2.18.2007

Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal (2006) - Supporting Actress Sundays

In this week's Entertainment Weekly, one of their "secret Academy voters" described Oscar favorite The Departed as "a good tv movie with a great cast." 'Twas a funny observation, as 'twas precisely the quip StinkyLulu'd been using to jag against another of this year's Oscar faves. Indeed, Lulu's been giggling for weeks at the mere thought of this curious stalker tale of female intimacy gone horribly awry remade for the Lifetime Movie Channel -- with, say, Doris Roberts and, oh, Tori Spelling in the two principal roles? It's not too much of a stretch, really, given the source material. And, truth be told, the version in theatres now is just tuh-rashy as all get out as it is, although the pulpy essence of the piece is certainly elevated by the acerbic hilarity of Judi Dench's performance (dexterous work, at once genius and ingenious) and the raw deluded vulnerability of...

approximately 57 minutes and 49 seconds on-screen
49 scenes
roughly 63% of film's total screen time

Blanchett plays Sheba, a new Art teacher at the rough-scrabble London secondary school where Dench's Barbara has taught for years. Her arrival to the dingy environs seems to brighten the place, energizing students and staff both, though Sheba herself remains blithely unaware of this impact.

Instead, Blanchett's Sheba struggles miserably to find her footing amidst the chaos. Early scenes show Blanchett's Sheba trying to maintain discipline on the playground and in the classroom, every gesture a stutter and every attempt a dismal failure. Sheba's lack of authority seems, at least on first glance, to derive from inexperience and underconfidence. Sheba's a new teacher, after all, and teenagers are freaky entities. But as things unspool, it becomes clearer: Blanchett's Sheba is lost on the playground because no one's paying attention to her. It's not just self-consciousness; it's self-absorption at its most abject. And soon Blanchett's Sheba will feel the consequences of this neediness and just how keenly her unsteadiness has been observed.

But Blanchett's Sheba is no obvious gaping maw of need. No. Blanchett's Sheba is a charismatic and versatile charmer, capable of making almost any man, woman or child feel a little more wonderful for having caught her eye. This incongruity -- the brilliant scintillating person who's also a desperate people pleaser with rock-bottom self-esteem -- is not only the lynchpin of the character (as it's what makes Sheba such an easy mark for erotic predators of all stripes) but it's what Blanchett just nails in her performance: Blanchett's Sheba is just lost unless she can see herself reflected in the eyes of another.

In essential ways, Blanchett's Sheba is the center of this film. Predators can smell Sheba's kind of need a mile away and so they begin to circle around her. And it's the voracious hunger that Blanchett's Sheba inspires in diverse predators -- randy schoolboys, crafty schoolmarms, flashing paparazzi -- that focuses the film. The film plays this shellgame of "Who's The Predator Now" smart, glibly pacing itself and deftly using Dench's delicious voice-overs -- ruminations from Barbara's diary -- to paste over the narrative potholes swiftly.

And Blanchett's casting is no less essential than Dench's in making this pap work so well. Indeed, Blanchett's at her best in this kind of character -- someone who's outward affect is shockingly estranged from her inner life. Here, Blanchett's able to make sense of Sheba's emotional reality while also making it clear that Sheba's entirely divorced from real implications of her actions. Sheba doesn't mean to make a mess, really she doesn't. And, somehow, Blanchett's able to maintain the emotional sincerity of her character's idiocy. Consider a brief scene, occuring just a day or so after Blanchett's Sheba has sworn to Dench's Barbara that she will break off her illicit affair with a student, Steven (the perfectly cast newcomer Andrew Simpson). Steven surprises Sheba outside her home on Christmas day and gives her a gift; the two hide under a porch as Sheba's husband (the surprising and effective Bill Nighy) calls for her. Steven asks, "Is that your dad?" Sheba emphatically shakes her head, "No," before adding -- in a lie that seems to surprise even her -- "No, my uncle" -- as she mentally tallies her obligations to her lover, her husband, her confidante, etcetera, etcetera... And here it becomes clear -- Blanchett's Sheba is negotiating her way to her next "fix." Blanchett's Sheba emerges as a powerful, effective portrait of the devastation of addiction and compulsion. Few actresses of any era could inhabit Sheba as efficiently and as completely as Blanchett does in this quick sequence and it's a reminder of why Blanchett has emerged as one of the go-to actresses in contemporary gourmet film.

But is Blanchett's Sheba rightly considered a "supporting" actress in Notes on a Scandal. Blanchett's on camera for nearly two-thirds of the film and, even in most of the scenes where Blanchett does not appear, the character of Sheba remains the focus of attention or discussion. It's a curious conundrum of category. What makes a supporting actress after all?




7 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

this is a good writeup but I'm still not buying that it's a great performance. It's certainly an incredibly adept performance. But I don't see the character.

Blanchett is so frustrating for me because she has enormous power as an actor and that great resonant voice (I wish more American actors would get voice training because Blanchett and Dench both work wonders with tiny shifts in their vocals...) but I just see scene by scene marvelous acting but not a character that she's able to make sense of.

I hate to be a broken record but Blanchett just reads way too smart and strong in this movie for me when you need to see someone corruptible and lost and a bit dumb.

and also... it's so clearly a lead role. Not only is she onscreen most of the time but, as you say, the story focuses on her when she's not AND she has scenes without Dench who some people claim is the sole lead just because she narrates it.

It's like saying that Geena Davis supported Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise because Sarandon played the older woman who was bossy. ARGH.

StinkyLulu said...

Agreed. (Especially on how nice it would've been to have someone capable of playing mildly dumb in the role - hence my Tori suggestion - think a British Gretchen Mol?) But, goldarnitaltaheck, this is so not a supporting role...

I love your point about the actor's vocality. Notes is just great to listen to, because of the vocal textures all 'round. (Dench in that teacher lounge scene is so genius/ingenious vocally...) Ironically, JHud's lack of vocal texture in her non-musical scenes is perhaps the root of my beef with her perf.

I think Blanchett did find her way through the character & it holds together for me -- especially well, in fact, on my second screening -- but I suspect you're spot on in thinking it a touch labored.

You're totally right to ponder her casting... I'm seeing your critique clearer now.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

My opinion lies somewhere between the two of yours. I thought Blanchett was convincing and not miscast- I bought her dimness and weakness- giving a quiet (well, for the most part), proficient performance which proved a nice counterpoint to Dench's very colorful role.

However, I'm mystified by all the critical acclaim she's received for Scandal, as I didn't think there was much "juice" in the part or in Blanchett's work. Although Blanchett's toned-down acting style was appropriate for the character, for me it wasn't a stand-out, Oscar-nomination worthy portrayal, whatever the category. Certainly some of the situations Sheba finds or places herself in are riveting enough, but I don't find Sheba sensational, even when the events surrounding her are overwhelming.

Sheba's in over her head for most the movie, so maybe the point of the role is that Sheba's supposed to be less clever or interesting than her "predators." However, this character trait of Sheba's led to my curious reaction to Blanchett's portrayal, wherein I didn't find anything especially exciting or memorable about the performance, even though I thought Blanchett was very good in the role.

Loved the movie, though, and Dench's fearless, sly, and very entertaining work as Barbara.

Thank you, Stinkylu, for providing such a rich Supporting Actress overview as the Oscars quickly approach.

StinkyLulu said...

I'd agree that Blanchett performance is mostly a proficient portrayal of Sheba. I did get the character from her but I find the acclaim oddly placed here, as well.

Having finally screened Last King of Scotland, and though McAvoy holds his own and occasionally even outshines Whitaker -- I'm nonetheless struck by how many of the year's power-dyads are oddly imbalanced: Dench's performance eats Blanchett's like so much kibble, Streep blasts Hathaway from the screen. (Only Epps/Gosling really parry.)

But golly. Dench's Barbara is one of my favorite movie treats this year. (I'll take Barbara over Borat for inappropriate humor & thrills anyday.)

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Ah, Dench. Mentioned this already in a post at Arden's site, but (Spoiler!!) I love the fact that Barbara keeps her cool after Sheba destroys her home and then rips into her (and, although it's obviously her "big scene," this is the moment wherein Sheba finally gets to show some real character). Barbara hardly reacts after this "Moment of truth," and simply begins to clean up the mess, proving her spirit, warped and in denial as it may be, is truly indomitable (there is nothing that will keep this woman down for long).

The placid manner Dench adopts after this horrible (if honest) verbal attack isn't what the viewer expects after her previous obsessive behavior (I was waiting for Barbara to completely freak out and, at the least, smack Sheba around a bit, which might have sent the film into camp heaven, but would have seriously hurt the movie's credibility). Barbara's calm, unshakable strength in the aftermath of Sheba's stinging accusations is both funny and touching, thanks to Dench's perspective acting and her dry wit, which made me like Barbara a lot more (because of this scene, I was hopeful for Barbara prospects during the film's last scene, instead of wanting her to meet an end similar to Rhonda Penmark's in The Bad Seed).

And yes, I'm dying to see that Barbara/Sheba "smackdown," wherein Barbara returns the favor:

Sheba: "You bitch!!" (slap)

Barbara: "No, you bitch, I'm Barbara!!" (slap, slap)

Prehaps this will show up on the Scandal DVD as a bonus feature, under "Deleted Scenes and Alternate Takes."

criticlasm said...

The one thing I would say about Nathaniel's comment is that Blanchett's intelligence worked for me as an integeral part of the character. If you consider her mother in it, Sheba's main criticism in life from everyone seems to have been that she's made stupid choices. It seems if you pair that with S.'s comments that it's her neediness that trips her up, it's a more interesting character for me as an intelligent woman being stupid, rather than a dim woman being dim--not very intersesting. The fascination/frustration of the character is that she is clearly intelligent, but unable to do anything with it except make disastrous choices. That's my read at least. I think it's Blanchett's intelligence that makes the character work. If it was someone dimmer, I think it would be more of a steamroller on Dench's part, and a less interesting film.

StinkyLulu said...

Ditto.