' Cinema Romantico: Highway To The Hyperbole Zone: A Dissertation On My Favorite Actress

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Highway To The Hyperbole Zone: A Dissertation On My Favorite Actress

My cinema obsession tends to be misunderstood here at the office and, thus, when a co-worker asked the other day what movies I was looking forward to seeing this holiday season I replied, practically before she was even done posing the question, "Revolutionary Road." "Which one?" she asked. I tried to explain it and tried to explain how cool it was that Kate & Leo were re-uniting and then mentioned how taken I am with the whole of Kate’s work and ability and they said, "Really? Kate Winslet?" My co-worker stated this with a look on her face that would have made you thought Kate was Sarah Palin. She continued, "Why her?" At this point, if it had been a movie, thunder would have rolled as I pontificated like some greek god on high about the immensity of her abilities. But instead I gave some horribly inconclusive response. I suppose I don't want to frighten people here (more than they already are of me) with my fanciful fits of OCD. So guess what, loyal readers? You get to bear the brunt. This blogger has turned on the Fasten Seatbelts Sign. It's go time.

Despite the gargantuan running time of James Cameron's 1997 box office behemoth "Titanic" I can pinpoint in it the exact instant I became smitten with Kate Winslet's acting. She has tracked down Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack Dawson to thank him for his actions the previous night when, in a fit of teenage melodrama, she pondered hurling herself off the back of the ship and he arrived in the nick of time to talk sense into her. They walk and talk. They stand at a railing, the setting sun illuminating their faces, and they agree one day they will go to a pier in Santa Monica where he will teach her to ride a horse "like a man" and "chew tobacco" and "spit" like a man. "They didn't teach you that in finishing school?" he asks. She replies: "No."

There. Right there. The way she says "No." Dear God. The Line Reading to end all Line Readings. Rose DeWitt Bukater, who Winslet is playing, isn't this prim and proper and sophisticated woman putting on airs. She's just a frickin' 17 year old girl. And not a single person in her life has ever treated her like a 17 year old girl until right here, right now, with Jack, and that's what that one word says.

And then Jack drags her to a different place on the ship because, by God, he's gonna teach her how to spit and then she reverts back to this impostor of an older woman saying over and over that she can't do this but he insists and she relents and he teaches her how to spit. (I know a lot of people didn't like the spitting scene. I don't care. I loved it. Absolutely loved it. Anyone who doesn't like it is an idiot. Yes. An idiot. No, I'm not going to lay out a point-by-point analysis of what makes this scene so great because some things just need to be left unsullied. But if you don't like it you're a complete idiot and that's that.) Jack hawks up a loogie and sends it flying and says to Rose "Do you see the range on that?" and she nods and says "Mmmm hmmmm." Again, so, so, so in character. So genuine, so earnest.

And, thus, eleven years ago to damn near the day I was gone with Kate Winslet. Forever and ever. There was no going back. I realized I was seeing the Greatest Actress Of Her Generation even though I didn't realize it-realize it. I could go on and on. Look at later how she runs around the lower decks of the sinking ship with the axe. She looks exactly like a teenage girl whose never carried an axe once her life running around the lower decks of a sinking ship with an axe. That is not easy. I mean, I've been trying for years to sell people on how good she was in "Titanic" and you know what? I'm done. Take it or leave it. I don't care. If you can't appreciate the depth and quality of that performance it's you're f---ing loss. Not mine.

(Okay, I apologize for being harsh just then. But when it comes to the things I love most I just can't help it.)

That's what she can do. She can cut right down to the bottom line, to the truth, to the core, to the heartbeat of the character, in a single moment. She doesn't need a colossal monologue to do it or or an entire scene structured around revealing an important emotion or colorful assistance from the camera or even unnecessary voiceovers. She just does it.

Look at the start of "Little Children" and the way her character helplessly digs through her backpack for her daughter's treat that she forgot to pack. An absent-minded, daydreaming woman who is not, shall we say, a model mother. And, yeah, we get this impression from the film's voiceover and the way they present the character in comparison to the other mothers surrounding her but look at the way she digs through the backpack. You didn't NEED all that other stuff because she says it all on her own in that instant with mere body language.

Look at the way she calls herself "a vindictive little bitch" at the start of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". You think she might be kidding but you think she might be serious but you think she might just be trying to get a rise out of the Jim Carrey character. Whether or not she is isn't the point, see? It's what the character herself thinks and we're not sure because Winslet doesn't tip her hand. You feel just like Jim Carrey feels because you don't know either. (By the way, don't presume the fact that the best performance of Jim Carrey's career happening opposite her in this movie was some random coincidence. She can significantly up anyone's game. She can support but not overshadow.)

But there's so much more at work, too. All her singular moments of impeccable characterization add up to one thing - namely, transformation. So few actors and actresses take you on a true journey but with Kate that is always the case. These arcs can be traditional ("Titanic"), traditional yet still made convincing by her in terrible movies ("The Holiday"), traditional in untraditional ways ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and, best of all, static arcs. We set out from camp on a journey and when the journey is done we realize we've made a scenic circle ending....back at camp.

As many brilliant turns as there are in the Winslet Canon there are two, neither of them Oscar nominated, that I think might just be her best.

In "Hideous Kinky" (her followup to the biggest box office hit of all time which was a glorious way to take a piss on what Hollywood wanted her to be) she portrays a hippie-sorta' mom who up and takes her two little kids with her to Morocco even though they possess no desire to be uprooted from their current home and school and whisked away to some foreign land. Ms. Winslet is required to offer us two distinct traits: 1.) She is sincere and genuine and idealistic. 2.) She is a very bad mother. We might refer to this bit of acting as Walking The Highwire. Why would you want to like a bad mother? Well, you want to like her because, you know, she is sincere and genuine and idealistic. You like her in spite of herself but you do because Winslet maintains a likeable glow while also making it quite clear she is perhaps not entirely fit to be raising children.

The movie is rather repetitive in how you see her make mistakes and then not learn from her mistakes but she seems to make that repetition tragic. You want her to grow up in the face of the error of her ways but you don't think she is going to except than maybe you think she will and so you root that she will and then she doesn't. Again I say, that's not easy.

("Hideous Kinky", too, would work as a fantastic companion piece once you've seen "Revolutionary Road" if you wondered - don't read the rest of this sentence if you haven't read the book; I say again, don't read the rest of this sentence if you haven't read the book - what might have happened had Frank & April Wheeler actually made it to Paris with their kids.)

Kate's very first role, however, in Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" (one of the 25 best movies ever made) is absolutely riveting, and not just because of how frickin' good she is but because of how it foreshadows her entire career - re-proving to all the naysayers that, yes, the movie gods exist.

Based on the real life story of two girls in 1952 New Zealand who develop a much too-deep relationship (perhaps a lesbian relationship) who, because of their closeness, are kept apart by their respective parents, leading to extremely tragic consequences.

As Juliet Hulme, Winslet, in her introduction to cinema, enters her new schoolroom, eyebrows raised ever so slightly, examining each and every student as if simultaneously probing them and letting them know there is a new sheriff in town. It is French class and so the haggard, old teacher instructs her to take a seat at the front of the room and invent a French name for herself ("Antoinette") and within seconds Juliet, or Antoinette, has stood up and corrected an error the teacher has made on the blackboard. She does it with a smile that is so bemused, so self-assured, so cocky, you laugh way out loud.

It is revelatory in that she summarizes her character in a single line reading but also in how it essentially represents the fact Kate is showing up on the movie scene and immediately letting the old guard (of actresses and actors) know - I'm here, you better account for me, 'cuz I already know the rules of the game as good, if not better than, you.

Or as Roger Ebert wrote so eloquently of Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown": "Great actors don't follow rules. They illustrate them."

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