Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, directed by Woody Allen, 2013
Much like the world of art and literature, the world of cinema appearance as a rainbow-flag-wielding protestor outside the gates would be nothing without its female muse to inspire and admire. With hollywood’s cutthroat environment making it an immensely challenging industry in which to succeed, it takes a special talent, irrespective of gender, to break through its myriad barriers. However, when this breakthrough does occur, it tends to result in astounding longevity for that talent, and a level of stardom that rarely burns out.

Here are five contemporary leading ladies who have broken the mold in more ways than one. They’ve risen up from throngs of hopefuls who desperately try and make their mark in cinema. These are the ones who seamlessly move from melancholia to joy, intense to light-hearted, in a way that sends cinemagoers into frenzy.

With her porcelain skin and svelte figure, Tilda Swinton is a physical product of the European Avant-garde; her fearlessness and prowess are aspects which many actresses in the mainstream simply do not possess, and that make her stand out time and again. She spent her early career working with the likes of Derek Jarman and Tariq Ali, and her background as the daughter of aristocratic parents and a devotee of communism in her youth, all undoubtedly helped forge her into the creative chameleon we see today. Much of Swinton’s star quality can be attributed to the roles she has chosen and been picked for over the years. From voicing the minimalistic and atmospheric Blue by Derek Jarman, which describes Jarman’s life and vision shortly before his death from AIDS-related complications, to playing Jadis, the White Witch, in Andrew Adamson’s blockbuster reimagining of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

There are many reasons why Tilda Swinton stands out among her contemporaries, from her ability to move gracefully from independent cinema to mainstream, to always maintaining a firm grip on her integrity as an actress when it comes to the projects on which she chooses to work. She also utilizes her stardom as a platform to support social causes for which she feels passionately, particularly LGBT rights. She recently took a stand against the Russian government’s vicious anti-gay policies, even making an appearance as a rainbow-flag-wielding protestor outside the gates of the Kremlin in Moscow. It’s for these reasons and more that Swinton has become such an endearing fixture in the film industry, in both Europe and Hollywood. Her latest project, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a fabulously bonkers comedy by her old friend Wes Anderson. Swinton plays the rich and imperious octogenarian Madame D (who Swinton portrays with fine comic tuning), who later becomes the love interest of an eccentric hotelier played by Ralph Fiennes. The film is already a smash with Anderson and Swinton fans alike, and is yet another testament to her acting abilities; gone is the demure and serious leading lady, and instead we see the emergence of a brilliant and comic actress. She also recently filmed Jim Jarmusch’s romance drama vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive, which was nominated for the Palme d’or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and was released in the US and UK in April 2014. In the film she plays Eve, the vampire wife of a blood-sucking musician named Adam. The role is a testament to her ingenuity in choosing to play cutting-edge characters that defy the obvious. Despite the popular vampire theme, the film, largely thanks to the brilliant casting, manages to be an eccentric original.

Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive. Directed by Jim Jarmusch – Sony Pictures Classics, 2013

Australia’s smoky-eyed and husky-voiced Cate Blanchett is the epitome of leading lady magic. From her acting skills to her looks and composure, she has superseded Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman as Australia’s most desirable acting export, and it’s easy to see why. Flourishing like a butterfly, from the world of film to theatre—most notably in David Mamet’s 1992 play Oleanna and the Company B production of the Shakespeare classic Hamlet, in which she played Ophelia—Blanchett effortlessly mixes the high acting attributes of classical theatre with the more illuminating qualities needed in order for an actress to succeed on the big screen. It’s a special concoction that gave way to an array of cinematic glory when she starred in Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 masterpiece Elizabeth. There have been many actresses throughout the years who have taken a stab at playing England’s Virgin Queen, but Blanchett embodied the role like no other. She was every inch the stoic royal matriarch, wrestling to save her kingdom from bankruptcy and foreign invasion. Partly thanks to her years spent working in the theatre, Cate Blanchett understands the imperative to diversify her roles. This became obvious when she starred in Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal in 2006, a psychological thriller that touches on the contentious subject of paedophilic relationships, with Blanchett playing a teacher who has an affair with one of her underage pupils. Blanchett continues to prove her capabilities over and again. her blistering portrayal of Jeanette ‘Jasmine’ Francis in Woody Allen’s most recent dramatic comedy, Blue Jasmine, wherein she plays the film’s protagonist, tipped the film from a run-of-the-mill Woody Allen affair to a brilliant slice of contemporary cinema. The neurotic, self-centered, and ultimately self-loathing attitude that Blanchett brought to her character was a stroke of genius. It’s been remarked, and you can see why, that Blue Jasmine is her defining role for this decade. She recently won the Oscar for Best Actress for her work in the film.The moment the award was announced, the camera panned to Blanchett, mouth agape, shocked that it had gone to her, having not won an Academy Award in over a decade (in 2004 she took home the award for Best Supporting Actress in The Aviator). Rarely does Blanchett rest on her laurels, always marching forward with grace and elegance. Like a contemporary Grace Kelly, she is the classic embodiment of beauty and talent.

It’s been a long time coming, but Kate Winslet finally received a star on the hollywood Walk of Fame this past March. Ana Martinez, the ceremony’s director, said out loud what a lot of us had been thinking: “We’ve seen Kate shine in her roles and fans around the world have been anxiously waiting for this special day to come.” It was a truly memorable moment and Winslet remarked “I feel very honoured twenty years into my own career to be standing in such a poignant place and being celebrated in such a spectacular fashion.” Her starring role in James Cameron’s critically acclaimed Titanic alone could have made Winslet a legendary leading lady. Beating out competition from Gwyneth Paltrow, Gabrielle Anwar and Claire Danes, she secured the role at the tender age of twenty-two; from then onwards she has been the toast of hollywood. As the frustrated debutant Rose DeWitt Bukater, who gets entwined in a doomed love affair with working class boy Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, she brought audiences across the globe to tears with an outstanding and emotional performance. it’s not often such a young actress can synthesize the fabled alchemy that Winslet did, that is required in order to capture an audience’s imagination through an entire film.

Winslet has always been a dab hand at dramatic roles, perfecting the ability to work her emotions in rhythmic timing with the plot. Aside from film, she’s able to transfer this to the small screen as well. After all, who could forget her performance in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce in which she portrayed the self-sacrificing protagonist constantly at war with her narcissistic, calculating daughter? A prime example of her capacity to inhabit several different cinematic mediums with ease and grace, Winslet won a Golden Globe as well as an Emmy for her dramatic performance in the series. Many classed Kate Winslet as a one-trick-pony after the huge success of Titanic; little did they know that our collective love affair with her was just beginning. After five Academy Award nominations for various roles, her portrayal of hanna Schmitz in 2009’s The Reader was the one that finally earned her an Oscar win for Best Actress. Although she is still a much-underestimated comedy actress, these tides are shifting as well. her talents for black comedy in particular came into the spotlight in 2011, with Roman Polanski’s Carnage, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, and prior to that as well, when she starred in Nancy Meyer’s 2006 rom-com The Holiday.

The Reader
Kate Winslet in The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry – The Weinstein Company, 2008

Dystopian Chicago is the backdrop to Winslet’s latest film Divergent—Neil Burger’s adaptation of Veronica Roth’s novel—in which she plays the primary antagonist Jeanine Matthews. Critics have already been raving about her performance. Reimagining this tough, super intelligent character for hollywood could not have been an easy task, but for Winslet, with her pristine acting pedigree, Jeanine was reborn for the big screen. Setting her acting skills aside, Winslet’s consistent genuine attitude and palpable passion for what she does appeal to audiences across the board. Remaining ever-grateful for the opportunities she’s had gives her an air of humanity that so many other actresses often lack.

There’s been a seismic shift in hollywood’s attitude over recent years with regards to its portrayal of older actresses. Once upon a time, when an actress reached her mid-forties, the casting guillotine would hurtle down, and leave her in the wilderness, or destined to play secondary characters who loiter in the background. At the recent Oscar ceremony, two prominent actresses of maturity were nominated: the seventy-eight-year-old Dame Judi Dench and sixty-four-year-old Meryl Streep, both of whom have continued to amaze and delight audiences worldwide, and whose box office appeal seems to just be getting stronger.

Judi Dench, the elder of the two, has been a tour de force for over fifty years now, from the big screen to the small. She’s become a national treasure in the UK, with plaudits and awards amassed over the years. Her achievements include powerful performances at the National, Royal Court and old Vic theatre, comedic roles on TV such as the long-running BBC sitcom As Time Goes By, and of course her varied roles on the big screen, from playing M in the James Bond series to her role as Queen Elizabeth i in Shakespeare in Love in 1999. Some may hesitate to say it, but Dench has broken the mold. She has shown the world that age is merely a number, and if your acting skills are strong enough casting directors will still lobby to get you in a leading role. Dench’s forte has always been the theatre, which she has partaken in since the mid-1950’s. Acting alongside greats like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud in their prime, their influence has never left her. Like many actors and actresses, theatre has also proven to be a lifeline when work on TV and film would hit a dry patch, and Dench has repeatedly said that she owes a great deal of her success to the world of theatre, because it’s there where she can flex her acting talents to their greatest potential.

As a theatre actress first and foremost, it’s there where she gained and perfected her skills, which she parlays easily into film. There are few actresses working today who can bring as much emotion to their roles as Dench can. One of her more recent notable performances was her role in the heartbreaking Philomena, which tells the story of an Irish mother who tries to search for her son years after being forced to give him up for adoption. She was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for the mesmerizing way in which she crafted this story. Speaking to the BBC about Philomena, Dench said “I feel a huge responsibility because people know her and therefore they will look at the film and want to recognise Philomena in me.” She later remarked, “A friend said, ‘I can’t see a vestige of you in the film’ and I said ‘You couldn’t have paid me a bigger compliment’. I like nothing better than to be told that.” Of all the quotes Dench has made about her career, it’s this one that sums her up in a nutshell: “I think you should take your job seriously, but not yourself – that is the best combination.”

When it comes to Meryl Streep, there is little left to say about her. The New Jersey-born actress is now classed in the vanguard of living legends and has repeatedly been called the world’s greatest living actress, surpassed by none. Streep is a true alchemist when it comes to her craft, and she’s cleverly chosen roles that both compliment and push her skills perfectly. Streep embodies the leading lady to ideal degrees, and possesses a carefully honed roster of skills, from the ability to convey a world of emotion with just a raised eyebrow, to a distinct back catalogue of accents. There’s an endless list of memorable and defining roles that Streep has undertaken in her long career, and if one were to list them all it would take up page after page. in recent years we’ve seen Streep move into playing great women of the past and present, from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady (2011) to her cameo role in the upcoming film Suffragette, as the antagonistic suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. It’s a tough call to pick the role which made Meryl Streep a household name and made the Academy verily sit up and pay attention to her. The Deer Hunter (1978) was the first time she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress; it wasn’t until 1982, however, that she was nominated and won in the category for Best Actress in the touching Sophie’s Choice. This year saw her record-setting 18th nomination for her role as Violet Weston, the fearsome Oklahoma matriarch in August: Osage County. Although Cate Blanchett took the award this year, she still managed to break a record, which is a testament to her powerhouse status in Tinsel Town.

Both Meryl Streep and Dame Judi Dench have effectively ushered in a new era, where talent precedes age in Hollywood. It’s a trend that will likely continue, with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet and those other quintessential leading ladies continuing the success of Dench and Streep. Perhaps Blanchett herself said it best in her Oscar acceptance speech this year, in which she bestowed praise upon the other nominees. “To the audiences who went to see it and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences: they are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”

Article by Ben Mirza for The Untitled Magazine “Legendary” Issue 7

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