By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 20, 2009
LONDON -- On Sunday when the cameras in Hollywood zoom in on Kate Winslet as an Academy Award nominee for Best Actress, the British will be rooting for their girl to win -- and bracing themselves for the possibility of excruciating television if she does.
The idea that a British actress might win a top acting award, and that it might not be pretty, was planted last month at the Golden Globes when a visibly shocked Winslet won as best actress, her second award of the evening.
Breathless and teary, the 33-year-old briefly blanked on Angelina Jolie's name, told herself to "gather!" her emotions (twice) and gushed about her love for her director-husband Sam Mendes and her co-star in "Revolutionary Road," Leonardo diCaprio.
The headlines poured in: "Kate's speech a global disaster," "Get a grip, love," "Celebrity big blubber," "You're embarrassing us." She was accused of sniveling, hyperventilating, even being momentarily deranged. An editorial in the Times of London said she was so unrecognizably Kate, so overwrought with emotion, that she might as well have grabbed the mike and announced that Bernie Madoff found his missing $50 billion. In short, she wasn't very British.
"It didn't go down hugely successful," said Liz Banks, a London-based presentation skills specialist. "It's a cultural thing: We like people to stay in control of emotions. People don't like waffling or blabbering."
For many Britons, the only thing worse than publicly displaying too much emotion is publicly displaying too much pride in one's work, which can make the Academy Awards a wholly tricky affair given that they tend to encourage both.
Indeed, in a land where less is often more, the most (quietly) celebrated awards speeches are those that play down sentimentality and accomplishment.
Judi Dench, for instance, was widely praised here for her Oscar speech for "Shakespeare in Love" when she said, "I feel for eight minutes on the screen, I should only get a little bit of him." Likewise, Hugh Grant was the toast of the town with his Golden Globe speech for "Four Weddings and a Funeral": "It is with tremendous ill grace that I grudgingly acknowledge the contribution of a few other people. I suppose Richard Curtis wrote quite a funny script," he said, practically dripping in understatement.
In several interviews with Americans this month on the red carpet at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards, or BAFTAs, there was sense of bewilderment over the hoopla surrounding Winslet's emotive speeches.
"Anything that feels genuine to me, then I empathize with and feel delighted," said director Ron Howard. And producer Harvey Weinstein, who was sitting with Winslet at the Golden Globes, said: "That is what makes awards shows fun, to watch somebody react like that, that's good. If everybody is a robot, who cares? Don't even watch."
Anthropologist Kate Fox explains in her best-selling book "Watching the English" that it's not that simple here. Oscar speeches for the English "tend to be short and dignified or self-deprecatingly humorous, and even so they nearly always manage to look uncomfortable and embarrassed," according to the book. "Any English thespian who dares to break these unwritten rules is ridiculed and dismissed."
Winslet has since apologized for her flummoxed speech that included 31 gasps and three shoulder-heaving pauses (people here counted). She emphasized that she didn't expect to win. She promised to prepare better in the future.
Still, at the BAFTAs, there was a sense that another car crash was imminent.
Bookmakers offered 1-5 odds on her bursting into tears during her speech.
Like a pack of anthropologists, British reporters descended on Winslet on the red carpet and grilled her on cultural taboos: Are you going to cry again? Will you keep it together out there? Can you please confirm you have prepared a speech?
In the end, Winslet won and gave an emotional-but-not-too-emotional speech that was dubbed "very British."
Taking no chances, the papers here have published backup speeches and dished out advice in hopes that should she win this weekend for her role in "The Reader," it will be restrained Kate who takes the podium, not discombobulated Kate or tongue-tied Kate.
The Times of London, for example, offered this nugget: "If a brilliant witticism pops into your head, pause, expel it from your mind and read what's on the paper."