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Kate's performance saves sinking ship
David Gritten talks exclusively to Kate Winslet, star of 'Titanic'
Kate Winslet in a scene from 'Titanic'

NEXT Saturday morning in Marrakesh (Kate is in Africa filming Hideous Kinky) the 22-year-old British actress Kate Winslet will awake to a phone call from Los Angeles, confirming what many in Hollywood have known for a while: that she is officially a major international star.

 Why must she wait till then to be anointed? Because Friday, December 19, 1997 marks the US opening of Titanic, the biggest film of her career - and with a budget running at more than $200 million, the most expensive movie ever made. On Friday night, millions of Americans will put down hard-earned cash at the nation's box offices, just to see what the fuss is about.

 They will see an epic: a 90-minute love story followed by a disaster movie of similar length. In the first half of Titanic, Winslet plays an apparently wealthy young woman travelling on the doomed luxury liner with her rich, odious fiancé (Billy Zane). On board she meets and falls heartbreakingly in love with a poor, sensitive boy (Leonardo DiCaprio). Then the iceberg heaves into sight and spoils everyone's night.

 Word of mouth on the 194-minute Titanic from those who have seen screenings is hugely positive; and at last month's Royal Film Performance in London, an enraptured audience cheered director James Cameron from the cinema. In particular Winslet's affecting performance makes her almost certain to snag the second Oscar nomination of her young life. And if she helps Titanic claw back its enormous production costs, her career will soar stratospherically.

 It is hard to believe now, but three years ago no one knew of Kate Winslet, even in Britain. Heavenly Creatures, her first film in which she played a murderous New Zealand schoolgirl, had not opened; she lived with her impoverished acting family in a modest terraced house near Elm Park, Reading's unlovely football stadium.

 Her rapid ascendancy is a source of wonder to her. Whenever I meet Winslet she invariably exclaims, mantra-like, "I feel I could write my autobiography already. So much has happened so fast, I can't believe it."

 Remarkably, things have kept happening. After Heavenly Creatures, she played the younger Dashwood sister, lovelorn teenager Marianne, in Emma Thompson's re-write of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. She was genuinely moving; an Oscar nomination inevitably followed. Then she was Thomas Hardy's wilful heroine Sue Bridehead, a bright note in an otherwise dour adaptation of Jude. And Ken Branagh cast her on film as Ophelia to his magisterial Hamlet.

 By rights she should be unbearable - just turned 22, raking in big money, the film world at her feet. But off set Winslet dresses like a college student living frugally on a grant. And in person she is chatty, excitable, friendly - and as forthright as any other bright young career-girl.

 Her candour can cause problems. Back in April, shortly after the six-month Titanic shoot, I met her at her Soho club; exhausted, sprawled on a comfortable sofa, she kicked off her shoes and told me everything about the making of Titanic.

 Back then the film was expected to open in July, but all the talk about it was negative. Its huge budget was spiralling out of control; crewmen on the Mexico set claimed that Cameron's dictatorial style had alienated them, even endangered them. Winslet did not mince words. During shooting, she said, she nearly drowned, contracted flu and suffered hypothermia from being immersed in cold water. She chipped a bone in her elbow, and had deep bruising all over her arms: "I looked like a battered wife." She lifted her skirt to reveal an ugly gash on her knee; she had slipped on deck.

 In all this she was merely echoing what many Titanic crew members had already complained about publicly. "Nothing ever felt safe on the set," she said. "The water was so cold it made my heart flutter, but I could only wear a wet-suit for wide shots."

 Cameron, she said, "has a temper like you wouldn't believe. There were times I was genuinely frightened of him. You'd have to pay me a lot of money to work with Jim again." Despite all her underwater scenes, no one had asked if she could swim. The shoot, she concluded, had been "an ordeal - some days I'd wake up and think: please God, let me die." She emphatically will not make another film with underwater scenes.

 When her words were reported in the Los Angeles Times, Cameron flew into a rage, as did Fox and Paramount, the studios financing Titanic. Understandably: $200 million was riding on the film, and here was their lead actress bad-mouthing it before its release.

 Winslet, though petrified that her frankness would make her a Hollywood pariah, handled it well. She wrote to the Los Angeles Times, stating that she was tired and overwrought when she berated Cameron. To her credit she did not deny making the allegations, or complain that she was misquoted.

 Despite her tender years, she's a trouper already; she loves actors' company and gushes about her "craft" as thespians are wont to do. But it's a forgivable trait; after all, it's in her blood. Her grandparents ran Reading's local rep; her father Roger is a struggling actor; her uncle, Robert Bridges, was Bumble in the original West End Oliver!

 

Her co-workers adore her. Thompson, in her Sense and Sensibility diary, wrote of her: "The bravest of the brave, that girl. I can't imagine what sort of a state I would have been in at 19 with the prospect of such a huge role in front of me. She is energised, open, realistic, intelligent and tremendous fun."

 And Cameron, even while still angry with her, said of her work in Titanic, "It's one of the most amazing performances I've ever been a party to."

 Director and actress have now healed their rift. Winslet flew in for the Royal Film Performance from Morocco, where she is filming an adaptation of Esther Freud's novel Hideous Kinky. But a tropical bug forced her into hospital for two days. Tongues wagged: was this a way of ducking a sticky reunion with Cameron? Not so: after the post-film party Cameron tore himself away and at 1 am took a limo to her hospital bedside for mutual moist-eyed congratulations.

 All this leaves Winslet as the outstanding film actress of her generation. After all, Alicia Silverstone and Mira Sorvino are shaping up as one-hit wonders; Liv Tyler has the looks but has yet to display the talent. Gwyneth Paltrow may be gifted and beautiful, and the extraordinary teenager Claire Danes may yet turn out to be America's sweetheart. But Winslet can hold her own against all rivals.

 Her strong, regular features - soulful eyes, heavy eyebrows, sensuous lips - seem to adapt with each role. In Sense and Sensibility, the reddish curls around her face gave her the look of a character in a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

 Winslet's next test for herself might be deliberately rejecting period-costume roles (such as Titanic) in favour of modern characters. She swapped corsets for kaftans in Hideous Kinky to play a young bohemian mother in Morocco with her two small daughters; but it's not quite the same.

 Still, she advances cautiously and shrewdly. Winslet now has her own home in London, shared with two girlfriends; serious romance (despite a widely reported flirtation with actor Rufus Sewell) seems to take second place to work.

 After Titanic she immediately rejected seven scripts from major studios, and will now assess the extent of her impact in Titanic before making her next move. It's a luxury Kate Winslet can now afford; whatever she wants to do, Hollywood will wait for her.

 

  • British premire of Titanic: January 23, 1998
  •  

    November 22, 1997: A successful disaster movie
    April 19, 1997: Bring on the lifeboats!