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An oral history of the orgy scene of Eyes Wide Shut, published in Vulture magazine in 2019, detailed the production’s need to find an American actor to dub the voice of the ‘Mystery Woman’ who gives Cruise a tour of the playhouse mansion, as she had been played in the film by a British model, Abigail Good. Kubrick’s assistant revealed that Cruise and Kidman had recommended Cate Blanchett to the production. Approval was given in Kubrick’s untimely absence, and Blanchett showed up to Pinewood Studios to record the lines, and, despite her Australian-ness, was ready to offer her best American accent.

It was a rare intersection between the two actors, who have had largely separate careers despite some shared biographical notes. Both were born with American citizenship—Blanchett’s Texan father died when she was ten—so entry into that country was easy. Their closeness with two leading women in the Australian film industry helped create a clear distinction: where Kidman had the close partnership with Jane Campion, Blanchett was aligned with Gillian Armstrong, starring in Armstrong’s literary adaptations of Peter Carey’s tricksy Oscar and Lucinda (1997) and the spy romance Charlotte Gray (2001). With only two years between them, however, it was natural Blanchett and Kidman would walk some crossing paths in their careers. Blanchett was nominated or an Oscar for her portrayal as the ascending ‘Virgin Queen’ in Elizabeth (1998), a role that Kidman had originally been sought for.

With only two years between them, however, it was natural Blanchett and Kidman would walk some crossing paths in their careers.

Both actors certainly went chasing after the ghost of Vivien Leigh. Kidman would evoke the playful hardheadedness of Scarlett O’Hara in her spin on a Civil War epic, Cold Mountain (2003). Blanchett was far more direct, inhabiting the frequently cracking façade of Blanche DuBois for a revival of Tennessee Williams’ famed A Streetcar Named Desire at the Sydney Theatre Company, which was later toured in America in 2009. ‘Blanchett as Blanche’ was feared by some to be a fatal tic and a dead end for her acting, but she more than recovered in the years after. The pair also stalked Katharine Hepburn. Kidman was rumoured to be playing Hepburn in what would become Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004). Blanchett took the role instead and won an Oscar for it. Kidman had long cited Hepburn as the key influence on her career and work, having expressed a desire to develop her own biopic before Scorsese let cameras roll on Hepburn’s relationship with the reclusive director Howard Hughes, thinking poetically but realistically that she’d ‘love to make a movie as an ode to her. I just need to find someone good enough to write it’.

It may well have been that, as a child actor prodigy, Kidman had heard tell that Hepburn had shuttled across to her side of the Harbour Bridge, swinging by North Sydney, up to the northern beaches, setting up an easel to paint the Barrenjoey Lighthouse when she was on tour in Australia in 1955 with the Old Vic. Later in life, Kidman remembered that she’d bought a vintage photograph of Hepburn and asked her to sign it, but the elderly actress flatly refused.

If there is a great divergence between Blachett and Kidman, it might be that Blanchett more committedly balanced work on screen with work on the stage. In 2008, alongside her husband, Andrew Upton, she became the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC)—whose 1989 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Kidman had dropped out of to appear in Days of Thunder. Running a not-for-profit cultural institution meant that Blanchett was accountable and answerable to a very different set of stakeholders—a more demanding crowd than general cinemagoers, who pay their money and leave without any face-to-face interaction, no great right of reply. It also pushed her into political arenas cinema stars usually distance themselves from. In the same year that Blanchett took over the STC, the newly elected prime minister Kevin Rudd hosted the Australia 2020 Summit, a working group intended to strategise and project policy forward into the next decade, over two days. Blanchett was assigned as co-chair of the Creative Australia Stream. She had a vested interest in national arts funding given her responsibility for the theatre company.

Movie culture is inherently political.

In 2014, after her reign at STC had ended, Blanchett was featured in the speaker line-up for Gough Whitlam’s funeral, delivering a eulogy touching on how she had benefited from his tertiary education policies. Whitlam had abolished university fees in 1974 and the policy had remained in place until 1988, ultimately dumped by fellow Labor leader Bob Hawke. Blanchett credited her ability to explore acting with Whitlam’s policy. Another former prime minister, John Howard, was sitting among the mourners that day, and would pettily call Blanchett’s largely innocuous speech ‘outrageous’, suggesting there had been selective scholarships, like his own, before 1974, meaning that free education predated Whitlam. Howard’s damnation of Blanchett’s eulogy as ‘outrageous’ felt a part of the usual conservative catchcry that people don’t want celebrities to be political (the usual stress is on their celebrity status, rather than their central positions within the creative industries worth billions of dollars to the economy). Movie culture is inherently political. The hesitancy to admit as much makes sense when the backlash from conservative media can be severe. Blanchett came under particular fire from columnists in Murdoch’s newspapers in 2011 for appearing in a series of advertisements pushing support for a carbon tax.

Kidman had supported a less controversial green movement effort a decade earlier when she stood side-by-side with Tom Cruise to record a straight-to-camera address to the International Olympic Committee, singing the praises of Sydney hosting the Olympic Games. The couple looked as if they were beaming in from a Country Road ad—standing in front of handsome horses on some mythic Californian ranch—and spoke vaguely of the environmental initiatives that Sydney was baking into its bid. Kidman smiled broadly, and offered, ‘I grew up in Sydney and it would be wonderful if my hometown could provide an environmental role model for the world’.

It was only one part of a giant machine that worked to secure Sydney the right to host the Olympic Games for the year 2000, but it indicated that Kidman’s ascendance in Hollywood had long been entwined with Sydney’s growing confidence on the world stage and that both would meet, head on, at the end of one millennium and the beginning of another.

This is an edited extract from Cast Mates: Australian Actors in Hollywood and at Home by Sam Twyford-Moore (NewSouth Books),  available now at your local independent bookseller.