Kate Winslet held in the tears but not the earthy remembrance of standing in front of the mirror as an 8-year-old kid, pretending her shampoo bottle was an Oscar. Accepting the lead actress trophy for her performance as a former German concentration camp guard in "The Reader," she noted gaily, "Well, it's not a shampoo bottle now!"
To her fellow nominees, she said, "I think we can't all believe we're in the same category as Meryl Streep at all." To a slightly chagrined Streep, she added merrily, "I'm sorry, Meryl, you just have to suck that up."
Twenty-five years from now, when Winslet is about Streep's age, it is likely that the 33-year-old Reading, England, native will have ascended into the older actress' hallowed circle as perhaps the greatest actress of her generation. First nominated for an Oscar at age 21, Winslet went winless until this year with her sixth Oscar nod.
Winslet's composure on Sunday night was a far cry from her teary Golden Globe acceptance speeches, which made her stiff-upper-lip countrymen cringe, and from her early performances in Hollywood.
Even earlier on the Oscar red carpet, she was less composed. She was literally trembling. "I was fine until two hours ago. Now I'm scared. I started getting very nervous . . . right now I'm just trying to calm down."
The actress burst onto the scene with Peter Jackson's creepy 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures," playing an Aussie schoolgirl in an obsessive, ultimately murderous relationship with a female school chum.
"She scared the hell out of me," recalls the Weinstein Co. honcho Harvey Weinstein, who released that early film and also distributed "The Reader."
In those early days, Winslet managed to be somehow modern and independent-minded, even when wearing a corset. Her characters, like her Marianne in "Sense and Sensibility" or Ophelia in "Hamlet," seem tinged with madness or at least with emotions so big they threatened to topple them.
Her early penchant for costume dramas had initially dissuaded James Cameron from even considering her for the part of Rose in his epic "Titanic," a prejudice he reconsidered after seeing almost every actress in the 18-to-21 age range. "She was already known as 'Corset Kate,' " recalls the director, who admits, "When I met her, all that intellectualizing went out the window."
He notes that even then, "she really understood, maybe too well, that she was carrying the weight of the production on her shoulders. Her approach to acting is just to be incredibly focused and incredibly disciplined all the time. It could not be a greater contrast to Leonardo [DiCaprio] who was playing video games up to the time I said, 'action,' and then went from 1996 to 1912 in a blink."
DiCaprio remembers that "very early on, we created a trust level with each other. We forged an alliance on that set that we were going to look out for each other. We were 21 years old in Mexico, on a ship on hydraulics, which at a moment's notice could be filled with seawater. We said, we're going to look out for each other." (The pair remain close friends, which is how DiCaprio ended up opposite Winslet's Golden Globe-winning performance in "Revolutionary Road.")
Winslet went forth from the box office-smashing, multiple-Oscar-winning "Titanic" not by refashioning herself as a mega-movie star but by delving into the most complicated parts she could find -- playing women who refuse to be simplified, spiky, fiercely intelligent, funny, sensuous, searching, and usually completely different from one another.
"She's a transformative actress," says her "Reader" director, Stephen Daldry. "That's what Kate is. She's a proper actress. She doesn't do a version of herself."
Almost everyone who has worked with Winslet praises her braininess and ferocious dedication.
"The way she works," sighs her husband, Sam Mendes, who directed her in "Revolutionary Road" but never ate lunch with her during filming because she preferred to retreat to her trailer to work. "She is incredibly, relentlessly dedicated and detail oriented to the point of obsession. But then when she has achieved what she wanted to achieve in the scene, like three takes in, she would say, 'OK, I've done it. Now what do you want me to do?' She will try anything. So she is simultaneously incredibly focused and incredibly free."
"There are no games or vanity or wardrobe freak-outs," adds Todd Field, who directed Winslet in her Oscar-nominated performance in "Little Children," in which she plays a suburban mother in an overwhelming adulterous affair with the local stay-at-home dad. "With Kate, you have a true collaborator. She is unusual in that, though she is an actor who prepares with the fastidiousness of a brain surgeon, she will instantly abandon all of it, with no regret whatsoever, the moment she's been asked to steer somewhere else. Her tendency is always to toss the highway map in favor of the unpaved road."