Paltry Paltrow

Life is like high school: If you're blond, skinny, rich and well-connected, it doesn't matter whether you're any good -- you win.

Published April 2, 1999 9:38PM (EST)

When Gwyneth Paltrow won her best actress Oscar, it was a reminder, as if I needed one, that the traumatizing hierarchies of high school never really go away. I was curled in a chair at a friend's Oscars party, a fresh peach juice bellini in one hand, chocolate covered strawberry in the other, smiling and feeling fine, sure in some way that when the envelope opened, it would be Cate Blanchett. I even had a dim hope that the academy's internationalist sentiment would stretch beyond goofy Roberto Benigni, and the Oscar would go to the remarkable Fernanda Montenegro. Either way, I didn't really care; I'd only bet $5.

But when I heard the name Gwyneth Paltrow, I felt like I'd been kicked in the chest. My reaction quite surprised me, because I hadn't realized I had anything invested in a ceremony I always thought of as just another excuse to dress up and drink champagne with friends. The party's guests, mostly women and gay men, hissed and booed. Then they burst out laughing when Gwynnie, looking like a spun-sugar figurine on top of Tori Spelling's wedding cake, started bawling and reeling off the names of every dead person she could think of, trying to convince us, perhaps, that she had ever had a hard day in her life. When "Sliding Doors" came out, I had asked my friend Cassi, the party's hostess, to see it with me, but she demurred, saying she hated Gwyneth. At the time, I was surprised, because I'd never given much thought to her one way or the other. But her sob, her bubble gum-colored Ralph Lauren dress falling low on her bony shoulders, her hair in a chaste ballerina bun, wearing a necklace called the princess, for godsakes, I understood that loathing perfectly.

The way the fluff media, and now the academy, have anointed this pampered it-girl tells the rest of us one thing -- that being skinny, blond, well-bred and well-connected trumps everything in this culture, even talent. Paltrow is as perfect as the bitch queens in "Jawbreaker" or "Heathers," but since real life lacks the raw justice of teensploitation films, she seems devoid of dark secrets, and thus she never has to lose out to the geeky, quirky girl -- the girl like me. In "Jawbreaker," Rose McGowan's nefarious Courtney ends up standing onstage with tears of humiliation and despair streaming down her perfectly made-up face. Likewise for Sarah Michelle Gellar's evil Katherine in "Cruel Intentions." But in life, Gwyneth Paltrow's tears are of joy and victory. It was the Oscars audience that was left to cringe in misery.

And cringe they did -- I'm pretty sure my party was no exception. As Erika Kennedy had written in the New York Daily News, "There are two camps of women: those who hate Gwyneth Paltrow and those who love her. On Oscar night, both will be watching. And waiting ... I knew Gwynnie was a lock for a nomination, so I called my fierce competitors in our annual, $20-a-head Oscar pool and threw down the gauntlet: Vote for Cate or Meryl or go out on a limb and cast your ballot for Emily Watson. But put your money on Hollywood's golden girl and risk banishment from next year's festivities." Kennedy went on to point out the vicious Paltrow-bashing on alt.gossip.celebrities, a newsgroup where one woman's e-mail signature says, "Who's the phoniest bore around? Gwynnie!" Some posts treat her name like a dirty word, calling her G***** P*****.

There are several reasons why Gwyneth's success feels like a personal affront. For one thing, she represents a retreat from the spunky heroines of the past few years, girls like Kate Winslet, Christina Ricci and Lili Taylor. Sticklike and demure, she's the very opposite of carnality, a poster child for those who want women to return to modesty after a few measly years of girl power.

Still, displeasure with cultural forces doesn't begin to explain the reactions Gwyneth evokes. Instead, she seems to touch insecurities that are far more primal. If we were lucky, our parents comforted us when we were maladjusted adolescents by telling us that the head cheerleader with a waist the size of a Virginia Slim would end up pregnant and working at Sears. Once we graduated, smarts and creativity and stuff like that would finally start to matter more than being as skinny as an X-ray and as unthreateningly insubstantial as Gwynnie's pink gauzy wrap. The revenge of the ignored is one of our most cherished cultural myths -- just look at the multiplexes, filled with movies like the aforementioned "Jawbreaker" and "Cruel Intentions," as well as "She's All That," "The Rage," "Never Been Kissed" and so many others.

Gwyneth Paltrow's success cuts against all that. The daughter of rich, famous, still-married parents, Paltrow attended the tony Manhattan girls' school Spence, where, Vogue informs us, "she was a popular student." As for her struggle to the top, US magazine tells us that she started out doing theater with mom. "Later," David Hochman writes, "after bumping into family friend Steven Spielberg (whom she adoringly refers to as 'Uncle Morty') in line at a movie, Paltrow got the role of Wendy in 'Hook' without so much as a screen test or a reading." There's something profoundly disillusioning about this story, something that says only suckers have to start from the bottom. It's not that she's not talented, it's just that she's not that talented, surely not talented enough to deserve the accolades raining down upon her. In fact, she would be easier to take if she couldn't act at all -- then, at least, there would be some rational excuse for the visceral hatred she brings out in so many.

Hating Gwyneth is about more than hating nepotism, or hating the beautiful. The entertainment industry is full of kids with famous parents, some of whom are utterly endearing even if it's obvious that their families' fame gave them a leg up. Take Drew Barrymore, for instance, another Hollywood child who got her first break from Spielberg. Drew is no great thespian, but I, for one, am thrilled every time she succeeds. The difference between the two, of course, is that Drew's life, like a tawdry take on the Diana story, shreds the myths of princesshood, while Gwynnie's embodies them. Uma Thurman is another gorgeous, privileged blond, but her fame doesn't feel like an insult either. With Uma, there's this light and mischief in her eyes, an ironic playfulness in her best performances. It's easy to see Uma Thurman as a latter-day Lauren Bacall, and her glamour feels aspirational and inspirational in a way that Paltrow's just doesn't. Gwyneth is gorgeous, no doubt, but there's no spark to her, just wan good breeding, a WASPy kind of surface graciousness.

Whenever women complain about how sickly skinny fashion models are, magazine editors and designers snipe that models function as clothes hangers, that curves and flesh would distract from the purity of the designs. Are we to accept that same formulation for actresses? In a way, Gwyneth is beloved for being a mannequin. Look at her biggest roles -- in "Shakespeare in Love" and "Great Expectations," she was the unattainable object of desire, cherished above all for her beauty. In "Sliding Doors," her character's most dramatic transformation comes via a haircut and bleach job. She was quite good, actually, as a hooker in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight," but that was before she had become a movie star, and she seems to be leaving such parts behind. Her next projects, after all, include "The Talented Mr. Ripley" with fellow upper-cruster Matt Damon; "Duets," directed by daddy; and -- the ultimate credibility enhancer -- a summer stock production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It," where she's parlaying some of her Hollywood buzz into the role of -- what else? -- the cross-dressing Rosalind. It makes sense, after all. For a while, with Winslet, Jennifer Lopez and Reese Witherspoon, it seemed like we were starting to get beyond the Joan Rivers definition of female beauty. But what the culture kings really adore, it seems, is women as pure as little girls, with the manners of matrons and the bodies of boys.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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