By Aymar Jean Christian
Before writing this I started writing down the actresses I think qualify as “great.” I wanted to get some generational parity, so I started with the oldies (but goodies). You know the names: Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson, Diane Keaton, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Anne Benning, Vanessa Redgrave, Catherine Deneuve, Julianne Moore, Kristin Scott Thomas. It’s a short but ample list.
Go down in age and the list gets shorter and more hesitant. I started with Kate; that was a lock. I quickly added the other Cate. Then, my mind started to hurt. Both Kate and Cate have had a consistent stream of solid work for about ten years. Nicole Kidman is great, but she is often a bit too Grace Kelly to me; Charlize Theron too, but Æon Flux and Hancock are pretty damning. Halle Berry has yet to recover from Catwoman. Penélope Cruz has had a good run of late and is getting there. Everyone else had a “?” next to their name, as in, maybe they will be great, maybe not: Angelia Jolie (she’s very close), Anne Hathaway (a ways to go), Reese Witherspoon, Keira Knightley, Amy Adams, Sophie Okonedo, Kerry Washington, Queen Latifah, Renee Zellweger.
Depth of character definitely comes with age, and it takes a few years for young actresses to grow out of the adorable, Doris Day, everygirl rom-com roles to meatier fare.
This is what makes Cate and especially Kate so remarkable. At such young ages – Cate and Angelina are approaching 40, but Penélope and Kate are both under 35. These actresses are already grabbing roles that are grown-up and display wisdom and depth typically unavailable to young actresses.
Winslet was in her early twenties when she tackled Rose in Titanic, and that role was breezy compared to her heavy lifting in Hamlet as Ophelia and in Sense and Sensibility.
After the juggernaut that was Titanic, for most Americans, Kate disappeared for awhile, doing smaller and darker movies like Iris and Quills, excelling in both. But, I would argue, Kate came back and reached her current stride with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, teaching young people like me that, hey, she can act.
She has a God-given gift for being instantly lovable and yet melancholic and pitiable. I thought this was all she had to offer, until I saw Romance & Cigarettes, in which she plays a working class tramp. Winslet owned the movie and was uproariously funny, baudy, gross and boundless. I then thought she might just be a “great.”
She proved me right with Little Children, a hilarious and sharp film in which she dresses down and plays someone plain and pathetic. This wasn’t new territory, but it was the first time she had a full movie to play out the type. She was stunning, in a dull way.
Finally 2008 brought her luck and two theater-busting roles. Revolutionary Road, on paper, is another bland script about how the suburbs and the American family are hopelessly empty – really, “hopeless emptiness” is in the script…twice. But Kate brought such rawness to the role, such desperation, existential angst and yes, even humor (the audience I saw it with almost cackling) that she once proved her stripes. The Reader is a gutsier movie, and in it Winslet plays a gutsier woman. Her performance is brilliant: vulnerable yet opaque, emotive yet stern and always forceful. Playing a Nazi (okay, SS Guard) is hard; making us sympathize with one, near impossible.
I hope in her next role she plays something ridiculous, like an aging Latino tango instructor – following of course the footsteps of Cate Blanchett, who played Bob Dylan, and Meryl Streep, who played an old Jewish rabbi. Keep proving me right, Kate.