Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kate Who?

Why is Kate Winslet a major star and Natascha McElhone isn't?

Ah, the enternal question. For me.

As a working critic, I was always out-of-step with my readers and their tastes. What I liked, they hated. And vice versa. The people for whom I worked never seemed to mind, and neither did I. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was invigorated by the on-going disagreements.

One particularly contentious area involved who the public would embrace as the Star of the Moment. And it still is.

In the 1980s, for example, I wasted a good part of my life trying to figure out why Julie Roberts was quickly becoming a major star and not Ione Skye. There seemed to be little difference between them, physically, although from where I sat, Julia had the brighter smile and Skye had the bigger talent. But what do I know? (An aside: I learned to appreciate and love Julia.)

Then there was Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise, the moderately talented actor who was guided to superstardom by major players in Hollywood.

Why not Matt Dillon, the superior actor?

Which brings me to Natascha McElhone and, alas, Kate Winslet. Look, I like Kate Winslet. Who doesn't? But she was far from the actress of 2008. No, that distinction would go to either Melissa Leo or Michelle Williams.

But, hey, thanks to a certain little number titled "Titanic," both critics and moviegoers love Kate Winslet.

Nevertheless, I think that anything in recent years that starred Kate Winslet would have been immeasurably better with Natascha McElhone, a handsome, eminently desirable actress still waiting to be discovered by inkstained critics and mall moviegoers alike. Again, feel free to disagree.


Carrie said...

I love Natascha McElhone. Loved her in The Truman Show. Loved her more in Solaris. Loved her most in Laurel Canyon as the resident pyschiatrist crushing on Christian Bale. She's very striking, looks like no one else and seems to be dancing to a tune only she can hear.

joe baltake said...

"Laurel Canyon" is great all around, a hugely underrated movie.

jkaiser said...

Sometimes it all comes down to the actors themselves.
Whether or not they really want to be that big, or whether they are willing to do what it takes. I know a two girls. Both went to New York at the same time.
One is now a Broadway star, the other is working with animals in Orange County. Which one do you think did the what it takes and which one kept her self respect?

jbryant said...

Perhaps the comparison isn't entirely fair, because McElhone doesn't seem to have had the kind of access to great roles that Winslet has enjoyed. Still, I really couldn't disagree more with you on this one.

I haven't seen The Reader, but Winslet is almost always superb, from Heavenly Creatures through Sense and Sensibility and Jude and Holy Smoke and Quills and Eternal Sunshine and Little Children and yeah, even Titanic.

McElhone frankly didn't impress me when she came on the scene (except for her undeniably striking looks). Unlike Carrie, I didn't see the big deal about her in The Truman Show or Solaris. She didn't make much of an impression on me in Ronin. Didn't see Laurel Canyon. But she is flat out awful in FeardotCom (perhaps she sedated herself in order to get through that turkey?).

However, I think she's quite good in Californication. So either she's improved or I'm getting less critical with age. But she still has a long way to go to convince me she's in Winslet's league.

Daryl Chin said...

This is one of those never-ending conundrums: why are some people wasted/neglected while others are not? (It's like your previous post about Connie Stevens: why did Warners sign up so many people in the late 1950s, and then just waste them - after two or three seasons on TV, why couldn't Warners find anything worthwhile for Stevens, Dorothy Provine, Diane McBain?)

Sometimes, it takes years for anything "worthwhile" to come along. For years, Sarah Jessica Parker got excellent reviews in movies like L.A. STORY and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS (and she'll always be remembered by some of us for the TV show SQUARE PEGS), but it took SEX AND THE CITY to make her a "star".

But a lot of it isn't just "luck", it's also perseverance. In the case of Kate Winslet: from the time she was a teenager, she was one pushy broad (in a good way). Peter Jackson used to tell the story of how, after he had announced the plans to make HEAVENLY CREATURES, he was suddenly bombarded by videotapes sent by this teenager in England who had done some TV work. Since he was in New Zealand and had planned to cast the movie with New Zealand actresses (like Melanie Lynskey, who was eventually cast), why was he getting all this stuff from this girl in England? And then, she wrote him that she would fly in (on her break) to New Zealand (at her own expense) to meet him. And did he cast this girl? Well, it was Kate Winslet's first movie.

And she does this all the time. The producers and director were not interested in her for SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (once it was decided that Emma Thompson was playing Elinor, they wanted to cast someone "age-appropriate" and were looking at actresses in their late 20s; Thompson had started the script with the idea that it would be cast with Natasha and Joely Richardson), but Winslet persisted. Ang Lee and Emma Thompson agreed to let her audition, and by the end, they were so charmed that she got the part.

In the case of Kate Winslet: she pushes herself, she goes after parts she considers "right" for her, and this is not necessarily simply a movie star trip. After TITANIC, she didn't want to do another big-budget Hollywood movie, but she did want to work with Jane Campion, so she decided on HOLY SMOKE, and she liked Esther Freud's novel, so she did HIDEOUS KINKY.

But what i'm trying to say is that Kate Winslet has the drive to be a movie star (in a period when it's increasingly difficult). In her case, it's not "luck", she is really someone who makes her own luck. And that's as important as looks or talent, and that's why it's called show business and not show art.

As for Natasha McElhone: i like her, i think she's lovely and talented, and she's now on CALIFORNICATION, and it's a steady job and she gets some good parts on occasion (cf. MRS. DALLOWAY, THE TRUMAN SHOW, LAUREL CANYON).

But it's like the 1980s: Meryl Streep kept getting so many of the "good" parts, but actresses like Annette O'Toole, Blythe Danner, and Amy Madigan couldn't seem to get a break. But sometimes, there's gold at the end of the rainbow, though in many cases, it's on TV (O'Toole with several seasons as Superboy's mother on SMALLVILLE, Danner as Will's mother on WILL & GRACE, and the mother on HUFF). But does that mean that Annette O'Toole and Blythe Danner never warranted getting great movie parts? Annette O'Toole proved (in STAND BY YOUR MAN, the 1981 made-for-TV biopic about Tammy Wynette) that she was certainly the equal of any of the "stars" of the period, and when you see Danner in LOVIN' MOLLY, the 1974 movie of Larry McMurty's LEAVING CHEYENNE, you can't understand why she's the only one to star in a McMurty adaptation (cf. HUD, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, LONESOME DOVE) whose career wasn't enhanced by the association.

joe baltake said...


I didn't intend for my praise of McElhone to diminish Winslet. As I said, I like her a lot - and who doesn't? But I guess that's what happened. Kate is great but I'd match Natascha against her any day. Part of the problem - the root of the problem - is that she never had a film to truly showcase her the way Winslet has had (and many times over). That's the point of this post. I recommend you check out McElhone's work in the James Ivory film, "Surviving Picasso" and Lisa Cholodenko's
aforementioned "Laurel Canyon." I think you'll be impressed, if only a little.

joe baltake said...


There are a lot of actors like Winslet, people who know how to take care of Number One. Usually, their aggresive ambition is obvious and turns me off. Winslet never comes across as ambitious in interview situations. In fact, she comes across as the complete opposite - shy and introverted and a tad self-deprecating.

I always found it interesting that "Heavenly Creatures" launched her career big time but not Melanie Lynskey, who is every bit as good as Winslet in that film. Now, I know why.

Re Blythe Danner, I had the exact same impression in the late 1970s, particularly after seeing her revelatory work in Sidney Lument's "Lovin' Molly." I kept wondering why Meryl Streep was getting all the juicy roles and not Danner. In fact, for the longest time, I resented Steep a bit for being so seemingly entitled. I adore her now, of course, but I still feel that Danner would have been a better choice for "Kramer versus Kramer."

Sylko said...

I liked "Laurel Canyon" a lot.

I loved Kate Winslet in "Heavenly Creatures" and "Sense and Sensibility"

I thought Melanie Lynskey was better in "Heavenly Creatures" too, and she's also prettier, but she's not had any decent roles since then, which is sad.

Sharla said...

I like both actresses equally and I pretty much think they are equals as performers, so it is odd that one has made such strides and the other has been neglected. Winslet is one of my favorites but even I got sick of the Winslet Love-In during the Oscar season.

Ben Lyons was all over the place claiming that her performance in "The Reader" was great because Winslet made the character "sympathetic." Not true. She did next to nothing in that movie in terms of acting. If the character was sympathetic - and it was and it shouldn't have been - it's only because Winslet was playing her. People like her, so they accepted a reprehensible character.

If McElhone had played the role, an actress nearly no one knows, there would have been a different effect - a better one, I dare say.

jkaiser said...

I met Bruce Campbell at a book signing one time and I said it's a sad state of affairs when someone as good as he is doesn't have a bigger following or get better roles. He told me that he is happy right where he is and wouldn't trade places with the likes of Tom Cruise for anything.

Sylko said...

i just wanted to add that I'm not a Tom Cruise fan at all. Occasionally his stock character works for me ("A Few Good Men", but more for the fact that the writing was well done than his performance, comes to mind), but more often than not I think, Meh.

I liked Val Kilmer's character much more in Top Gun because Tom Cruise's character was too immature.

I kind of see why Tom Cruise got popular. He kept himself out of hte media spotlight, so he became this blank image we could project our hero/lover fantasies on. He's small enough to not be threatening to men, but good looking enough to be attractive to women.

We've seen that once he got into the media spotlight, the love went away.

One of my favorite actors, who I think is underrated and under utlized, is Brendan Fraser. Also Christopher Eccleston (who is brilliant). I would love to see more Eccleston.

Oh, one more thing, when I lived in Sacramento, I loved your Sac Bee moview reviews. I always thought your reviews were well thought out. I may not always agree with them, but I could always see where you were coming from. I haven't found a movie reviewer I trust since then. Glad to see you have this blog.