Glorious Gwyneth

She's the backlash queen at the moment, but she should be judged on her talent -- and that's formidable.

Published April 1, 1999 10:28PM (EST)

Gwyneth Paltrow, the current backlash queen, is worthy of every scintilla of positive hype conferred upon her. Or rather, every bit of hype about her acting. (Once, watching a segment devoted to her on the mind-numbing E! channel, grinning yahoo Steve Kmetko turned to his co-host and said, with genuine wonder in his voice, "Could she be any prettier?" Well, yes, she could be, actually. She's far too thin -- alarmingly so at the Oscars -- and she certainly blows the lid off the whole rabbi's granddaughter stereotype, but it's not as if she was Grace Kelly, for God's sake. From certain angles, she might even be considered a jolie laide.)

That said, I still think she is an enchanting, light-absorbing star. In the interest of full disclosure, I have only seen her in about three films, and I left the Oscar party I was at immediately after Elia Kazan's appearance, so I also missed her much-maligned tearful speech. But there's precious little she could have said -- an assertion that slavery is a "state's rights issue," or a public tribute to Charlton Heston, perhaps -- that could make me feel otherwise.

I like Gwyneth Paltrow because she bears out my good taste, because I predicted all of this for her. Some five or six years ago, I went to a screening of the unwatchable film "Flesh and Bone," starring Dennis Quaid and the chemically, intrinsically annoying Meg Ryan. Paltrow had a small part as a drifter who does bad-girl things like smear her lips with obscene amounts of lip balm and then use the excess grease to slide the rings from the fingers of corpses in open caskets. Her presence simply could not be ignored. And while the average melon or bag of chips could act Meg Ryan off the screen, the term "walks away with the movie" was invented for the kind of shock and amazement of seeing this unknown girl's performance.

Let me not misrepresent myself. Like most New Yorkers, I frequently see the happiness of others as a rebuke; good fortune that is not my own is usually enough to evoke feelings of Schadenfreude. And there is the irrefutable and obvious charge to which even the staunchest defender must stipulate: that at age 26, as the affluent offspring of a famous actress and successful television producer, educated at one of Manhattan's premier schools, with her genuine talent, naturally speedy metabolism, pronounced clavicle and swan-like neck, Gwyneth Paltrow has had, from an external point of view at least, an inordinately and undeservedly easy time of it. There is a whiff of the too-good-to-be-true about her. Friends even told me of turning on their television and seeing her speaking perfect Spanish. Hers has been the kind of riches-to-riches story upon which we like to think this great country of ours is not (no, nor never shall be!) built.

But I cannot join the hordes of angry, torch-bearing villagers storming the castle, now demanding the monster be killed; that shift in public sentiment happens with all the inevitability of love's inexorable progress through burgeoning to bliss to ruin. Bad star! Bad, bad, formerly beloved star! How dare you try to seduce us? We hate you we hate you we hate you! Let us see your home in In Style! Let us download telephoto pictures of your naked boyfriend on vacation! Come here! Fuck off!

Just as Katherine Hepburn's hauteur and good fortune got her briefly labeled box office poison (before she came roaring back with "The Philadelphia Story," it should be noted), Paltrow must now contend with the backlash as the same star-maker machinery that built her up decides to bring her down a peg. Make way for the wave of unverifiable, incriminating stories. Allow me, briefly, to play Lohengrin to her Elsa.

Last Thursday's New York Times ran an item about Paltrow's parents buying her the $160,000 Harry Winston diamond necklace (aptly called the "Princess," as if named by her detractors) that she wore to the Oscars. It's an embarrassing story, to be sure; necklaces costing this much money should be against the law. So, for that matter, should studio apartments renting for upward of $2,000 a month. But even the Times, generally so intoxicated with entrenched wealth and power, couldn't resist the impulse to spin her good fortune derisively. They did this simply by quoting one Carol Brodie, a Harry Winston official, verbatim: "I go, 'Congratulations.' She looks up and goes, 'My daddy's buying me the necklace.'"

There are legions of Gwyneth-haters who read that item and rolled their eyes in disgust at Paltrow's acquisitive, myopic venality. She gets no points for desiring a necklace like that, let alone owning it, but I seriously doubt that Gwyneth Paltrow "went" precisely according to the eloquent Ms. Brodie's account (note to Harry Winston management: give that silver-tongued young lady a raise!) "Daddy," after all, is a locution for children and prostitutes. There isn't a grown woman who doesn't know this, especially one whose very image is her job.

What of the rumor that Paltrow actually stole the part of "Shakespeare in Love" from her former best friend, Winona Ryder? Ask yourselves, America: How is this remotely possible? The only conceivable manner in which this could be carried out is in the all-too-likely scenario that the admittedly beautiful yet thin-voiced and virtually talent-free Ryder had actually gone and gotten herself trapped inside a paper bag and been unable to act her way out, and that would have surely made the trades.

Even Paltrow's having given up being Brad Pitt's girlfriend is now somehow being trotted out as an indictment of her character. Let us always bear in mind that, in order to maintain continued carnal access to Pitt, she probably had to watch all of his movies, some of them more than once. Walk a mile in those stultified shoes before you judge.

Does America really need yet another slender blond to triumph, to ascend the ranks of the pulchritocracy? Of course not. But inasmuch as we do live in a pulchritocracy, at least this blond is genuinely very, very good at what she does. The Greeks had it right -- talent is a moral virtue. And when the backlash has had its effect and Gwyneth Paltrow is less powerful than she was last week, when she is (gasp!) older, and there is an entirely new crop of blonds and their machinations to hate, it is her talent that will save her.

By David Rakoff

David Rakoff's forthcoming book is "Half Empty." He lives in New York.

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