Saturday, December 6, 2008
Eyes on the Prize
"Do I want to win an Oscar? You bet your fucking ass I do!"
-- Kate Winslet, in a recent interview with Vanity Fair
We know, Kate. That's been painfully obvious for a long time now. And if you play your cards right -- as I think you have -- this just might be your year.
But is winning really what it's all about? Kate, you just turned 33, the same age Jesus won his first Oscar, and already you've established a remarkable career which, if it continues along its current trajectory, might rank among the all-time greats. It's incongruous that an actress who conveys such confidence and little neediness on-screen should exhibit the insecurity and resentment that you do so baldly at every awards season. Perhaps some perspective is in order.
I first noticed you in Sense and Sensibility (1995), of which my natural aversion to Jane Austen was overruled by my admiration for the films of Ang Lee. The movie was tolerable, anchored by Emma Thompson's sensitive lead performance and her intelligently structured script. And you were a firecracker, playing Thompson's love-lorn younger sister, Marianne Dashwood. Actually, you were uncharacteristically needy in this picture, Kate, both in terms of character and in a few overly actorly sequences -- such as Marianne's feverish pit of despair after being dumped by one of Austen's archetypal rich cads -- where it was clear you were clamoring for attention. You've become more subtle since then. But it was clear you had presence and charisma and talent to burn, and you got a Best Supporting Actress nomination for your trouble.
It was soon after that I caught up on video with your performance that garnered critical attention only the year before, playing one-half of the homicidal pair of young female lovers in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994). That was a great performance, Kate, a showcase for your fearless eroticism. I hope that just because the Academy didn't bestow any laurels you don't now deem it unworthy.
You followed this and S&S with solid work in Michael Winterbottom's Jude and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (both 1996). The former was a well-made downer of which not even your considerable efforts could energize. In the latter film, amid several embarrassingly miscast performers chewing on their every line, you played Ophelia with natural conviction.
Next came Titanic (1997). We all know what happened there, Kate. Yet what seems to be forgotten is how good you are in a part that must have been hell to play, with James Cameron's screaming fits and mocking your weight between takes. As Rose, the pawn in an arranged soon-to-be-marriage to the most ludicrous villain since the silent era, you made every single eye-rollingly terrible line of dialogue bearable. You were the hero of the movie, Kate, not young Leonardo DiCaprio. You were the conduit for zillions of teenage girls, never more so than in the scene where Jack paints you nude and you unashamedly hold his gaze. You deserved that first Best Actress nomination, Kate; not even the atrocious Gloria Stewart, playing your character at a later age, could snuff your lingering radiance.
You got a lot of attention for Titanic, Kate, perhaps too much. It's understandable why both you and Leo retreated, choosing parts as far away from magazine covers as possible. Like nearly everyone else, I never saw Hideous Kinky (1998), though you again received good notices. I did catch Holy Smoke (1999), another of Jane Campion's lunatic neofeminist ventures, where you play a woman brainwashed by a religious cult in India who then seduces and mind-fucks Harvey Keitel's deprogrammer. Perhaps your most impressive turn came next, in one of your worst movies, Philip Kaufman's Quills (2000). In this film, a wretched tale of the Marquis de Sade as allegory for the Lewinsky affair, you were smacked between the ham sandwich of Geoffrey Rush and Joaquin Phoenix. Yet you pulled off the daunting feat of keeping your dignity and staying real.
Another Supporting Actress nomination came for Iris (2001), then Best Actress again for the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Whereas your role in Iris as the younger version of Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench played the older Alzheimer's version) was typical Oscar bait, Eternal Sunshine was an unconventional surprise. Starring opposite Jim Carrey as the love he is desperate to forget, your Clementine is a character written as rather two-dimensional but who instead, fused by your personality, is a grounded eccentric, right down the changes of color in her hair. Your most recent nomination came as the female lead in Little Children (2007). That film, a mannered and artificically tragic satire of the suburbs, doesn't work, but your character certainly does: an unhappy housewife desperate to feel passion.
In one film after another, you have proven yourself as one of the finest actors on the planet. You convey intelligence, wit, vulnerability and warmth. Regardless of how many obscure art films to your credits, your predilection for copious nudity has earned you legions of fans from adolescence onward. Yet behind all of this has been a palpable and growing vanity -- your publicized on-again off-again weight loss and apparent plastic surgery (your face looks different now, more "perfect" yet less beautiful) the most transparent examples. You're still young, Kate. In the prime of your life. No need for Barbara Hershey-esque desperation just yet.
Even more disconcerting has been your conduct during the Academy Awards. Indeed, one of the highlights (or lowlights) of every Oscar telecast where you've been a nominee has been watching your face scrunch with rage when the winner's name is called. I can understand that five nominations without a win must be frustrating, especially when you keep losing to inferior American lightweights like Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite), Helen Hunt (As Good as it Gets), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), and Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby). To make matters worse, you turned down the plum role of Viola in Shakespeare in Love that then went to the Best Actress of that year, the insipid Brit-wannabe Gwyneth Paltrow (who's been on even more magazine covers than you have, always to remind us of how much she shuns celebrity). But your reaction when Helen Mirren took the stage for The Queen made you look petty, Kate. You really didn't expect to beat a sure thing, did you? Look how many years Paul Newman went without a gold statue, and you never saw him gnashing his teeth on live TV. Make some salad dressing. Show more class.
In recent years you've been upping the ante, gunning for the big prize, and with that there have been some miscalculations. Finding Neverland (2004) didn't fly. The Life of David Gale (2003), which on paper must have seemed like standard liberal Hollywood political sop to both you and Kevin Spacey -- the death penalty, huzzah! -- made several year-end worst lists instead. Even the lefties winced.
You've covered your bases this year, Kate, perhaps too well. You're playing a Holocaust-related character in The Reader and are re-teamed with DiCaprio in a feature directed by your already-Oscared husband Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road. There is a worry you might cancel yourself out. Yet with The Reader generating little buzz, my money's on Revolutionary Road. You play another housewife in this one, Kate; but the pedigree of the film, a period piece based on a beloved novel, may just push you over the top.
Your ambitions, of course, would not be complete without an archnemesis to potentially impede them. Your principal competition over the next few years -- the only actress with a near-equal claim to the big prize -- is none other than the "Cate" with a C, Ms. Blanchett. Sure, she's already won playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (opposite, ironically, your Leo), but that was a supporting turn, and you know as well as I do that Hollywood would love nothing more than to give her more recognition. Plus, unlike yourself, the lady exudes class and self-deprecating wit: remember last year's Oscars, after her clip for the misbegotten Elizabeth sequel, when Blanchett turned to the camera with a sheepish, apologetic half-grin, half-grimace? Great stuff. Onscreen Blanchett has a regal air, yet in real life she's married to an average shlub, as far away from the A-list as you probably can't even fathom. She doesn't seem to need anything, and consequently she seems to get everything. I imagine you with a dart board in your basement, aiming at her ethereal visage. Don't let your baser impulses get the better of you, Kate. Remember Tonya Harding.
With Blanchett's upcoming Benjamin Button unlikely to tap the Zeitgeist, I don't think you have much to fear this year. (The same can't be said for DiCaprio, alas, who will likely fall short, in a Tropic Thunder-like scenario, to either Clint Eastwood's racist codger or Sean Penn's gay-rights advocate.) And if your name is called, I can't imagine you "sputtering like a teapot," to paraphrase Jim Wolcott's memorable description of American actresses feigning surprise. I suspect you'll give a semi-eloquent speech without any pretense of humility. You're English, Kate; you'll sound good even if you're bad.
And maybe, after you've won, you can finally relax. Choose more comedic roles, only better than that Jack Black flick you were in recently. Take the stage, where I think you'd be a natural. Or retreat into motherhood. You can afford to take your time. Your eventual divorce from Mendes is at least a couple years away. Like Julie Christie, you're a survivor, and even if you drop off radar you'll return. But you could use a dash of Christie's unadorned self-possession: she's never given a fig about awards; she knows who she is. Keep that in mind if you emerge victorious. And remember, should you lose again, the difference between being a winner and acting like one.