Many refer to Kate Winslet as the natural heir to Meryl Streep’s Oscar tradition. In fact, at 40 years old and on her seventh nomination for the Academy Awards, Winslet is not far behind Streep, even though the American actress already had two statuettes (out of eight nods) at home by that time on her career. The fact is they are both truly extraordinary performers, taking on a wide variety of roles with blistering truth and competence that make them standouts of their respective generations.
Kate Elizabeth Winslet was born into a family of accomplished actors of the stage in Reading, England, and scored her first professional gig at 11, in a local ad for a kids’ cereal. She had her big breakout pretty early too – in 1994, when she was only 19, starring opposite Melanie Linskey in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, a hit among critics.
At 20 came the first Oscar nod for her work in Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here are our 10 favorite performances from this one-of-a-kind talent.
10. Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, 2004)
A charming, quietly powerful tale of Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie meeting a widow and her children, who’d eventually inspire his seminal work about the boy who would never grow up, Finding Neverland takes much of its gravitas from Johnny Depp’s playful, insightful performance as Barrie, Marc Forster’s sensitive direction and Freddie Highmore’s impressive dramatic prowess as Peter.
Standing a little on the sidelines, though, Winslet still turns in amazing work as a grieving widow who learns to find magic and hope again when she meets Barrie and witnesses his friendship with her children.
If the trifecta of Depp-Forster-Highmore composes the core of the film’s narrative, Winslet serves as an audience surrogate with plenty of heart, complexity and charisma. She’s irresistible and thoroughly convincing as usual.
9. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)
A deeply weird thriller set against the backdrop of a true story, Heavenly Creatures was Winslet introduction to a wider audience, and especially to the critics.
An early gem of Peter Jackson’s career pre-Lord of the Rings, Heavenly Creatures is the story of best friends Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme – the two share an intense and close to obsessive relationship, which motivates Juliet’s mother to try to break them up. As the two plan on assassinating her, Winslet and Melanie Lynskey’s performances become complementary and complex in ways both creepy and absolutely fascinating.
Winslet plays the most vivacious one of the duo, harboring a mean streak very rarely seen in the actress’ future work. It’s refreshing to see her do it and knock it out of the park in a truer showcase of her versatility than what we saw from her in the last few years.
8. Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)
The magic of Jane Austen is perfectly into film through the Oscar-winning script by Emma Thompson in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, Winslet’s spectacular follow-up to her breakout hit Heavenly Creatures.
The story is familiar to anyone with the slightest knowledge of Austen: after the death of their father, three young women are left with no fortune since their dad’s possessions go to his only male son, from a previous marriage. Practical Elinor and sensitive, romantic Marianne search for marriage and love with the added pressure of saving their family from eventual poverty.
As the naïve part of the main duo, Winslet manages two things: not being upstaged by Emma Thompson, and actually adding a ballsy edge to her character, understanding Austen’s character and the pure defiance of her romantic visions like no other actress could.
7. Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)
Still one of the biggest movies ever as it nears its 20th anniversary, Titanic is the love story everyone knows, the epic everyone loves, one of only three movies to ever win 11 Oscars. Sadly, all of the grandeur and immense popularity of the film ends up obfuscating some of the finest qualities in Cameron’s work, especially the performances by Leo DiCaprio and Winslet as the main couple.
As they make their doomed, socially-defiant journey through love and tragedy, both actors show impressive chemistry (which translated into a lifelong friendship, of course) and gradually become one of those unforgettable movie couples.
Winslet especially is great as bold rich girl Rose, lending a special kind of edge to the character that makes her truly relatable and interesting, drawing on Cameron’s script and DiCaprio’s charming performance to slowly build a female lead with real breath and life.
6. Iris (Richard Eyre, 2001)
Winslet and Hugh Bonneville make for another memorable couple in Richard Eyre’s beautiful, heartrending portrayal of revered British writer Iris Murdoch simply titled Iris.
Told through her husband’s point of view and memories, the film plays on the stark contrast between the young, energetic, illuminated iris of the past and the one from the present, an older woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. A harrowing analysis of the ravages of time while also being a touching tribute to the life of an extraordinary woman, Iris relies on the two actresses playing the writer (Winslet and Judi Dench) to anchor it and conduct it.
As the younger version of the character, Winslet displays an illuminated presence that’s very familiar to whoever follows her career closely. At the same time, there are traces of the woman played by Dench on her layered, winning performance, and it’s largely Winslet’s presence that makes the connection between past and present work.