Cate Blanchett has been a star since the very first second we met her. Her first-ever movie role, after just a few years in the theater, was supporting Glenn Close and Frances McDormand — two formidable actresses in their own right — in Paradise Road, but that was the last time (even when she was playing smaller roles) she would ever “support” anybody. Her second film was Oscar and Lucinda, which she stole from Ralph Fiennes at the peak of his stardom; ever since, every Cate Blanchett movie has been A Cate Blanchett Movie. She has become the rare actor who can headline anything, from weepy dramas to action films to experimental art pieces to silly comedies.
She graduated from Sydney’s National of Institute of Dramatic Art in 1992, became the hottest theater actress on the continent by 1994, was starring in big sweeping Hollywood romances by 1997, and nominated for an Oscar by 1998. And she was, of course, just getting started. The key to Blanchett’s appeal and skill, we’d argue, is her ability to combine relatability and elusiveness: She is always completely present and yet just out of grasp. She has been forever daring, uncompromising and perpetually, resolutely, herself. “I do like to preserve the mystique of the thing, for myself as much as anyone else,” she has said. That’s a combination that’s nearly impossible to come by.
She also can nail every accent in the book. When we sat down to rank Blanchett’s movies, tied to the release of her big Marvel movie debut as the villainess in Thor: Ragnarok, we counted 11 different ones, along with a few of indeterminate origin. You can’t even pin all her accents down; how do you expect to get a bead on the actress herself? She has already won two Oscars and been nominated for four others. Yet even those numbers seem too low. An argument could be made that she’s the most esteemed actress of her generation. Just don’t expect her to be the one to make it: “Moviemaking becomes a little pointless after a time,” she told The New Yorker in 2007. “You think, ‘Well, yes, that’s an incredible role, and, yes, it would probably stretch me as an actor. But performance is not, and never has been, really, all of who I am.’” You could have fooled us.
Here’s a ranking of Blanchett’s 35 movies released in theaters. We left out her voice work (including the upcoming How to Train Your Dragon 3), dropped her Australian television work, and combined all the Tolkien films into one. What’s left stands alongside any film actor on the planet.
35. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
This one is probably last, right? It has to be. Blanchett seems to relish the idea of playing the Soviet villainess here — and she’s the only part of the movie that seems particularly invested — but that doesn’t change the fact that the performance doesn’t really work. It’s as if Steven Spielberg just said “go for it,” and never let her know that even though she was putting in a ton of effort, no one else had any plans to. All you need to know about Blanchett is that this is probably her worst performance … and she’s still the most interesting thing about this movie.
34. Veronica Guerin (2003)
A fascinating real-life story of the titular reporter (played by Blanchett), whose investigations into the underground drug world in Dublin ultimately got her killed … that’s completely undercut by the fact that Joel Schumacher, still with a little Batman juice left, directs with the subtlety of a blunt object to the windpipe. This is a true story that feels fake every step of the way, and mostly you find yourself just enjoying Blanchett’s Irish accent, which is, of course, impeccable.
33. Song to Song (2017)
Blanchett is just passing through this particularly dawdling Terrence Malick doodle about the music industry, and not only is she not onscreen long enough to register much of an impact — she’s basically Ryan Gosling’s “mature” girlfriend — it’s not entirely clear if she’s actually playing a character or if Malick just used some footage he had of her in Knight of Cups and tossed it in to fill in some gaps. She looks fantastic, though.
32. Heaven (2002)
Tom Tykwer, of all people, pulled a Spielberg-Kubrick A.I. with this international thriller that was meant to be the first in a triad of Krzysztof Kieslowski films before the director died in 1996. Tykwer doesn’t bring anything close to the subtlety and shading that Kieslowski would have, in the story of a vigilante teacher (Blanchett) who tries to get back at drug dealers who have infiltrated her school by blowing them up with a bomb, which ends up killing the wrong people. The movie feels like a fable amped up into a romantic thriller — the teacher falls in love with a cop (Giovanni Ribisi) who interrogates her — and it loses just about everything in the transformation. Probably best that Kieslowski never saw this.
31. Paradise Road (1997)
Bruce Beresford specializes in well-meaning, crushingly dull period pictures, and this is the nadir of the form, about a group of women imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp who end up forming a vocal orchestra to get themselves through the war. The movie is earnest, and while you admire what the women went through (and you get to meet some at the end), Beresford can’t make their personal dramas particularly compelling. Blanchett, in her film debut, is a supporting character to Glenn Close and Frances McDormand, two great actresses she would soon surpass.
30. The Monuments Men (2014)
Because she’s so forceful a presence, Blanchett can struggle when she’s supposed to play a withdrawn or timid character. As the French art curator Claire Simone in this drab George Clooney World War II drama, she tackles the problem head-on, with little success. Claire could be described as “mousy,” with her tightly bound hair and librarian’s glasses, but Blanchett overdoes it all so much that she’s the mousiest curator ever. And her attempts at a pseudo love affair with Matt Damon’s sympathetic Allied officer always feels more theoretical than palpable. Does she nail her accent perfectly? Of course she does.
29. Robin Hood (2010)
Ridley Scott directing a Robin Hood film with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett has no shortage of potential. Alas, anyone who actually saw this 2010 dud knows the cold truth: Robin Hood could have worked as a dark, more realistic telling, but the film’s gray-skied miserableness never took flight. It’s a clever idea to reimagine Lady Marion as more than just some damsel-in-distress pushover, and Blanchett has a little fun giving her a blasé, unimpressed steeliness that leaves her immune to Robin’s roguish charms. But Robin Hood is so pathologically determined to drain the story of its pulpy joy that Blanchett is bland-ed out like everything else.
28. The Good German (2000)
The postwar thriller The Good German elicited a self-consciously throwback performance from Blanchett, depicting a femme fatale type who reignites an old passion for a U.S. officer (George Clooney) she once loved. “I had to use my own resources and invent my own version,” Blanchett said at the time, “because what was the point of imitating Marlene Dietrich, she does it perfectly herself.” Which is fine but, really, she’s channeling Dietrich’s smoky-eye sultriness in a film that’s always throwing quotation marks around every aspect of its design, making damn sure that you catch all the references to Casablanca, film noir, and the old studio wartime romances. Blanchett does a perfectly fine impression, but the effort seems pointless in this stillborn exercise.
27. The Shipping News (2001)
Blanchett is the self-destructive “Petal,” a name we’re pretty sure was never used for a Blanchett character again. Again, she shows off just how many different types of characters she can play, but, again, you wonder why she’s expending so much energy: The movie, and the character, are beneath her.
26. Charlotte Gray (2001)
A silly war thriller about a French woman (Blanchett) who runs missions to help fight Nazis in World War II, Charlotte Gray — whose title character is a composite of several real-life women — makes the crucial mistake of forcing a romance into a movie that doesn’t need one. The men in the film are dull and unworthy of Gray or Blanchett, but she has to spend a bunch of time justifying their presence anyway. This movie needs fewer men.
25. Pushing Tin (1999)
This is a weird, off-kilter little movie about two air traffic controllers (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) and how their stressful jobs cause them trouble at home with their equally disturbed significant others (Blanchett and Angelina Jolie). Blanchett plays Cusack’s wife, a thankless role that she still jazzes up, particularly when she becomes obsessed with Thornton, Cusack’s rival air traffic controller. The movie is ridiculous — it’s about rival air traffic controllers! — but all four actors are good. Unfortunately, Blanchett has the least screen time and the least interesting character to play.
24. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
One of those parts that’s more delectable in theory than in execution. Blanchett plays the super-vampy villain in Thor: Ragnarok, which was directed by Taika Waititi, one of the guys behind the cheeky horror mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. As Hela, Thor’s long-lost, all-powerful sister, Blanchett chews the scenery with gusto, strutting around in skintight outfits that make her look all kinds of fabulous. But the character doesn’t have a ton to do, and the Oscar winner doesn’t seem all that concerned with really digging too deep into what makes Hela tick. Sure, Blanchett’s just having fun, so there’s no reason to nitpick, but Thor: Ragnarok is a sign of what could happen to a marvelous actress if she decided just to do big, dumb studio movies for the paychecks. Thank the stars, that just doesn’t seem very likely from her.
23. The Man Who Cried (2001)
Ever wonder if Blanchett can play, as Roger Ebert put it, “a tart with a heart of pawned gold?” Well, she can, but it’s a waste of her, particularly when she’s supporting a miscast Christina Ricci and an only-sort-of-paying-attention Johnny Depp. The movie has the good intentions and skill you’d expect from writer-director Sally Potter, but Blanchett shows off what she can do before being shuffled off.
22. Cinderella (2015)
The secret to Blanchett’s performance in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella is the smile. As the Evil Stepmother, she lets that wide, gorgeous grin exude benevolence, while her blood-red lipstick suggests something far more malicious at the character’s core. In essence, Blanchett brings a cartoon to life, and it’s a fun, knowingly flamboyant turn. But we’ll also confess that, once you absorb the crafty cleverness of the performance, there’s not a lot else there. Cinderella is the sort of thing that Blanchett can do very well, but that becomes part of the problem: You’re tickled, but never quite surprised.
21. The Missing (2004)
This dark Western represented a bracing change of pace for Blanchett and her director, Ron Howard. It’s always commendable when accomplished talents push themselves, but The Missing illustrates that, sometimes, the daring isn’t rewarded. She plays Maggie, a wife and mother living in the rugged Southwest in the late 19th century, who is visited by her long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) who abandoned his family years ago. They have to work together to get vengeance on the bandits who slaughter her husband and kidnap her daughter, and there’s a superficial appeal to seeing one of our most refined actresses digging into her own Unforgiven. But the muscular role never quite fits her — she’s game, but she doesn’t disappear like she does in her best performances.
20. Bandits (2001)
Barry Levinson’s film was classified as a “comedy or musical” by the Golden Globes, which is why Blanchett earned her second Golden Globe nomination for this, but it’s nothing special. A romantic triangle involving bank robbers Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Blanchett — who can’t decide between them? — mostly leaves you thinking Blanchett should get away from both of these weirdos and get in business for herself. The movie isn’t terrible or thoughtless, but it’s choppy and uneven and only really comes to life when she’s onscreen.
19. An Ideal Husband (1999)
Imagine a movie in which Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett were co-stars. Now stop imagining, because it happened at the end of the 1990s in this just-okay adaptation of the Oscar Wilde comedy about a prim-and-proper wife (Blanchett) squaring off with a tart blackmailer (Moore) who has dirt on the wife’s upstanding husband (Jeremy Northam). An Ideal Husband is perfectly fine art-house entertainment, but you keep waiting for Blanchett to really cut loose, which never happens. One wonders how much livelier this film would have been if made today with these two Oscar winners.
18. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
It’s not easy to be a famous person complaining about the downsides of fame — you know, the fear of being exposed as a fraud, the worry that you’ve lost the ability to connect with “regular” people. Blanchett’s talented enough to get away with it in “Cousins,” her 11-minute segment of Jim Jarmusch’s collection of short films Coffee and Cigarettes. The concept is simple: “Cate” (Blanchett) spends a little time in a hotel lounge catching up with “Shelly” (also Blanchett), Cate’s punk-rock cousin whom she hasn’t seen in years. As soon as they sit down, it’s clear that Shelly is harboring a lot of resentment toward Cate because she’s far more successful, and their tense interactions allow Blanchett to dissect the anxiety of celebrity, serving as both inquisitor and defendant. Blanchett is apologetic and melancholy as Cate, and wonderfully snotty as Shelly, critiquing the privilege and luxury that the actress knows that famous people like her take for granted. The performances aren’t an apology, but they are an acknowledgement of the toll stardom takes, but Shelly’s tartness is here to make sure we never feel too sorry for Cate.
17. The Gift (2000)
This mostly forgotten but, in retrospect, spectacularly cast Sam Raimi thriller features Blanchett as a southern woman (another new accent!) who discovers that she has extrasensory abilities and reluctantly puts them to use in a murder case. Billy Bob Thornton wrote the screenplay, based on his own mother (who Thornton, amusingly, insisted had ESP), but the movie has less of the darkness of Sling Blade and more of the whodunit cheese that’s much more in Raimi’s wheelhouse. Blanchett grounds everything, but the movie’s probably more interesting for Keanu Reeves’s deranged redneck and Katie Holmes (right before Tom Cruise showed up and ruined everything).
16. Knight of Cups (2015)
Terrence Malick’s 2015 character piece focuses on a Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) looking back on his life through the women he’s loved. Not surprisingly, none of the female characters register very strongly — they’re more impressions of people than actual human beings — but Blanchett, as his mournful ex-wife, pieces together a performance that resonates. (And to be fair, it can be maddening to act in a Malick movie, not knowing what will make the film — or if your role will get chopped entirely.) But where Knight of Cups often drifts along in a generalized fog of melancholy, Blanchett actually makes the film’s lament for shattered relationships and thwarted potential actually hurt. She’s not in the movie much, but you miss her when she’s gone — and wish Malick had decided to focus more on their marriage and how it went wrong.
15. Babel (2006)
Two years before The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Blanchett teamed with Brad Pitt as part of this multistranded narrative from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. She’s saddled with an impossible role — that of Susan, an unhappy American wife on vacation with her husband in Morocco, where she’s hit by a stray bullet that puts her life in danger and generates artificial life-or-death stakes. Blanchett mostly has to scream, cry, and be scared, but she nonetheless makes Susan’s terror palpably real.
14. Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies (2001, 2002, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014)
Blanchett didn’t really have all that much to do in Peter Jackson’s dual magnum opuses, other than be extraordinarily lit. (But wow, she really is lit magnificently.) Her Galadriel is more of a plot mechanism than a fully realized character — perhaps we’re missing something vital about her character, don’t yell at us — but Blanchett is still larger than life throughout.
13. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Blanchett was pregnant while filming this Wes Anderson comedy, where she plays Jane Winslett-Richardson, an Australian journalist who happens to be pregnant herself. (“Wes [accused] me of being a method actor,” she later joked.) Anderson often encourages eccentricity in his stars, but Life Aquatic inspired a warmer, more vulnerable side in Blanchett, who plays the woman who attracts both famed oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and the sweet, dopey Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who may be Steve’s son. This isn’t one of Blanchett’s real bravura turns, but its sweetness, especially around Ned, makes it a sneaky charmer.
12. Truth (2015)
This dramatization of CBS News’ failed 2004 attempt to prove that President George W. Bush didn’t honor his commitments to the National Guard in the 1970s was a critical and commercial bomb. But we’ll stand up for Blanchett’s underappreciated performance as Mary Mapes, the TV news producer who (alongside Robert Redford’s Dan Rather) pursued the story, destroying her career in the process. In her recent films, Blanchett has often focused on characters with extravagant accents or tics, but Mapes is a rather ordinary person by her standards: a smart, driven newswoman whose confidence in her skill ultimately blinds her to some sloppy reporting. There’s nothing overpowering about the portrayal, but that ends up making it so affecting: Blanchett hasn’t been as real as she is in Truth in quite a while, and the character’s fall from grace is all the more shattering because of it. This is the one really great Blanchett performance that most people haven’t seen.
11. Hanna (2011)
“She’s like the Wicked Witch of the piece” is how Hanna director Joe Wright described Marissa Wiegler, a CIA operative on the hunt for Saoirse Ronan’s runaway title character. Before Blanchett played the Evil Stepmother of 2015’s Cinderella, Wiegler was the actress’s first stab at a fairy-tale-like villainess, rocking a white-trash accent offset by her sleek outfits and lethal skills with a gun. In recent years, there’s been a craving for female-driven action movies, and although she’s not the hero of Hanna, Blanchett makes it clear she could handle her own Atomic Blonde if anyone was interested in giving her a call. (Fingers crossed for Ocean’s 8?)
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Blanchett has done love stories, but none is lovelier than this Oscar-nominated fantasy about a man who ages in reverse and the woman he meets along the way. She’s Daisy, a southern ballerina, and Blanchett plays her with all the lithe gracefulness one would expect from such a person. What’s essential about Daisy is that she’s one of those luckless souls dealt a bad hand — Benjamin (Brad Pitt) isn’t someone she can hope to have a normal life with, and her promising career is cut short by a freak car accident. Consequently, the performance is all about its wistful, understated anguish, and Blanchett gives Daisy a heartbreakingly ethereal quality, as if she’s a metaphorical boat passing in the night right past Benjamin. Of Benjamin Button’s 13 Academy Award nods, astonishingly, none of them went to Blanchett, who by that point had become a Streep-like perennial nominee.
9. I’m Not There (2007)
Fine, it’s just a Bob Dylan impression — but it’s a really funny Bob Dylan impression. As one of the Dylan personas in Todd Haynes’s unconventional biopic, Blanchett was handed a plum part: the singer-songwriter of the Don’t Look Back era, a bratty, witty young man happy to conquer the planet while on tour in England. She’s a total hoot in the role, channeling the artist’s quicksilver wit, burnt-out weariness, and nervous patter. It’s a perfect mimic, but there’s also deep compassion in the performance. After all, Dylan is one of our greatest chameleons, shape-shifting from style to style over his long career, and so it figures that a master impressionist would understand that need to reinvent better than just about anyone.
8. Oscar and Lucinda (1997)
Blanchett’s first movie to be released in America showed that she was about to become a massive star. She plays the Lucinda of the title in the adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel, an Australian woman raised by a fierce feminist who develops an obsession with glass and briefly, kind of, falls in love with Ralph Fiennes’s Oscar. It’s worth noting that Fiennes, whose star was never brighter than at this particular moment, seems to look a little in awe of this actress who has come out of nowhere. Their scenes have a palpable chemistry that he almost looks intimidated by. This is raw Blanchett, at the very beginning, and she keeps bursting out of the movie’s “tasteful” chains.
7. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Blanchett has the lower-profile but absolutely crucial role as the American socialite who meets Matt Damon’s sociopath Mr. Ripley and ends up being unwittingly vital to the beginning of his life of murder. You can make an argument that this is a career highlight for just about everybody in the cast — we love this movie — but it’s fun to watch Blanchett in a movie where, at last, her character isn’t the smartest person in the movie. She’s still a delight … and still smarter than she appears.
6. Manifesto (2017)
C’mon, how could Blanchett resist a movie in which she plays 13 different characters, each performing monologues based on famous 20th-century manifestos? Anyone looking to Manifesto for a distillation of how to bring nuance and understatement to a performance is going to be sorely disappointed. Instead, Blanchett acts her ass off — often gloriously so — as she plays newscasters and hobos, CEOs and scientists, puppeteers and teachers. Working with filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt, she tries to bring energy to ideas from philosophers and artists and radicals, and so Manifesto (which originally screened as an art installation) is best appreciated as a cheeky experiment, filled with obvious high and low points and never less than engaging. The manifestos are serious, but Blanchett is delightfully playful, which helps animate this intellectual exercise into something far more engaging.
5. Notes on a Scandal (2006)
How sexy is this gossipy, psychosexual thriller starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench? The two actresses spark up something fiery, almost feral in each other, and the movie is both respectful of the two women while still understanding the sensational nature of the case. (It involves sleeping with 15-year-old students, among other things.) The movie is both tasteful and tasteless in the best possible way and, we suspect, is probably due for a reemergence and reconsideration as a sharp, tart, deeply modern firecracker. If anything, it was a little ahead of its time.
4. Blue Jasmine (2013)
Blanchett won her second Academy Award for a character who, for many viewers, was hard to like. “I think a lot of people said, ‘Well, why should we feel anything for her?’” the actress later said. “But I tried to find a connection to that universal problem that so many of us feel — who am I, without all the trappings of our lives?” That push-pull of revulsion, fear, and sympathy we feel toward Jasmine is all due to Blanchett’s tricky, volcanic performance. She doesn’t try overly hard to make Jasmine lovable. (To be sure, the character is often quite cruel to those around her, especially those who want to help.) But the actress wisely weaves in a level of sheer panic that’s deeply touching, as if the woman is drowning in front of our eyes. Foolish, vain, and petty Jasmine may be, but Blanchett managed to make her slow-motion downfall oddly emotional. Deep down, she’s the worst-case scenario we all secretly fear could become of us — there but for the grace of god go we, and Blanchett dares us to look away.
3. Elizabeth I in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (1998, 2007)
Blanchett was still new to audiences when she was cast as a young, vibrant, furious Queen Elizabeth, but she would never be unknown again. This is an Elizabeth like we have never seen before, urgent and aching, with power thrust upon her that she wasn’t ready for but is firmly capable of wielding with an iron fist. Even the poster of this movie is powerful: Who would ever mess with this Elizabeth? The sequel a decade later isn’t as memorable, but is still a worthy return to playing the character that earned Blanchett her first Oscar nomination and introduced the planet to her myriad abilities.
2. The Aviator (2004)
The day Blanchett started shooting The Aviator, in which she’d win her first Oscar for portraying Katharine Hepburn, the beloved actress died. “She had such a remarkable life,” Blanchett later told the New York Times, “and then with her death, she was even more present in everyone’s mind.” Playing someone so famous was always going to be daunting, but Hepburn’s passing undoubtedly added to the pressure of doing justice to her legacy. Blanchett didn’t disappoint: As great as Leonardo DiCaprio is in The Aviator, she dominates the film, playing a force of nature with such effortless control that the audience is gobsmacked by her in the same way that Howard Hughes is. In The Aviator, Hepburn is the embodiment of a movie star — witty, glamorous, otherworldly — but while Blanchett helps humanize her, she doesn’t go all the way, letting her retain some of the mystery and ineffable greatness that our greatest celebrities carry around with them like pocket change or a set of house keys. When Hepburn leaves the film, neither the movie nor Hughes is ever the same, and her absence haunts everything that comes after. Who could ever get over her?
1. Carol (2015)
Blame it on the peculiarities of awards season that Blanchett was considered the lead in this exquisite romantic drama while Rooney Mara, who’s actually the main character, was slotted as the supporting role. But it’s also a testament to Blanchett that her Carol becomes the film’s center — an elegant, powerfully sad, and perhaps hopelessly unknowable woman cursed to be born at the wrong time. Set in the 1950s, and based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, Carol traces the clandestine love affair between Carol and Mara’s timid department-store employee, and although Blanchett’s character is the more experienced, her extra years have only amplified a sneaking suspicion that contentment is something that’s impermanent — and that passion is, therefore, something worth savoring. Carol may intimidate Mara’s character with her wit and worldliness, but Blanchett never lets us forget how thin this veneer of sophistication is, how easily her privileged world could fall apart. Carol is brittle and reserved, but Blanchett is its resilient heart. No stark accents, no quirky mannerisms — and, yet, the character lives in her own disguise, that of a happy mother and wife who can sometimes fool herself that she doesn’t need anything else. Blanchett’s weary eyes tell you more about Carol than dialogue ever could — and it’s her warm smile at Carol’s end that makes you believe that, at last, maybe her true love has come along.