Some movie actresses—like Garbo, Hepburn, Davis, and Bergman—are immortal. Long after they disappear from the planet, they remain alive in our imaginations, bigger than life. The mention of their names evokes memories of great roles and unforgettable screen moments. But when we look at the celebrated actresses of our own time, what separates those whose performances will remain vividly in our memory from those who merely catch our eye momentarily in the chorus line of today’s would-be screen goddesses?
Until recently, Meryl Streep stood alone in her claim to the status of a true movie immortal. Think of her most talented contemporaries: Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, and Diane Keaton. They entranced us, but now live mostly in memory. It’s Streep alone who continues to display breathtaking range and daring, amazing us with an uncanny ability to reveal the inner life of characters as diametrically opposed as those she played in Mamma Mia! and Doubt, in Prairie Home Companion and The Devil Wears Prada.
Nevertheless, even if it doesn’t show, Streep will turn 60 this year—which, while perhaps young for Clint Eastwood, is old for a screen goddess. She can’t go on forever—or maybe she can (she can do anything else). But if not, who’ll follow her? Who, among the current crop of stars, will carve out a special place in our psyches and regularly astonish us with the scope of her talent?
Many of the leading actresses on our screens these days, like Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, and Charlize Theron, are certainly beautiful, but beauty can get in the way of an appreciation of talent. We pay attention to their artistry only when they get plain or even ugly, as Theron did in Monster or Kidman in The Hours, or Blanchett as freckled Kate Hepburn in The Aviator. Though engaging and talented, none is quite magical enough to qualify for immortality.
So we keep looking for the successor to Streep, whom we can count on to thrill us and take us to places we haven’t seen before. Instead, we too often encounter one-trick ponies, glorified character actors, who pull out all the stops to impress us, but are easily forgotten, once we leave the movie theater (or, these days, turn off the DVD). Of course, the challenge for those at the highest level of the film-acting pantheon is enormous. What must it take for an actor to surprise us over and over? Streep does it, Olivier did it, Brando did it. What are the qualities that separate such incandescent screen greats from the lesser lights?
My own nominee for the next Screen Goddess is this year’s Oscar Queen, Kate Winslet. Like Streep, Winslet has shown she can be counted on, not only to delight our eyes and ears, but to take us to emotional highs and lows we haven’t experienced before. The daughter of a British barmaid and several generations of off-and-on actors, she’s a strong-featured, natural beauty. From under heavy eyebrows, she looks into you like an X-ray machine, striding through her performances with the purposefulness of a conquering hero. Full-bodied and imposing, she has the perfectly sculptured nose of a Greek statue and the daring to take off her clothes when the role demands it.
Winslet first hit the screen with Heavenly Creatures (1994), about a pair of teenagers who murder one of their mothers, and soon became the darling of avant-garde cinema in England. She first attracted wide attention in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, adapted from Jane Austen by Emma Thompson (who played Winslet’s sensible older sister) and directed by Ang Lee. Winslet played an impulsive romantic, who throws herself at handsome rakes but has the underlying character and good sense to win herself a prize husband. She caught so fully what was going on beneath the silliness and played it so luminously that the frivolous character captured our hearts.
Two years later, at 22, she starred in the biggest box-office success of all time, Titanic, keeping us so enthralled with her lush appeal and her juicy romance with Leonardo DiCaprio that we barely noticed when the great ship went down.
After that, she shunned the crowd-pleasing movies that required her to play beautiful young women in corsets, and made some dreadful artsy films, one aptly named Hideous Kinky. She played Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and an elfish queen in Lord of the Rings. She was corseted—to good effect—as an unworldly widowed mother of four Peter Pans in Finding Neverland, opposite Johnny Depp as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie. In Little Children, she finally grew up, so to speak, and played a bored, sex-starved American suburbanite. In her choice of films inspired from literature, she showed us not only that she has the courage to avoid conventional role choices, but that she reads, and has the intelligence and the inner fire to give a mesmerizing intensity to her performances.
This year, Winslet is the star of two provocative films that have attracted much critical attention. In Revolutionary Road, she’s opposite Leonardo DiCaprio again, and is directed by her husband, Sam (American Beauty) Mendes. Drawn from the novel by Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road tells the tragic tale of an American woman in 1955 who gets trapped in a stultifying suburban life of caution and avoidance. Winslet plays a woman who, faithful to the conventions of the time, believes she should lead her life through her husband (played by DiCaprio), a self-styled, but ultimately timid, adventurer and would-be genius.
During their courtship, he tells her he wants to go to Paris, and she concludes that he’s the most interesting man she’s met; but when the opportunity presents itself, he chickens out, and she’s devastated to recognize that her life has been wasted on a weak and unimaginative man, who doesn’t value her sacrifices for him. Determinedly unromantic, Revolutionary Road is a searing look at the pain of trying to live up to your idealized expectations of yourself when your greatest enemy is the seductiveness of the entrapping comfort in which you live. Many of us struggle with the lingering implications of a world too soft and easy for life to be an adventure. In her performance, we watch Winslet fight against her own loneliness as she watches DiCaprio, who lacks any semblance of self-awareness and has only the comforting clichŽs he tells himself. He’s an inescapably ordinary man of his time, and her self-deluding blindness to that ordinariness becomes her tragedy.
Winslet’s other, even more celebrated performance this year, was in The Reader, a film that begins in 1958 Germany and was drawn by David Hare from a novel by Bernhard Schlink. The story follows the unlikely and impulsive love affair between a homely, sad, 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) and a morosely efficient streetcar conductor, played by Winslet. As their odd affair proceeds, she offers Michael his initiation into sex, while he responds obediently to her somewhat mysterious request to have him read great literature to her, all the while never saying a word about their relationship. It’s a couple that’s reminiscent of the famous pair in The Graduate, particularly the scene in which Dustin Hoffman makes the famous precoital request of Anne Bancroft, “Mrs. Robinson, do you think we could say a few words to each other first this time?”
Inevitably the tension between them begins to emerge more and more, and after a quarrel in which she throws him out of her apartment, Michael, beginning to come into manhood, decides that he’ll no longer apologize for everything he does just because it displeases her. In the face of her stonewalling, he boldly asks her whether she loves him—to which she responds with a faint, ambiguous nod. Along with Michael, we increasingly come to wonder what lies beneath the surface of this strange creature.
For the first hour of this remarkably sexy film we spend much of the time, like Michael, watching Winslet’s Hanna, so totally comfortable in her full, soft body. Rarely has a film so captured the dizzying excitement of a boy’s first discovery of lust and a deeper bond of attachment. We watch her show no interest in any human being on earth except Michael, whom she pampers alternately as her baby and her husband. But as he grows more fully into adolescence, she, like a mother bird, lets him fly away: she silently withdraws from his life, her withdrawal a gift of love.
Years later, Michael and Hanna meet again. Michael is now a law student, and he discovers that, before he met Hanna, she’d been a guard at Auschwitz and is now on trial for murdering 60 Jewish women, who, under orders, she refused to let out of a burning, padlocked church. He realizes her even deeper secret: she’s illiterate and ashamed of it.
Hanna goes to prison; Michael grows into Ralph Fiennes, who, by sending tapes of himself reading Homer, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Shakespeare’s tragedies, teaches her to read. Schlink and Hare make much of her illiteracy, and even name the book after Hanna’s condition, as if those who don’t read end up being morally and emotionally stunted. We’re supposed to feel that, except in her loving tenderness toward Michael, Hanna has little sense of empathy and moral responsibility.
With the help of reading great literature, Hannah comes to see what she’s done by blindly following inhuman orders. She was told to guard prisoners and did so without any thought of the consequences. Now, the film tries to argue, she’s come to realize the horror of what she’s done.
Schlink has said he didn’t write his book about the Holocaust, but about the generation who learned that their parents (or lovers) had conducted it and committed its horrors. Much is sketchy in the book, but its exploration of the “banality of evil” forces us to consider the possibility that tender love for a child or a lover can coexist with the most inhuman cruelty.
Just as Streep, in the barely contained agitation of her characters, can make us feel her characters feeling life, Winslet, in her best roles, draws us spellbound into the inner dilemmas her characters feel. But with her, we’re typically most immersed in the performances as we watch her standing still and thinking, so upright, so focused, so purposeful. And, of course, there are those eyes. When you’ve been gazed at by Winslet, you stay gazed at. Like all truly great screen actors, she has the ability to tell us in a blink everything we need to know. The most intelligent of today’s leading actresses, she can take us deeper than anyone else into the hearts and minds of the people she brings to life for us. And, in the miracle of multitiered artistry that won her an Oscar for The Reader, the pinnacle of her achievement as an actress so far, she proves that she can reveal the depths and dangers that someone harbors in the most hidden regions of the mind, even if that character is desperate to keep that knowledge from herself.
Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.