According to my own highly unscientific survey, just about everybody loves Kate Winslet.
Actually, it wasnâ€™t a survey at all, just me going about my business around the time that Winslet starred in â€œLittle Children,â€ Todd Fieldâ€™s film adaptation of my novel. Kate Winslet! people would exclaim, their faces brightening at the mention of her name.
I love Kate Winslet! They loved her for all sorts of reasons: She seems like such a nice person, so down-to-earth. She doesnâ€™t look like she starves herself. Sheâ€™s so different from one movie to the next. The fans who knew her from â€œTitanicâ€ hadnâ€™t necessarily caught her in â€œEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindâ€ â€” and vice versa â€” but both groups thought she was a terrific actress. As you might expect, a lot of men appreciated her fearless on-screen sexuality, but a surprising number of women responded to her on this level as well. Lesbians, I was informed, have a special fondness for Kate. They think sheâ€™s a goddess, a helpful friend explained.
Winsletâ€™s apparently universal appeal isnâ€™t unique, but it is mysterious. After all, everybody loves Tom Hanks and Will Smith, too, but thatâ€™s by design â€” those guys want us to love them.
Everything they do, on-screen and off, cements their reputations as likable everymen, latter-day Jimmy Stewarts. They play war heroes and superheroes and selfless dads and little boys trapped in the bodies of grown men. Winslet, on the other hand, gravitates toward troubling roles in smaller films â€” a teenage murderer (â€œHeavenly Creaturesâ€), a prickly novelist who succumbs to Alzheimerâ€™s (â€œIrisâ€), the Marquis de Sadeâ€™s chambermaid (â€œQuillsâ€).
If we love Hanks and Smith because of the characters they play, we love Winslet in spite of them. Some of her choices may be dictated by necessity â€” there arenâ€™t a whole lot of heroic parts available to women in Hollywood â€” but itâ€™s hard to ignore a certain perverse streak in her decision making. Who else would have followed a breakout role in Americaâ€™s biggest blockbuster ever with a starring turn in a tiny film called â€œHideous Kinkyâ€?
Itâ€™s not that Winslet doesnâ€™t care what people think of her; at times she seems all too sensitive to the dangers sheâ€™s courting by playing so many thorny, potentially unsympathetic characters. I learned this firsthand after the release of â€œLittle Children,â€ in which she plays Sarah, an unhappy stay-at-home mom who carries on a passionate affair with a handsome stay-at-home dad (Patrick Wilson) during their toddlersâ€™ naptime. Itâ€™s an astonishing, vulnerable, painfully funny, ferociously honest performance, one of the finest of her career. Publicizing the film, though, Winslet went to what I considered excessive lengths to separate herself from Sarah, stating in interview after interview how hard it was for her to play a â€œbad mother.â€ It got to the point that I began to feel sorry for both the character â€” Sarah wasnâ€™t really a bad mother, just a terribly distracted one â€” and the actress, who had brought her to life with such subtlety and compassion that a summary judgment like â€œbad motherâ€ seemed not just inadequate, but totally beside the point. I wondered if Winslet was beating a strategic retreat, preparing to refashion her career along more conventional Hollywood lines, a suspicion that only deepened with her appearance in â€œThe Holiday,â€ a fluffy romantic comedy unlike anything she had ever done before.
But it turns out that my worries were misplaced, because Winslet is back this year with two remarkable performances â€” as a Nazi war criminal in â€œThe Readerâ€ and as a disillusioned â€™50s-era housewife in â€œRevolutionary Roadâ€ â€” that make it clearer than ever that sheâ€™s both the finest and the most uncompromising actress of her generation.
Oddly enough, Hanna Schmitz, the former Nazi prison guard Winslet plays in â€œThe Reader,â€ directed by Stephen Daldry and based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, is by far the more sympathetic of the two characters. Partly this is because we see her only in peacetime â€” first as the older lover of a teenage boy, and then as a bewildered defendant in a war-crimes trial â€” but also because Winslet makes her intellectual limitations so insistently vivid. For all her Teutonic gruffness and unembarrassed sexuality â€” even by Winsletâ€™s standards, â€œThe Readerâ€has a lot of sex â€” Hanna remains a kind of child throughout the first half of the film, unwilling to face the horrors she helped perpetrate. While this has the effect of pushing â€œThe Readerâ€ into uncomfortable allegorical territory â€” at times, the movie comes perilously close to offering an implicit excuse for her crimes and for the crimes of other ordinary Germans who were just following orders â€” Hanna herself refuses any kind of absolution. The intellectual awakening she undergoes in prison â€” portrayed by Winslet as a kind of quiet ecstasy â€” only deepens her awareness of her own guilt. She grows old before our eyes, a woman who understands all too well that she is beyond forgiveness.
If Hanna is literally incarcerated, April Wheeler in â€œRevolutionary Roadâ€ â€” the film, directed by Winsletâ€™s husband, Same Mendes, is based on Richard Yates’s pitiless 1961 novel â€” considers herself a virtual prisoner of suburbia. On the surface, April is vaguely reminiscent of Sarah in â€œLittle Childrenâ€ â€” both are ex-bohemians, trapped in their pleasantly conventional surroundings, uncomfortably inhabiting the roles of mother and homemaker â€” but their dreams of escape are entirely different. Sarah wants love; April believes she already has it and simply wants to move to Paris, where she and her husband, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), can live the creative, interesting lives they deserve. Sarahâ€™s fantasy survives until very close to the end of â€œLittle Childrenâ€; throughout the film, sheâ€™s an energetic and hopeful â€” if slightly deluded â€” character. Aprilâ€™s dream dies earlier, and she spends the second half of the movie in a state of escalating desperation. Furious with Frank, she has sex with a neighbor in the front seat of a car; the scene is short and brutal â€” the man appears to be suffocating her â€” and ends with her cutting off his breathless declarations of love: â€œPlease just be quiet for a minute, then you can take me home.â€ But the high point of the movie comes a little later, on the morning when April has come to a fateful decision, a rejection of her marriage and of motherhood far more absolute than any that Sarah could have imagined. Instead of sharing her decision with Frank, she gets up, cooks him a big breakfast and makes cheerfully innocuous small talk, impersonating the vapid suburban housewife she believes he wants her to be. The confusion on DiCaprioâ€™s face is priceless â€” he knows this isnâ€™t April, it canâ€™t possibly be â€” but Winslet plays her role with such conviction itâ€™s impossible not to believe her.
Tom Perrottaâ€™s most recent novel is â€œThe Abstinence Teacher.â€