It’s amazing, and terrifying, to think that Kate Winslet turned 40-years-old yesterday, and has now been a movie star for 21 years. That’s one entire Ansel Elgort ago. Breaking out with a stunning performance in “Heavenly Creatures” while still just 18 (though she had credits in British TV stretching back into her earlier teens), Winslet has barely looked back since.
She followed her breakouts with high-profile Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and Shakespeare adaptations, before starring in “Titanic,” which went on to become one of the biggest movies of all time. Rather than capitalizing on her A-list status with more blockbusters, Winslet chose to make the movies she wanted to make with directors she wanted to make them with, picking out projects with the likes of Jane Campion, Philip Kaufman, Richard Eyre, and Alan Parker, before upending her period-movie image with another brilliant turn in “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.”
Winslet finally won an Oscar for “The Reader” in 2008 after six nominations, but has remained one of our most wide-ranging and risk-taking actors — not everything has paid off (“Labor Day,” “Movie 43,” “Divergent”), but when it does, as it did with her HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” it pays off in spades. Along with her 40th birthday this week, and the arrival of a trailer for her next picture, “Triple 9,” Winslet’s back in theaters with an Oscar-tipped supporting turn in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.” To mark the occasion, we’ve picked out her ten most essential performances. Here’s hoping there’s plenty more to come in the next 21 years, and beyond. Check out our picks below.
“Heavenly Creatures” (1994)
Rushing towards the camera, covered in blood, and screaming murder in a fit of total insanity. This is how Kate Winslet made her glorious screen entrance in Peter Jackson‘s “Heavenly Creatures.” Made all the more memorable for being so completely disengaged from practically anything she’d go on to do in her accomplished career. For the film, Jackson chose a deranged real-life story from his local New Zealand, where a couple of schoolgirls grew obsessively close to one another to the point of executing murder. In a city called — note the irony — Christchurch, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) gets along swimmingly with the new girl from England, Juliet Hulme (Winslet). They share an equal idolatry for American tenor Mario Lanza and British actor James Mason, and begin writing a fantasy novel together. It’s a warped, debauched, satire of England’s royal family, which they re-enact with creepy-looking sculpted figurines. The whole affair ends in a hair-raisingly horrific climax, but the build-up, through Jackson’s dark fantasy and violent imagination — not to mention the film’s Oscar-nominated screenplay — makes “Heavenly Creatures” a consummate joy to experience. Made all the more delicious thanks to the total revelation of the girls’ performances. Winslet, 19-years-old at the time of the film’s release, bites into the demented, posh, arrogant, and prim Juliet with a kind of hunger that all stars-in-the-making demonstrate. A scene has her screaming at her mother (Diana Kent) about how the two BFFs are going to Hollywood and becoming film stars. It’s totally hysterical, but uncannily prescient in Winslet’s case; for there was no other way than up after such a ferociously fun film debut.
“Sense And Sensibility” (1995)
Ang Lee famously had concerns over Kate Winslet and how she would approach the fragile delicacy of a Jane Austen character. Of course, after seeing her savage screen debut in “Heavenly Creatures,” who can blame him? The story goes that she had to practice t’ai chi, read lots of Victorian novels, take etiquette lessons, and work with a piano teacher in order to capture the elegance of young Marianne Dashwood. The result is as eye-opening as her official introduction, except in the polar opposite direction. Elegance, grace, and a romantic sense of desperation as a conduit for life’s experiences suited Winslet to such a tee that she became slightly pigeon-holed into this type of role from there on out. In “Sense & Sensibility,” an Austen adaptation by the magnanimous Emma Thompson (who also plays Marianne’s older sister, Elinor), the Dashwood sisters are left suddenly destitute when their father (Tom Wilkinson) passes on. A slew of suitors vie for the daughters’ hands in marriage, allowing Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant to round out the eminent cast. Among these veterans of the trade, Winslet shines like a pearl, where the collective first-impressions of her exquisite talents on display are perfectly summed up in that moment Rickman’s colonel hears her singing and falls instantly in love. Unsurprisingly, the role was the first of six Academy Award nominations for the then 20-year-old Winslet. Of all the period novel adaptations to come, through all her romantic roles, none really take away from the permanent impression she makes in this one.
“Heavenly Creatures” and “Sense & Sensibility” might have marked Winslet as one to watch (along with further period pictures “Hamlet” and “Jude”), but it was “Titanic” that landed her firmly on the A-list, given that it was, you know, the biggest-grossing movie in history up to that point. It would be so easy for an actress, especially one who was then just 22, to be overwhelmed or overshadowed in a movie of the enormous scale and success of “Titanic,” but from the moment she boards the vessel, she confirms that she wasn’t just a promising young actress, but also a giant movie star. Cast after the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Claire Danes, and Gabrielle Anwar (Google her, millennials) were considered, Winslet plays Rose, a once-wealthy 17-year-old engaged to the horrible Billy Zane in order to rescue her family’s fortunes, who, once at sea, falls head over heels for the roguishly charming Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio, obviously). Winslet does all the giant blockbuster leading-lady stuff right: she screams, she swims, she has palpable chemistry with her co-star, and pulls off a faultless American accent, and her beauty, a little more pre-Raphaelite than many of her contemporaries, makes her stand out even further. But it’s the subtlety she brings to a broadly-written role — the sense of a young girl both more street-smart than you’d think, and more naive than she hopes; one both stuck in and thrown out of her privilege — that makes the performance sing. The film made nearly two billion dollars, and unlike DiCaprio, Winslet was Oscar-nominated for the movie, her first nomination as lead.
“Holy Smoke” (1999)
Jane Campion‘s somewhat discombobulated and messy “Holy Smoke” is an Aussie tale full of mixed emotions and pent-up gender politics, suffering from an overtly cheeky screenplay (written by Anne Campion, Jane’s sister) and jarring jokes with dull punchlines (like that WTF montage of ex-boyfriends). The biggest reason for its lasting powers can be summed up in two words, one name: Kate Winslet. Yep, even the striking cinematography of the Australian outback by Dion Beebe (“Memoirs of a Geisha“) and Harvey Keitel’s solid co-lead performance seem to be generated and influenced by Winslet’s radiant range. She plays Ruth Barron, a young woman who surprises her mild-mannered and simple-life parents when she joins a Hindu cult under the auspices of a guru called Baba. Famed American deprogrammer P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) is commissioned to spend three days with Ruth in order to help her come back to her senses. Instead, by stroking, manipulating, and dismantling his male ego, Ruth turns the tables on P.J. Though the script and Campion’s wayward direction are often uneven, Winslet keeps us anchored and wholly invested thanks to her fascinatingly complex, by turns hilarious and enigmatic, multi-dimensional turn. Fragile victim, whip-smart victor, a daughter both doting and defiant — depending on which parent she’s talking to — Ruth uses everything in her feminine arsenal (such as blinding the male gaze with abstract sexiness) to take and keep control. It’s a trait the actress masters to a piercing degree. Indeed, long before she puts lipstick and a red dress on Harvey frickin’ Keitel, one gets the sense that everything in “Holy Smoke” wraps around Winslet’s little finger.
Sharing the same character as Judi Dench must be somewhat daunting for any actress, but Winslet steps up to the plate in Richard Eyre‘s film. Her young Iris Murdoch has a honed-in eccentricity that exudes an insatiable joie de vivre, and with it, Winslet delivers one of her most sensitive, subdued, and totally immersed supporting performances. The gut-puncher of the story is that famed novelist Iris Murdoch (Dench) is losing her memories and her sense of self due to a debilitating bout of Alzheimer’s. This emotional core is massaged by various factors, not least by Jim Broadbent‘s Oscar-winning turn as Iris’ bottomlessly dear husband John Bailey. But, these older scenes have a tendency to overcompensate in sap due to the very nature of their context and performances. The younger scenes, by contract, leave no room for such melodramatic dressing, making them slightly stronger as a result. Winslet’s Iris effortlessly expresses the mystery and attraction of the woman, her “secret world” of words and language feeling under continuous construction through her wondrous gaze. Free-spirited, natural, and vehemently feminist without an ounce of posturing about it, she disappears into the role of Iris Murdoch just as much as Dench does (a bit more, even?). It’s Winslet’s savvy for soft sublimity that magnetizes everything — from Hugh Bonneville‘s fine performance as young John to our own attention — whenever her Iris is on screen, making the disease that threatens to erase those moments from her memory that much more evil.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
If all of Winslet’s characters found themselves sitting at the same dinner table, Clementine Kruczynski would be the free-spirited goofball who makes fun of everyone before starting a food fight. So far removed from the period films she led in the early aughts (“Quills,” “Enigma“), and a horse of a completely different (multi-)color than the type of romantic characters her name was synonymous with (“Titanic,” “Sense & Sensibility“), Winslet’s performance in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman‘s “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” is a seminal, serendipitous breath of fresh air in her filmography. The topsy-turvy effect is even more enhanced because she plays the complete opposite to Jim Carrey‘s (!) shy, introverted, and broken-hearted man. The story follows Joel (Carrey) as he tries to get over a breakup with his girlfriend (Winslet). When he finds out that she erased him from her memory, he undergoes the same procedure and the film takes us down an exhilarating, memory-erasing rabbit hole. It’s a whirl of brazen, highly-ornate, and hilarious originality — a romantic comedy in a league of its own. Elements that surely spurred Winslet to tear into the modern, capricious Clementine with the zeal of someone aching to show the world her fun and humorous side. The side that chooses impulsive monkey business in lieu of woebegone refinery. It’s a streak of genius casting on Gondry’s part, and a beautiful demonstration of Winslet’s wondrous range. Her expertise at expressing longing and desire gets a whole new candy-colored shade in ‘Eternal Sunshine,’ resulting in another, 100% deserved, Oscar nomination.
“Little Children” (2006)
The American suburban housewife, whose once-lively spirit is stifled into muted submission by the mundane routines of an inexhaustibly boring life. Winslet’s talents of conveying volumes without uttering a syllable are perfectly suited for exactly this type of role, as witnessed in Todd Field‘s brilliant adaptation of Tom Perrotta‘s novel, “Little Children.” Winslet plays Sarah Pierce, a housewife with a torpid sense of obligation towards her husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) and their three-year-old daughter. Where once she was a promising student of English, and a fired-up radical feminist, today she’s stuck spending time with other vapid mothers in the park, wondering where it all went so wrong, and dreaming of a different kind of life. Sparks of this dream seem to light up when she begins an affair with Patrick Wilson‘s Brad, a man equally unhappy in his own marriage to Katherine (Jennifer Connelly). The performances in Field’s film, including Jackie Earle Haley‘s unforgettable Ronald, are towering feats of bottled sexual tension, immeasurable loneliness, and the all-too-human sense of entrapment by way of conformity. Winslet excels above her co-stars in this regard. Transcending the screen with Sarah — think of her cheering Brad’s touchdown, conversing with Katherine at the dinner table, or admiring Madame Bovary’s “hunger” in her book club — Winslet propels the most ordinary of characters towards something wholly extraordinary, while still keeping her firmly grounded. She’d go on to play a similar part in a completely different, much more acerbic manner a few years later, but “Little Children” remains a career-highlight more than deserving its own spotlight.
“Revolutionary Road” (2008)
Reunited with her “Titanic” co-star after more than 10 years, in a supremely emotional film directed by her then-husband, Sam Mendes, “Revolutionary Road” marks one of the grandest stages for Winslet to showcase her talents. The film throbs with a kind of charged intensity that, one imagines, can only be summoned through working with familiar faces. You can feel it with Winslet in every one of her scenes. She’s volatile, high-strung, and completely liberated to play within the boundless confines of her artistic comfort zone. As unhinged as her portrayal of April Wheeler is, it’s still furiously engaged to the source material, Richard Yates‘ novel of the same name. She plays a housewife who’s spiraling in the emptiness of her 1940s suburban surroundings, and if it sounds too similar to “Little Children,” you need to watch it again. It’s a testament to the actress for her ability to portray two characters with similar predicaments in completely divergent ways. This confrontational, tete-a-tete dynamic of a crumbling marriage that marked such a big difference in the roles (and her approach to them), was perhaps a key attraction for Winslet, who was the biggest mover and shaker in getting the film into production. Once Leonardo DiCaprio got on board, their shared “Titanic” experience became an inspirational elephant in the room, for “Revolutionary Road” is the total antithesis to the epic romance they brought to life in James Cameron‘s film. The on-screen chemistry on display here has lost none of its intensity even if it’s made of much more acrimonious matter, and with regards to both actors’ careers, the film is essential for an appreciation of just how far their talents have grown.
“The Reader” (2008)
The awards circuit was incredibly strange in 2008-2009, especially when it came to Kate Winslet. Here she was, a five-time Oscar-nominee widely considered one of the greatest actresses in the business, with two showy performances in two awards-baity productions. She ended up taking home the Golden Globe for “Revolutionary Road,” and the Oscar for “The Reader,” adding another one of those overdue ‘FINALLY!’ moments to Oscar’s history. Weirder still were catcalls of category fraud (many believe it’s a Best Supporting Oscar disguised as Lead) and the fact that she wasn’t even nominated for “Revolutionary Road,” a role we’d personally choose over her Hanna Schmitz any day. In that event, her performance in “The Reader” will forever be remembered as “the one that got her the Oscar.” But, remove the cobwebs of industry politics, and you’ll find it essential for more than just decorative reasons. It’s a deeply felt, superbly crafted portrayal of a woman with staunch-yet-decidedly-skewed principles. Her complicit nature with Nazi cruelty is as circumspect as her overpowering desire to introduce young Michael (David Kross) to adulthood, and despite director Stephen Daldry‘s attempts to the contrary, Hanna Schmitz is a character of mostly ambiguous morals. Until the very end, of course. Her ironclad nature is rooted into every word she speaks, but Winslet finds a way to express them even through silence. Recall her weighted nods to Michael’s pleas of forgiveness, her emotional reaction when she eavesdrops on a choir, or the court-room scenes when she stands among the accused. As hard as her big secret is to swallow (blame the material for that), Winslet nails the kind of pathos needed for a better understanding of this complicated character. Whether she deserves the Oscar for this role or a previous one is a conversation that shouldn’t throw shade at the finely chiseled performance itself.
“Mildred Pierce” (2011)
We’ve arrived at the last milestone (to date) of Kate Winslet’s distinguished career. Since it’s not a feature film performance it would be considered a slight cheat were it not so impossible to ignore. Todd Haynes‘ five-part miniseries for HBO realizes the totality of James M. Cain‘s classic “Mildred Pierce” through every novelistic nook and cranny. The titular character, a divorced woman determined to stand on her own two feet during the Great Depression, is the kind of role that Winslet was born to make her own. Her warm embrace of the character shed none of Mildred’s unflappable independence, even as it’s decidedly removed from Joan Crawford‘s portrayal of the same character in Michael Curtiz‘ 1945 version. Mildred’s life ends up revolving around a tempestuous relationship with her daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood, excellent in seething vitriol) and the playboy Monty (Guy Pearce, enjoying one of his own career highs), all while gaining the moxie to sustain a restaurant business from the ground up. Running over five hours long, Haynes’ sophisticated direction and expansive adaptation (with co-writer Jon Raymond) are centripetal forces, anchored by Winslet’s cynosure portrayal. It’s a bountiful part that provides the actress with the biggest canvass she’s ever worked with, allowing her to explore and express every aspect of one woman’s entire personality. Nuanced through subtle shades like a Renaissance sculpture, her Mildred Pierce is one of the most fully formed and deeply human characters of her entire career and as far as the 2010s are concerned, it remains unparalleled to this day.
Honorable Mentions: We’ve gone over what we think are the benchmarks of her career, but, naturally, we don’t dare encourage you to turn a blind eye to everything else she’s done. It’s amazing how unconcerned she was with stardom after “Titanic,” more attracted to roles like Campion’s “Holy Smoke” and the similar-if-slightly-less-forceful turn as Julia in “Hideous Kinky” (1998). Even before she made epic romantic history on a boat, her classical talents were put to the Shakespearean test as Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh‘s “Hamlet” (1996), which she passed like a pro, and she’s tremendous in Michael Winterbottom‘s “Jude” too.
“Quills” (2000) is much more Geoffrey Rush‘s vehicle, but her turn as the beautiful laundress Maddy LeClerc is worthy of an honorable mention. As is her BAFTA-nominated portrayal of Sylvia Davies — Peter Pan’s mom, basically — in “Finding Neverland” (2004). Her quirky and offbeat performance as Tula in John Turturro‘s troubled “Romance & Cigarettes” (2005) is probably the best thing about that film. While her performance as herself in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “Extras” pilot episode (2005) is so amazing it almost warrants an entry on the main list. Also worth mentioning is one of her greatest box-office success stories, Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday” (2006), a generic picture made all that much more watchable thanks to her presence.
That’s what she does, doesn’t she? She’s got that undeniable natural charisma that’s so easy on the eyes, even when the material is severely lacking, the whole thing’s made more digestible thanks to her bottomless talent for the craft. Go on then, your turn. Tell us how much you love her and hold nothing back. What are some of your favorite performances? Of the ten we talked about, is there one you’d replace with anything else? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to check out “Steve Jobs” when it opens near you.