Oscar 2006: Kate Winslet in Little Children

Its rather shocking to realize that the extremely gifted Kate Winslet has just turned 30, considering the stellar career she has had over the past 12 years, including four Oscar nominations.

This season, Winslet shines (again) in Todd Fields ambitious and haunting anatomy of American suburbia, Little Children. With some luck, and savvy marketing campaign from New Line, Winslets brilliant interpretation of a tough, demanding role, that occupies the story's center, should bring her the fifth Oscar nomination and the third lead one.

It may be uphill, but not impossible, battle, since we already have more attention-grabbing biopic roles, such as Helen Mirrens terrific turn as contempo monarch Elizabeth in Stephen Frears political satire, The Queen, or ostentatious roles as the nasty lesbian art teacher played by Academy fave Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal.”

Granted, Winslet benefits from a well-written part (by Field and Tom Perrotta, the author of the book upon which the film is based), Fields astute direction, and not to be underestimated, strong support from Patrick Wilson, as her onscreen lover, who himself deserves Academy recognition (other actors are also excellent; see my review).

But in this column, Id like to sing the praise for Winslet as one of the gutsiest, most ambitious, and gifted actresses working in todays cinema. I can think of only one other actress in Winslets cohort whos as talented and as versatile, Aussie Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Aviator), whos slightly older than Winslet.

Known for her selective, risk-taking approach to film roles, Winslet has excelled in both period pieces, such as Ang Lees Sense and Sensibility (1995), for which she received her first (Supporting) Oscar nomination (Emma Thompson was that films star) as well as modern dramas, though, surprisingly most of her work so far has been in costume dramas (see below).

Smoothly navigating between British and American films, big Hollywood flicks and smaller indies, Winslet has demonstrated an incomparable range, with equal adeptness at drama and comedy. If memory serves, the only genre Winslet has not attempted yet is musical, but I wont be surprised is she can sing and dance as well as she can act).

Winslet, who was born in Yorkshire in 1975, can do accents as effortlessly as other thespians, and she can wear heavy makeup and transform herself physically beyond recognition. Yet whats most impressive about her work in Little Children is how clean, natural, unmannered, and pure her acting is as Sarah, a frustrated wife, mother, and woman stuck in listless marriage to a boring man, who's sexually repressed and emotionally stifled.

Among many other qualities, Winslet may be the only actress whose nude/sex scenes (and there are plenty of them in Little Children) dont call attention to her or her body, but serve the narrative as a whole. And Id speculate that when viewers look back at Fields amazingly audacious expose, they would be as much haunted by other images of Winslet than her with her nudity. (Unlike, say, the Sharon Stone nude scenes in Basic Instinct and other flicks, which are deliberately suggestive and consciously sleazy).

Winslets Track Record

The first time I saw Winslet on screen was in Peter Jacksons Heavenly Creatures, a brilliant fact-based movie that never found its audience, perhaps due to tough subject matter, dealing with two teenage killer girls.

Winslet gave an auspicious debut performance in Heavenly Creatures, in which her mastery of the fine line that separates between adolescent friendship, lesbian affair, and murderous spree was the heart of the feature. She was only 17, and thus close in age to the real-life character that she played.

In a little over a decade, Winslet has worked with some of the best directors around, included the aforementioned Peter Jackson, Jane Campion, for which she has made Holy Smoke (1998) opposite Harvey Keitel, Philip Kaufman (Quills), Kenneth Branagh “Hamlet”), and others.

Some of Winslets films were only seen by the arthouse crowds (the Jane Campion features), but lets not forget that she was the the figurehead of the most commercial picture in films history, James Camerons Titanic, which garnered her the second (and first Best Actress) Oscar nomination. Grossing $1.8 million worldwide, Titanic swept most of the 1997 Oscars, including Best Picture, even if the Academy scandalously snubbed her onscreen lover, Leonardo DiCaprio (See DiCaprio Oscar Alert).

Winslet has practically elevated every movie in which she has appeared: Michael Winterbottoms Jude (1996), Gilles Mackinnons Hideous Kinky (1998), as the bespectacled helper in the British Hitchcockian thriller “Enigma” (2001), directed by Michael Apted).

As the bright maid, Winslet lent honorable support and offered grounded counterpart to the eccentricities Geoffrey Rush, who was over the top as the Marquis De Sade in Philip Kaufmans flawed Quills (2000). And she was ravishing young author Iris Murdock in Richard Eyres compromising biopic Iris (2001), in which Judi Dench played the writer as a mature woman.

Winslet's fourth Oscar nomination (and second in the lead catgeory) was for Michel Gondrys Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an art film more championed by critics than the large public. The Charlie Kaufman-written movie received a well-deserved Oscar for its original script, but it was the year of Clint Eastwood and “Million Dollar Baby.”

World-premiering at Telluride, “Little Children” played the Toronto Film Festival and will also be seen in the New York Film Festival, before opening in October.

As of September, Little Children” is not only of the best American movies of the year, but also one that features a stellar performance from Kate Winslet that should be remembered at Oscar time.

Kate Winslets Oscar Nominations

Sense and Sensibility (1995), Supporting Actress
Titanic (1997), Best Actress
Iris (2001), Supporting Actress
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Best Actress