Oscars recognize Kate too late
March 4, 2009
I’m not suggesting that Kate Winslet didn’t deserve her Oscar for “The Reader,” but rather that everyone might have felt better about her in “Revolutionary Road.”
Despite going to the movies practically every weekend last year, I managed to miss all nominees for Best Leading Actress in the 81st annual Academy Awards ceremony. I attempted to rectify that while “The Reader” was still in local theaters.
Despite knowning that Kate finally won her Oscar, I approached “The Reader” with trepidation: Other, paid movie reviewers ” from Ron Rosenbaum of Slate to the guys of Cracked ” have written squeamishly about the movie’s moral implications to the point that a couple of them suggested they wouldn’t be comfortable marking an Oscar ballot for anything associated with “The Reader.”
Viewing it certainly didn’t cure my case of the collywobbles: While I don’t think the film suggests that the effort by Nazi prison guard Hannah Schmitz (Winslet) to become literate while she herself serves a prison sentence redeems her atrocities, I did leave even more confused about the message of “The Reader” than before I saw it.
“Revolutionary Road” didn’t earn Winslet an Oscar nomination, but the actress’s performance in that film seemed at least as worthy of recognition.
On the surface, both movies are clearly prestige projects: end-of-year releases with star-studded casts and big ideas.
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It’s easy to tell “The Reader” is Oscar bait, with well-dressed A-list actors smoking cigarettes as pianos and violins swell in the background behind strident conversations about the Holocaust, in authentic German accents (well, if by “German” you mean “British”).
The pretensions of “Revolutionary Road” are more subtle, if only slightly: Not only does it reunite Winslet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates of the multi-Oscar-winning “Titanic,” it has another Academy Award-winner for a director in Sam Mendes. While critics didn’t greet “Revolutionary Road” with active revulsion, they were lukewarm, and it scored only three Oscar nominations, for Michael Shannon (Best Supporting Actor), for art direction, and for costume design.
Ultimately, neither is exactly pleasant to watch: “The Reader” opens with a young German named Michael Berg (actor David Kross) looking very ill, then spewing onto Kate’s doorstep. (Ralph Fiennes, hopefully immune from “Reader” blowback after starring “Schindler’s List,” plays Berg as an adult.) From there, it devolves into the diametric opposite of the feel-good hit of the summer: a Nazified smut film that combines a murky moral message with a heaping helping of post-Nuremberg humping and legal histrionics.
“Revolutionary Road” is a little easier on the eyes ” credit Bates keeping her top on, always a relief after “About Schmidt,” but still tough to listen to: Watching a couple fight isn’t fun in person nor at the cinema, and the bourgeois aspirations of Frank and April Wheeler (Winslet and DiCaprio) do little to offset their shrill arguments.
Perhaps the Academy rewarded Winslet for taking a risky role, but even the actress’s considerable charisma can’t make her curt German prison guard-turned-ticket-taker sympathetic ” and that’s without “The Reader” ever putting Schmitz’s wartime atrocities on the screen.
Maybe, then, it’s cynical to point out Oscar’s propensity to honor actors and actresses who undergo unglamorous physical transformations (à la Charlize Theron in “Monster”), but then Winslet certainly fits that bill, spending the second half of “The Reader” in old-lady makeup. What’s hard to see, though, is any real change in Hannah’s character.
April Wheeler, who reluctantly backs into the American dream by giving up her own ideals, is a more complicated, complex character than Hannah Schmitz. Stripped of the Nazi penumbra but donning clothes once again, there’s more to Winslet’s role in “Revolutionary Road” than her turn in “The Reader.”
At least the Academy seems to be edging closer to getting it right: Heath Ledger won posthumously for adding depth and, almost literally, dimensions to a character that began on the printed page of comic books and graphic novels; voters also denied “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” a visual-effects coup, giving Sean Penn the Best Actor statue for “Milk” despite Brad Pitt’s having to age backward.
The Academy honored the best lead actress ” just maybe not for the right movie.
” Dan Thomas is one of Lake Tahoe Action’s movie columnists.