Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Paying the price for art - Debbie Downunder

I was recently hobnobbing with some local TV stars for an upcoming piece and it brought to mind the day I met Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and found out about an interesting bit of method acting she employed for war film Paradise Road.

Frances McDormand (on the left) and Cate Blanchett (on the right) as POW's in the film Paradise Road.

An advertisement for Paradise Road featuring the film's star and Cate's mentor; Glenn Close.

A chance meeting with an Oscar winner reveals a somewhat painful way of getting in the right frame of mind to act out a scene

First class, is there really any other way to fly? A mix up in reservations had seen my flight to Los Angeles upgraded from economy to first class. This was amazing, a big comfy seat, personal entertainment station and a chilled glass of complimentary Bucks Fizz (the champagne and orange juice cocktail, not the 1980s pop group). The flight was about to take off when there was a slight commotion and a slender blonde seated herself next to me.

My mouth dropped open and I nearly spilled my Bucks Fizz when I realised it was Australian actress Cate Blanchett. One might have expected her to still be carrying the Best Supporting Actress statuette for her portrayal of screen legend Katherine Hepburn in the Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator." Before long Ms Blanchett and I were chatting away happily. Like most Australians who spend a lot of time away from their sun burnt country, she was pleased to meet and talk to a countrywoman.

One intriguing aspect of Ms Blanchett is her ability to completely become her character, something that had obviously impressed the members of the Film and Motion Picture Academy when they awarded her the Oscar. "She brought Kate Hepburn back to life," said one awestruck reviewer.

The film star laughed and told an interesting story. Her ability to feel the experiences of her character had been a lesson she had learned early in her career. One of her first films was a picture called "Paradise Road." It was a fictionalised account of the real story of a group of Australian, American, British and Dutch ladies who were taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II when Singapore fell to the Imperial Japanese forces.

Ms Blanchett played the part of spirited Australian nurse Susan McCarthy. It was quite a coup for a young unknown actress to win the part alongside such respected and well known thespians as Oscar winners Glenn Close and Frances McDormand, respected veteran British actress Pauline Collins and popular television star Julianna Margulies.

One of the most harrowing scenes in the film concerned Ms Blanchett's character. At the morning assembly, Susan made a disparaging and sarcastic comment about the Japanese flag resembling a large poached egg. The vicious Japanese secret service agent Captain Tanaka first insisted that the nurse be killed for her comment. After impassioned pleas from fellow prisoners, he decided to merely torture her by making the nurse kneel in the middle of the camp's courtyard in the hot Asian sun.

A bamboo pole wound with barbed wire was then placed behind her knees so that she would be unable to rest her weight on her haunches and would have to kneel straight through. Around her sharpened stakes were placed in a circle so that if she fell due to exhaustion she would impale herself. She was made to kneel there for a full day and night. Crucial to the scene's effectiveness was the actress's ability to look and react as if she had genuinely undergone a great physical ordeal.

Doubts About Playing a Scene

Whilst make-up can do wonders, Ms Blanchett voiced very real doubts to her co-stars about being able to get herself in the right frame of mind. Pauline Collins and Glenn Close had taken on "mother hen" roles with their younger actresses and it was Ms Close who asked the Aussie if she was an aficionado of the method acting style. Ms Blanchett admitted that she was not.

Ms Close then made the comment, "You know I always looked immensely uncomfortable following an extended session over my mother's knee." Other actresses chimed in to agree, Ms Blanchett remembered .

"Are you suggesting that I be spanked to make me look like I've been tortured?" an incredulous Cate Blanchett asked.

It certainly looked that way. "I couldn't believe it!" Ms Blanchett confided. "It was hard enough to just act alongside people like Glenn, Pauline and Frances, but for them to spank me and see my bottom, it was just so mortifying."

Well, how did she handle the situation?

"With them all nodding and almost daring me to go through with it I couldn't say no," Ms Blanchett admitted with a blush. "I stood up and said: 'Okay, how do we do this?' Because Glenn had suggested it, the other three, Pauline, Frances and Julianna, who was also there, said that I should lay over her knees. Glenn sat down, smiled at me, smoothed her skirt over her legs and then crooked her finger."

Ms Blanchett said she had never been spanked before, "not even as a kid," so it was rather awkward for her lie over her fellow actress's knees. "Glenn settled me into the centre of her lap and tugged down the shorts I was wearing for my part, followed by my panties. I'm sure my face went as red as the hair colour I had at the time."

However, Ms Close was not the first to spank the young actress. Rather, it was the Brit, Ms Collins, who did the honors. "Glenn held me down while Pauline delivered ten hard smacks to each of my upturned moons. She may look plump and motherly, but from that first slap I knew that while she may have admitted her Mum spanked her, not all of her experience was on the receiving end."

Ms Blanchett recalled that she was "bouncing up and down" over Ms Close's lap by the time Ms Collins' twenty smacks had been applied. "Then Frances took her place. She knew what she was about, too. Not only did she smack hard, she also knew where to spank, when she slapped right into that crease where bottom and thighs meet I howled and kicked and my backside caught fire."

I couldn't help but wince in sympathy, having felt that same "fire" in my own "sit spot" many a time. "Then Julianna had a go. She's a tall girl and she has a strong right arm and a hard, flat palm. It wasn't helped by Glenn encouraging me to cry as they spanked up a storm. I couldn't help it and the flood gates broke, when Julianna stepped away I was blubbering like a baby."

It turned out that the worst was yet to come. "Finally, it was Glenn's chance to do the honours. She gave me twenty very hard deliberate spanks, each one stung like fury and reignited the fires that Pauline, Frances and Julianna had lit. I thought it was over, then Glenn held out her hand and I heard something slap into it. That was when I felt the hairbrush."

This was when true "method acting" began to take shape, Ms Blanchett said. "Oh my God! I felt like I really was being tortured. I was roaring and bucking around, my bottom is tingling now with just the memories of it. Despite the pain, and I was dancing about, rubbing the fire out of my backside for the next five minutes, I still had to go out and shoot a scene afterwards. The director, Bruce Beresford, was rapt. He didn't ask how I looked so pained, but he did say it made the scene easy to shoot and we got it done in one take."

I asked Ms Blanchett if she had done any other "method acting" since. She smiled at me, laid a finger alongside her nose and said, "Oh yes, but not necessarily for a part."

Originally published in Bared Affair, Issue 3.04