Hollywood scene, instantly catapulting to movie star status. Think Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953) or Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968). In fact, these two amazing women not only soared to the heavens in their debut leading role, but also won an Oscar for it.
But for millennial starlet Cate Blanchett, who rose to Hollywood prominence after a blossoming career in her native Australia, we see that a consistent, steady ascent to those billowy white clouds of superstardom is just as exciting. Her breakthrough role came in the World War II flick Paradise Road (1997), co-starring with Glenn Close. Since then, Cate has lit up the screen year after year, starring in over 60 films and winning two Oscars for The Aviator (2004) and Blue Jasmine (2013). She also holds the distinction of being the only person to “win an Oscar for portraying an Oscar winner.” Wait, say that again? Indeed. Cate won an award for portraying Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004). As the saying goes, “Not shabby.”
Without further ado, Happy Birthday to the supremely talented, luminous Cate Blanchett. What to watch this weekend? Here are 11 must-see Cate Blanchett movies.
11. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
If you love “large-scale” fantasy, and especially a fictional place called Middle-Earth, then you’ll love these three movies – The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003). Shot “Down Under” in New Zealand by well-known New Zealand director Peter Jackson, and based on the books by author J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings trilogy centers on a ring and its immense power to do good or evil, so should this ring be destroyed? Cate plays the beautiful royal elf Galadriel. Though she’s part of a huge all-star cast who portray enchanting and sometimes scary creatures like hobbits and trolls, she’s endearingly remembered for her Galadriel – for delivering one of the best, if not the best, elf depictions on-screen. Think of a lilting voice, serene demeanor, and insight through a mirror.
10. Heaven (2002)
German filmmaker Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame made his English language debut with Heaven. The film is based on one of Polish auteur Kieslowski’s unmade screenplays. It revolves around a recently widowed English teacher named Philippa living in Turin, Italy. Philippa decides to kill an alleged drug trafficker who is responsible for her husband’s death. But her act of violence backfires, leading to a devastating tragedy and subsequently her arrest. During the interrogation, an emotionally repressed police officer who also acts as Philippa’s interpreter sympathizes with the broken woman.
Heaven is a look at chance, coincidence, and violence which doesn’t come together well, particularly due to the disjointed third act. Nevertheless, the film is compelling due to Blanchett’s mercurial performance. From plotting the determined act of vigilantism to understanding the shock of her actions, Blanchett’s ability to register intense emotions smoothly carries this narrative. She makes us care for a character despite her unpardonable crime.
9. Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Chances are if you liked 2015’s The Age of Adaline, then you’ll enjoy this flick. Both are wonderful examples of a magical realism that is focused on the element of “time.” Benjamin Button (played by Brad Pitt) is a person who ages in reverse – when he’s a toddler, though he has the brain of a toddler, he actually looks like an old man. Then, as time passes, he miraculously looks younger. Magical? Absolutely. And where does Cate Blanchett come in? She’s his lifelong love. It’s a big role that spans decades – from roughly 1930 to 2005. Cate is particularly dazzling as an “adult” Daisy who shares a few precious “adult” years with Benjamin Button, as their ages finally become compatible.
It’s a complex plot, and Cate is exceptional as she has us completely believing in this story. Cate Blanchett’s performance is as transformative and intense as her co-star’s performance. Furthermore, her chemistry with Brad Pitt is spot-on.
8. Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Richard Eyre’s captivating psychological drama was based on the novel of same name by Zoe Heller. The film unfolds from the perspective of Judi Dench’s Barbara Covett, a lonely and grumpy school teacher. In the form of diary entries, she shares with us her thoughts on the new and alluring art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett). The two become casual acquaintances. But Barbara’s preoccupation with Sheba’s life is deeper and darker. Sheba confesses to Barbara about her dissatisfying marriage, and later Barbara finds out about Sheba’s affair with a 15-year old student.
Notes on a Scandal is a complex film about despair and loneliness. Both Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett got an Oscar nod for their phenomenal performances. Barbara and Sheba are contrasting personalities, and this is brilliantly realized by the precise portrayal of the respective characters. Their verbal duels and the genuine tenderness are the best things about the film in spite of the disorienting tonal shifts.
7. Manifesto (2015)
German artist Julian Rosefeldt originally made Manifesto as a video installation. Consisting of 13 different characters – all played by Cate Blanchett – the work pays tribute to wide-range of social activists, philosophers, and artists. Moreover, it makes a timeless statement on art and its meaningful influence on society. Naturally, this feature-length film doesn’t have a cohesive narrative. Even the shift from one manifesto to another can be jarring for the audience. In fact, one could argue that it partly loses its power since it’s aimed at the artistic elite, who already have a fair knowledge about these artistic movements and manifestos.
But it should be watched for Cate Blanchett’s chameleonic performance where she plays each character with the right body language. The 13 characters are also unbelievably versatile – from a grieving widow, a homeless man to a corporate CEO, and a factory worker. Apart from Blanchett’s unparalleled performance, Manifesto has a brilliant production design that brings alive each of the unique settings.
6. The Aviator (2004)
Director Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a thrilling, wind-in-your-hair (pun intended) biopic. Chronicling the mythical 1930s billionaire aviation and movie tycoon Howard Hughes, the title character is played spectacularly by Scorsese acting favorite Leonardo DiCaprio. Then enter Cate Blanchett as illustrious movie star Katharine Hepburn, and we’re really and truly soaring 30,000 feet above the ground. Facial differences withstanding, she does a pretty good job in representing the Hollywood star. Particularly, Cate nails it with Ms. Hepburn’s distinctive vocals and hard-boiled, tough-nut independent spirit.
The Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn romance was truly the “stuff of Old Hollywood legend,” and seeing talented actors Leo and Cate take this wondrous step back in time is thoroughly engrossing. Cinematic legend has it that Cate took cold showers and played tennis and golf to successfully channel Ms. Hepburn. The result? Cate Blanchett’s first well-deserved Oscar. Both critics and audiences loved her in this role, and it’s easy to see why.
5. Mrs. America (2020)
The nine-part mini-series Mrs. America, created by Davhi Waller, is set in the 1970s Vietnam War-era America which chronicles the feminists’ struggles over ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative author and home-maker who rallied suburban housewives to generate a large backlash against ERA. Blanchett’s Schlafly is an ambitious woman yearning for power and recognition. She believes that her anti-feminist stance will help her rise in the political circles that’s dominated by men. But though her misinformation campaign brings enough success to her, she still remains a victim of sexism and misogyny.
It is to Blanchett’s credit that Phyllis Schlafly never comes across as a simple antagonist. Schlafly is a perplexing as well as fascinating character. And Blanchett’s thoroughly engaging performance doesn’t make you sympathize with Schlafly, but through her we perfectly understand the complicated designs of patriarchy. Blanchett’s Schlafly reminds us that the fight for gender equality is far from won.
4. I’m Not There (2007)
Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton came out in support of gender-neutral acting categories in 2020, appreciating Berlin Film Festival’s removal of gender categories in prizes. In fact, both of them have played gender-bending roles with brilliant charm and suave. Tilda Swinton in Orlando (1992) and Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (and also in Manifesto). Blanchett’s Jude is a stand-in for the nervous and misanthropic mid-1960s Bob Dylan.
Haynes’ casting choice and Blanchett’s gender-reversal performance is much more than a clever publicity stunt. I’m Not There is an unconventional biopic film which looks at the many contradictions of Bob Dylan through six diverse characters. And Blanchett’s rendition is the most convincing and layered among the six segments. Blanchett’s Bob Dylan persona is wonderfully enigmatic. Blanchett’s Jude is deeply self-absorbed yet the singer-performer has an unparalleled knack for moving and engaging people. The black-and-white aesthetic in Jude’s section adds further beauty to the proceedings.
3. Elizabeth (1998)
Many actresses have tried to portray the role of Elizabeth I on-screen. But nothing comes close to the outstanding performance of Cate Blanchett in Shekar Kapur’s breathtakingly beautiful Elizabeth (1998). The film focuses on the early life of Elizabeth as she inherits the throne from her half-sister Queen Mary. It chronicles Elizabeth’s early days of youthful innocence to her comprehending the ruthlessness and sacrifices that’s necessary to run a kingdom. Cate Blanchett was relatively unknown when the film was made despite her award-winning performance in Oscar and Lucinda (1997).
Blanchett perfectly masters the wide range of Elizabeth’s personality traits with unbelievable effortlessness. It immediately put her in the league of Katharine Hepburn, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep. While Elizabeth is often seen as a symbol, Blanchett’s commanding presence infuses a great subjectivity to the real-life persona. She reprised the role nine years later in the sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age, once again directed by Shekar Kapur.
2. Blue Jasmine (2013)
What do you get when you pair one of the best directors in the world with one of the best actresses? Cue Blue Jasmine. And cue Cate Blanchett’s second well-deserved Oscar. Directed by the legendary Woody Allen of Annie Hall (1977) fame, Blue Jasmine is reminiscent of Annie Hall with its endearing quirkiness, and yet Blue Jasmine’s premise is still wildly original and Cate Blanchett’s performance is 100% jaw-dropping. Picture a glamorous New York City socialite (Cate’s character) whose husband’s fall from grace leaves her virtually penniless, and so she flies cross-country to San Francisco to shack up with her less wealthy, more “blue collar” sister. Interpersonal chaos ensues, and we’re taken down the comedic, neurotic rabbit hole of this chic lady-turned-receptionist.
It’s a complicated web with lots of twists and turns, and Cate Blanchett is brilliant in capturing every oddity, obsession, and ludicrous irony. Overall, the film is a triumphant interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire.
1. Carol (2015)
Ranked by the British Film Institute as the best LGBT movie of all time, Carol is a true must-see. The film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt. It’s simultaneously haunting, heartbreaking, hopeful, and compassionate. It’s the early 1950s in America, and two women find themselves falling in love. Taboo, right? Illegal, too? Indeed. Cate Blanchett plays the title character, Carol, and she and her new love interest, Therese (played by Rooney Mara), embark on a road trip away from the New York City area – and away from Carol’s possible divorce and child custody battle. The stakes are high on this road trip, and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara both deliver finely modulated performances. We’re riveted by their blossoming love alongside the decay of Carol’s once “1950s picture perfect” life.
Cate pulls at our heartstrings in such a subtle, nuanced way where we’re utterly hypnotized into entering her dream-like world of both “bloom” and “decay.” Entrancing? Absolutely.
There we are! These are some of the best Cate Blanchett movies. A solid, classically-trained thespian, she’s a cool-as-fire example of the modern Hollywood superstar. When a Cate Blanchett character enters the frame, we know that we’re in for a treat. She isn’t afraid to play anyone – from an elf, to a neurotic socialite, and even the oft-referred “greatest actress of all time” Katharine Hepburn. You get the sense when watching Cate Blanchett that she loves her craft, which in turn, makes us love her.
Truth (2015) and Nightmare Alley (2021) are some other prominent films featuring memorable Cate Blanchett performances. What movies will Cate Blanchett give us in the subsequent decades? No one knows, but we know that we’ll be watching.
Additional writing by Arun Kumar
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.