Whitney Pastorek
January 26, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

The first time we see Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal, her character, Sheba Hart, is standing in a drab British schoolyard, her golden hair shining like a beacon in the winter sun. She is glowing, transcendently beautiful, blissfully alive — and despite the chaos of students spinning around, you can’t take your eyes off her.

Blanchett herself knows from standing out in a crowd. Last year, the 37-year-old Aussie took on three gutsy, diverse roles, and nailed each one: The Good German‘s mad femme fatale, Babel‘s ailing wife, and Scandal‘s Hart, a privileged art teacher with a devoted family who throws it all away by having an affair with her 15-year-old student. It is this final portrayal that earned Blanchett her third Oscar nomination (she’s won once, playing Katharine Hepburn in 2004’s The Aviator). More than that, it’s solidified her reputation as an actress with vast reserves of power, capable of going toe-to-toe with fellow Oscar nominee Judi Dench — in the role of Sheba’s possessive frenemy, Barbara Covett — and not relinquishing an inch.

Like the feline her name evokes, Sheba is a pampered, entitled creature, content to float above everything, willfully ignorant of consequences — yet Blanchett plays her with a charming naïveté that almost lets the character off the hook. Then, in the movie’s climactic scene, she morphs from house cat to panther, primal in her ferocity. It’s a thrilling, discomfiting transformation. ”I was quite taken aback by how judgmental I was of Sheba,” Blanchett said. ”I just couldn’t understand or relate to her…. What’s great about being offered roles like this that are so far beyond your own sense of comprehension — it’s a curious and wonderful journey to get to the point of understanding.” Still, she said, ”I was grateful to leave Sheba behind.” And we’re grateful she took her on in the first place.

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