Why was Kate Winslet—so likable usually—all wheezy and deeply humbled and annoying as she accepted her Screen Actors Guild award last night? Because that's how actresses and actors (especially black ones) audition for Academy Awards.
Sure, it may be horribly cliched to see a weepy movie star who gets shocked (in the exact same way) whenever they win a prize. But Academy voters seem to like that sort of stuff. And if Winslet pulls off the role convincingly enough she might win that man-shaped golden apple next month. A speech strategy can be that important.
Her acceptance speeches thus far have been stabs at the demure-but-forceful, understated-and-elegant genre. You may remember that Winslet won two Golden Globes, one for Supporting and one for Leading, a couple of weeks ago. And now she's been Oscar nominated and be-SAG-ed. Steadily accumulating hardware, her chances have been improving that she'll win the Best Actress Oscar for her Nazi emoting in The Reader.
Remember when Jamie Foxx went on his awards tear a few years ago for Ray, and every time he picked up a statue he essentially did the same speech? He'd thank grandma and Ray "for living" and then do a little call and response thing with the giddy, thrilled whitey audience. It was a song and dance on par with Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Jerry Maguire barnstorm, and it kept him riding a high wave of momentum all the way to the big Academy Awards. Forrest Whitaker did a similar, if far more subdued, take on the old give-the-same-speech-every-time initiative when he won everything for Last King of Scotland. Like Foxx he thanked history and heritage and all those chest-thumping things. Once again, whiteys liked it. They wanted to see it again.
As victorious black actors are expected to issue stirring evocations or shuck-and-jive for a bit, leading ladies ought to be poised and humble in their shaky-hands, fluttery-heart excitement. Winslet is doing the "Oh my God" kind of speech, assured and calculating in her execution. She knows just how to play British Prestige to a dopey, popcorn-stuffed American audience.
But maybe, just maybe, it's not as strong a strategy as it seemed earlier. Meryl Streep sneaked by Winslet to win a surprise Best Actress prize last night for Doubt. And Streep was, as always, the charmingest of acceptance speech givers. Brassy, funny, genuinely grateful but not cloyingly overly modest. Everyone loved it. A younger actress, like Winslet, could never get away with such a display. People would call her an arrogant bitch. (I mean, they might be calling Meryl that, but it's in a good way.)
So Winslet will have to hope that her boring and irritating breathless amazement will continue to echo favorably in voters' heads all the way til the Oscars, at the end of next month. If not, Ms. Streep might just snatch the glory away from her. She's just that tricky. And that good. Luckily for her, Winslet is nominated for The Reader rather than Revolutionary Road. The latter has only earned her one of the major awards, while the former has nabbed two. Perhaps people appreciate Holocaust-related gravitas a bit more than the self-congratulatory aren't-Americans-miserable back-patting she gave herself toward the end of the Globes broadcast.
Watch Winslet's SAG speech above, and Streep's below.