The Oscar race doesn’t end in November. That’s far too soon, with plenty more movies to screen before the calendar year comes to a close. But the annual Academy Awards field can (and usually does) crystalize in the run up to Thanksgiving, because Oscar contenders begin to show to wider audiences, giving critics and moviegoers a better look at the movies and performances that will dominate the conversation for the next few months. One movie eventually will join the prestigious list of Best Picture winners. In the Best Actor category, I personally have been singing the praises of Brendan Fraser for his performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which earned him a lengthy standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. And now that I have seen Tar, allow me to move Cate Blanchett’s name to the top of my leaderboard for Best Actress, because damn, is she incredible.
Todd Field’s third feature-length film, Tar, casts Cate Blanchett in the title role. Lydia Tar is a world-renowned conductor and composer who sacrifices everything else in her life in order to be considered one of the best – if not the very best – in her competitive field. Family, friendships, relationships all fall by the wayside as Tar rises to the top… and fights to remain there, despite external pressures that I’ll leave for you, as an audience member, to discover.
Early reviews have sung Blanchett’s praises, which is understandable. Lydia Tar is a complex character who requires a multi-faceted performance, the kind in which Blanchett typically excels. But when getting the chance to discuss the role with the Oscar winner, I asked if her opinion of Lydia Tar changed at all from the moment she read the script to the moment she wrapped filming. And Blanchett explained:
I think it changed minute by minute. But in a way, I don’t think we have opinions about ourselves. We’re always the heroes of the heroines of our own narratives, aren’t we? We always think that we’re misunderstood, that our actions are noble, that we’re good people. And I think Lydia thinks that she’s in the pursuit of excellence. She’s got a very powerful inner critic. And I think great artists, people who achieve great things in society, are very robust and restless and exacting on themselves.
Cate Blanchett should know. She’s one of the actors in our generation who also pursues greatness in her work, leading to this collection of the best Cate Blanchett movies ever made. But that led to a tightrope walk of sorts in her performance, because she explained to us how she had to find that line inside of her fictional character Lydia Tar, while also continuing to push that effort inside of herself. And in doing that, it meant that she needed to avoid passing any judgement on Tar’s actions (which become controversial). Blanchett continued:
The interesting thing that I got to grapple with was, ‘How do you push the people that you are working with, creatively, beyond their comfort zone? And be as exacting on them, but do it respectfully?’ I think the film doesn’t allow for an easy judgement of any of the characters. It was really important to me as I filmed it, and even from the first reading, I thought the world was so complicated. The world (of classical music) is as complicated as the character is. And it was really important to me that I never made a judgement on her, because otherwise, it’s telling the audience what to think. And because it’s a lot about time, and misspent time, and institutional power, there are so few places where one can have a nuanced discussion about those things. And it was really important, in talking to all of us, that we allow the audience to have that nuance. So my opinion, my judgement, was utterly irrelevant.
The audience seems to be dialing into the story of Lydia Tar, and the way that Cate Blanchett is portraying her. To the extent that many are leaving the theater and Googling “Lydia Tar” in hopes of learning more information about a fictional composer they think is/was real. Which thrills Blanchett’s co-star Nina Hoss, the actress playing Tar’s companion, and a musician in her orchestra. As Hoss points out:
I think it’s fabulous. I love it! Because it evokes fantasy. It’s like, you want (these characters) in your life. It’s great.
As for the real-life artists that inspired Blanchett growing up, she thought back to the artists who came before her, and helped shape her into the performer that she has become. There’s a very humanizing scene in Tar where Lydia returns to her childhood home and unexpectedly rekindles the passion that put her on the path toward greatness that has consumed her. She remembers the artists who motivated her, and it makes us think she might fight to maintain that internal pursuit. Speaking of her own journey, Blanchett told CinemaBlend:
I think a film that really changed my life was watching Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? And watching her in Klute. And also the life that she has lived. She has had so many lives. So I constantly refer to her. And also (Norwegian actress) Liv Ullmann. And I suppose a filmmaker that I constantly referred to would be Krzysztof Kieslowski. His work is on constant rotation.
These answers should, at the very least, help us to understand better how (and why) Cate Blanchett is one of the most respected actors of our generation, and why audiences look forward to every upcoming Cate Blanchett movie with anticipation. Her work in Tar should earn her another Oscar nomination, but we will have to watch the actual ceremony to see if a win is in the cards. In the meantime, grab tickets or stream Tar and appreciate Blanchett, and all that she brings to the table in every role.