It's 11 days before the Academy Awards, and Kate Winslet is giving her third best performance of the year. The occasion is a lunch at New York City's Oak Room at which 100 or so invited guests have gathered to honor her performance in Stephen Daldry's The Reader. This particular publicity event, orchestrated in the 26th mile of the Oscar marathon, has multiple purposes: it's designed to entice any wavering voters in the few days before the last postmark lands on the last ballot. It's also intended to defuse complaints that the movie's treatment of the Holocaust is too manicured. Thus, Elie Wiesel has been drafted to host the meal, which would have been a masterly counterstroke of damage control for distributor Harvey Weinstein had Wiesel not bailed at the last minute to attend oh, bitter irony of the red-carpet campaign trail! a bris. (See pictures of Winslet in her 10 best roles.)
But above all, this midday fete is engineered to give the movie's star one final turn in the spotlight. By the time Winslet arrives, she has already participated in several hours of diligent self-exposure that day, illuminating for both Larry King and the women of The View the complexities of pretending to have sex with Leonardo DiCaprio in the bleak marital drama Revolutionary Road while the film's director, Sam Mendes her husband watched. (See TIME's Oscar Guide: Best Actress.)
If she is fatigued, she never betrays it. An eager, insistent clot of people pushes toward her, and somehow she manages to greet each well-wisher with a fractional recalibration of body language that suggests a wordless surge of elated surprise on her part: Oh, it's you! You're the one I've been most hoping to see, and how wonderful that we share that secret knowledge! To achieve this effect, Winslet must appear, at every minute, to be not only the most interesting person in the room but also the most interested. This is not easy, and she does it very well. People walk away feeling glowy, sated and privileged. She has made them feel that way, and not out of actressy affectation, but because right now, it's her job. (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)
Of course, Winslet would rather be acting onscreen, which is, she says, "the one thing that I do for myself" and lately the thing she has been doing better than just about anyone else. In an industry that insists that most actresses remain giggly, pliable and princessy well into middle age, Winslet has somehow avoided that pigeonhole entirely. She doesn't play girls; she never really has. She plays women. Unsentimentalized, restless, troubled, discontented, disconcerted, difficult women. And clearly, it's working for her. Her two most recent performances as Hanna Schmitz, the illiterate former concentration-camp guard in The Reader, and as April Wheeler, the anguished, rageful 1950s wife and mother in Revolutionary Road have earned her two Golden Globes, a Screen Actors Guild prize, a British Academy Award (BAFTA) and her sixth Oscar nomination, a benchmark that no actor so young has ever before reached. (See the Oscar's youngest Best Actress nominees.)
At 33, Winslet has become not only the finest actress of her generation but in many ways also the perfect actress for this moment. She's intense without being humorless. She's international in outlook (though raised in Reading, England, in a middle-class family of working actors, she now lives in New York City and won those Oscar nominations for playing three Americans, two Brits and a German). She's ambitious but cheerfully self-deflating, capable of glamour but also expressive of a kind of jolting common sense. She has a strong professional ethic, which she somehow balances with her domestic life (she and Mendes have a son, Joe, 5, and Winslet has a daughter, Mia, 8, from her first marriage she takes both kids to school most days). And, cementing her status as an icon of the Era of New Seriousness, she really likes hard work. Assuming she's paid her taxes, are there still any openings in the Cabinet?