More on the Art of the Celebrity Profile: Some Questions That Are More Interesting Than “Why Is Cate Blanchett Smiling?’

Why Is This Woman Smiling? ” the cover of the New York Times’ T magazine asked, accompanying a photograph of actress Cate Blanchett, interviewed in the issue by Daphne Merkin. Well, she was smiling because she was an actress being photographed for the cover of a magazine and, one assumes, the photographer asked her to smile. Other mysteries are not so easy to solve:

• Why was “Why Is This Woman Smiling?” the cover line? Editor Sally Singer has a weird preference for the deadest cliches in the world . “Why Is This [X] Smiling?” is a classic snowclone , an adjustable language-unit that headline writers fall back on because it is familiar and it seems to refer to something, even if they aren’t sure the reference is appropriate or they can’t remember where the original reference even happened. (Best current guess: Esquire, c. 1970s and onward, Dubious Achievement Awards: “Why Are These Men Laughing?”)

• What are some similarities and differences between the reasons for Cate Blanchett to smile and the reasons for Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (” Why Is This Man Smiling? “, New York Times, April 8) to be smiling?

• In the photograph of Blanchett accompanying the beginning of the article, why is the tag of a teabag dangling from a teacup that has no visible liquid in it? Is she waiting for the hot water, in this tableau? Has she already drunk half a cup of tea, with the teabag still soaking in it, the remaining liquid growing ever more bitter? Is this a deliberate device to emphasize falseness of the staged portrait of the actress, dressed for a fashion shoot, poking a fork at a plate of food?

• Did Daphne Merkin sincerely believe that there is a meaningful psychological dimension to a celebrity’s decision to stay at and be interviewed over breakfast at the Chateau Marmont? “The Marmont, I decide, is too hip to be excited, which is probably why Blanchett has elected to stay here.” Is there any setting anywhere more synonymous with the generic and obligatory celebrity-reporter encounter than this place, the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont?

• Why did the piece—the conceit of which is that Merkin is looking for a real, novel insight into the ongoing mystery of Cate Blanchett—not acknowledge that Daphne Merkin already profiled Cate Blanchett in the New York Times Magazine, eight years ago? (2003: “her gorgeously ripe mouth”; 2011: “her generous, mobile mouth.”)

• This time, Merkin wrote that Blanchett’s “most divalike” feature, “justifiably much-commented on by interviewers,” is her skin—”I suddenly find myself staring” at it; it is “luminous and poreless and the color of a pale peach.” In 2003, Merkin did not mention Blanchett’s skin at all. Has Cate Blanchett’s skin changed for the better in the intervening years? Or was Daphne Merkin making up for the fact that she did not notice such an important thing, such a commented-upon thing, the last time around?  

• In 2003, Blanchett was a “34-year-old actress.” In 2011, her age went unmentioned. Does Cate Blanchett age at the same rate as ordinary people?

• What was the condition of Cate Blanchett’s fingernails?”Her nails are unmanicured, which on her looks like the last word in efficient chic,” Merkin wrote. But a photo caption credits a manicure—”by Alicia Torello at the Wall Group”—and Merkin clearly describes the interview as having taken place after the photo shoot.

• Is there a reason for Cate Blanchett not to smile, or for a reader to expect that Cate Blanchett would not smile? She seems quite successful and happy.