Gwyn, lose or draw

Her upbringing and aristocratic air have -- unfairly -- made her a loaded target for many. But the most unjust criticism is of her very best films.

Published September 22, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

How did someone who has done as little to court controversy as Gwyneth Paltrow become such a divisive figure? Easy -- she's rich, white, beautiful and successful.

No star of the last 10 years has been such a magnet for the neuroses and prejudices of those who watch her than Paltrow. Camille Paglia, writing here, referred to her as "vacuous, sallow, moony, rubbernecked" and, noting that she is the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and late producer/director Bruce Paltrow, called her "a preening, pampered princess who's been foisted on the public by a bicoastal media cabal." Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting worked a similar, familiar theme on MSNBC, writing: "Even before she won her Oscar, Gwyneth Paltrow was Hollywood royalty -- the child of a lovely patrician actress and a producer of interesting, critically praised TV shows. But she hasn't just lazed about, drawing on her trust fund of fame: she's made a name for herself by dating her co-stars; dressing so well that she's considered a fashion icon; talking about her trendy hobbies, from yoga to her macrobiotic diet to 'cupping'; and now for marrying a rock star, giving birth to their child, and naming her after produce. Oh, and she hasn't made a good movie since 'Shakespeare in Love.'"

People seem to hate Paltrow because she's got that slightly aloof patrician beauty, because her career benefited from the connections she had growing up the daughter of Blythe Danner and Bruce Paltrow, because family friend Steven Spielberg helped her get into the movies, because her dad bought her the Harry Winston necklace she wore to the Oscars, because she burst into tears accepting the award, because she married rock star Chris Martin of Coldplay, because she named their daughter Apple. And this history isn't even checkered by a broken home or a stint in rehab to console Paltrow haters, darn it.

It's understandable that Paltrow pushes the buttons of people who didn't have the advantages she did, who think of how hard they've had to work for what they've gotten and resent how easily success has come to her. Those are very real, very strong, very persistent feelings. They're also part of the slop we have to put aside if we want to call ourselves grown-ups. Nobody should like the fact that life isn't fair -- but being shocked by it past, say, your sophomore year in college seems naive.

It's childish to rail against the fact that people's connections help them (the exception being the current occupant of the White House). There wasn't one person I heard making fun of Paltrow for bursting into tears accepting her Oscar who didn't sound offensively inhuman. Here was a young woman overwhelmed at the tail end of an emotional roller coaster (her father and grandfather had been seriously ill). You just know that had she remained composed those same people would have accused her of being an unemotional ice princess who acted like the Oscar was her due. And when people talked about her father having bought her the Harry Winston necklace she wore to the ceremony, as if wanting it or owning it were a moral failing, it sounded like nothing so much as a childish temper tantrum.

What may be most interesting about the Paltrow haters is this: Ask any one of them why they hate her and it's almost a sure bet that the quality of her acting will barely figure into it.

Maybe they have to avoid the question because, in her résumé, there's not a list of successful big-budget garbage for them to glom onto. Paltrow has kept largely to small- to medium-budget "specialty" films. The new "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is the first thing Paltrow has done that belongs in the blockbuster league, and even it is an odd duck among blockbusters. Composed almost entirely of computer-generated effects (there are only actors and props -- no sets), "Sky Captain," by first-time writer-director Kerry Conran, plays like what you'd get from a kid who shoots Super 8 movies in his backyard and has been given $70 million to do what he wants. But like every other element of the movie, the actors, including Paltrow, exist only to fulfill some iconic function and are part of an enormous, sustained conception that sits on the screen without ever coming alive.

Like most people, I first saw Gwyneth Paltrow in Steve Kloves' film "Flesh and Bone," where she played a young con artist whose specialty is sneaking into wakes and, with the aid of Vaseline, stealing the rings off the fingers of corpses. Her whole affect in the picture was so fuck-you blasé, so unabashedly nasty, that she won me over right away.

The trouble was, that same blasé affect defined her other work from the period. In the early '90s, just before her movie career broke, I saw her onstage as Nina in a Williamstown Theater Festival production of "The Seagull," co-starring with her mother and Christopher Walken. It wasn't a good performance. Wan and resigned where Nina is tormented and lyric, Paltrow moped through the role, her flat, nasal voice finding none of the pathos or sad comedy of Chekhov's lines.

Paltrow has sometimes put her zonked, bruised quality to startling use, as in the role of the Vegas cocktail waitress/hooker in Paul Thomas Anderson's terrific "Hard Eight" (still too little seen and still Anderson's best movie). But other times she just seemed dissociated from the pictures she was in, a promising actress who needed some training to refine her potential (and especially to bring some variety to her voice). The stardom that followed, to say nothing of the Oscar, stymied that.

If Paltrow is only sometimes the actress she can be, she is also, more often than not, a delightful screen presence. Movies like "Emma" (in which she seemed wholly inauthentic) and last year's "Sylvia" (as well as perhaps the upcoming screen version of David Auburn's play "Proof," which Paltrow played onstage in London) are her prestige outings. She's much more enjoyable in throwaway pictures. My colleague Stephanie Zacharek described what a fetching clotheshorse Paltrow made in the tepid "A Perfect Murder." In the wrinkle-in-time romantic fantasy "Sliding Doors," Paltrow got to mix charm with coolly cutting sarcasm. Playing an Englishwoman, Paltrow went believably from withering indignation to clipped vulnerability to a sort of dry coquetry, and she matched up very well with John Hannah, whose slight frame complimented hers. And Paltrow's charm lent a sweetness to last year's "View From the Top," in which she played a small-town girl who dreams of becoming a stewardess. The picture was a trifle but, like Mike Nichols' "Working Girl," it was about the weird intersection of blue-collar and white-collar jobs, and it didn't condescend to the people in those jobs or to their dreams. Silly comedies, though, are often treated as if they're beneath contempt. Which is certainly how Paltrow speaks of it in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview.

That interview reveals one unattractive movie-star habit -- that of distancing yourself from your failures. "If you go back and look at interviews," she says, "you'll never, you'll maybe twice hear me saying I genuinely love a film, because I don't lie." Forget that sometimes telling a lie is simply a matter of being gracious to the people you work with. Paltrow's priding herself on her honesty suggests that she's not the best judge of her work because, with the exception of "Shakespeare in Love," in which she deserved every bit of praise she got, her best work has been done in movies that were either critical or commercial failures or both.

Maybe the acclaim for "Y Tu Mamá También" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" will prompt a reappraisal of Alfonso Cuarón's "Great Expectations," which was greeted as a travesty when it opened in 1997. (In a Premiere magazine profile at the time, Paltrow suggested that Cuarón had lost control of the production.) It's a rapturous updating of the Dickens novel that has its dedicated admirers; the discerning British film critic Robin Wood has called it a model for how film adaptations can be true to the spirit of their sources while being wholly original creations. Paltrow plays Estella, the young beauty raised by her guardian Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on the male sex. Ethan Hawke is the young artist whose bloodstream Estella enters when they are just children. It's a tough role, that of a beauty whose surface radiance has no inner correspondence. As the critic Steve Vineberg put it at the time, Paltrow has to play "the sadness of a woman with no emotions," and she's remarkable. The infernally beautiful young Jean Simmons was memorable as the younger Estella in David Lean's famous 1946 film of the novel. (Valerie Hobson, who played the grown Estella, is memorable too, but for all the wrong reasons -- she's a colossal comedown after Simmons.) Put it this way, Simmons is as good as Paltrow, but she isn't any better.

It was another literary adaptation, Neil LaBute's 2002 film of A.S. Byatt's "Possession," that provided Paltrow with one of her best roles. Like "Great Expectations," "Possession" was held up as an example of how movies are hopelessly inadequate for conveying the complexity and richness of novels. In some ways, LaBute seems to understand the material better than Byatt did. He made a fleet, sharp adaptation that focused on the parallel love stories Byatt had devised. LaBute's film is a civilized entertainment entirely free of the reverence and stuffiness that clogs up too many period films. As the female, British half of a pair of academics chasing down the hidden love affair between two Victorian poets, Paltrow put both her coolness and the propriety of her self-presentation to comic, and at times melancholic, effect. What's touching about the performance is the reticence that remains in Paltrow as her icy exterior starts to melt. It's her most stylized, and stylish, performance.

Paltrow's fine-boned beauty makes her appear almost a stylized creature at times, more a moonbeam than a sunbeam. And that may be why she has often been at her most affecting in comedies or love stories, which are stylized forms. François Truffaut once wrote about how, because of the surrounding idealized perfection, sad moments in musicals can be especially wounding.

That's the principle at work in the Farrelly brothers' "Shallow Hal," which features Paltrow's most affecting performance -- certainly her sunniest and most relaxed. The movie's message is childishly simple -- beauty is only skin deep. But conviction and emotion can make even the most banal concepts feel rich, and "Shallow Hal" is one of the loveliest, most affecting, and most emotionally satisfying of American film comedies. Paltrow plays Rosemary, a girl whose obesity keeps people from seeing what a beautiful person she is -- except for Jack Black's Hal, who is under a spell that lets him see only a person's inner beauty. So Hal sees Rosemary as a slim, beautiful girl; the "real" Rosemary is Paltrow in a fat suit.

"Shallow Hal" provoked exactly the kind of outrage you'd expect. In Slate, David Edelstein said of Paltrow's performance and her detractors, "she takes many more chances here, and she won't get an Oscar -- just grief from liberals and organizations that claim to speak for the overweight." Some women claimed that the movie was saying it was OK to love a fat girl as long as she was really Gwyneth Paltrow. The trouble is that nothing in the movie supports that reading. In the Farrellys' conception, inner beauty cuts both ways. The real proof of what the movie is saying comes when Jack's spell is lifted. From then on, the only Rosemary anyone sees is Rosemary as she actually appears, and that's the woman Jack has to learn to love -- not the svelte blond beauty his spell allowed him to see. That girl is, quite literally, a fantasy creature.

As Rosemary, Paltrow expresses emotion that has the force of the elemental. The hurt on her face when Jack, under his spell, chides her, saying that she must have to fend off the guys, is exceeded only by the hurt she expresses when she realizes he has (momentarily, in the movie's scheme) rejected her because of who she really is. Paltrow lets us see a young woman learning to be comfortable with who she really is and then, cruelly, made to feel a freak inside her body. There's no distance between what Rosemary feels and what Paltrow makes us feel.

"Shallow Hal" and last year's underrated "Stuck on You" reveal that the Farrelly brothers may be less interested in sophomoric humor than in recasting themselves as the radical humanists of American film comedy. These are deeply inclusionary movies, in which ugliness as well as beauty are only skin deep. In "Shallow Hal," Paltrow is right on their wavelength. The directors had a comically irresistible idea -- to take the golden princess of American movies and put her in a fat suit. The movie erases the distance between Paltrow and the audience, not because she is pulled off her pedestal and humiliated, but because it allows us to see her wounded by emotions that most of us assume would be alien to Gwyneth Paltrow. That's another example of how the Farrellys make hash of our assumptions. Of course "Shallow Hal" is red meat to Paltrow haters, because it says judgments based on surfaces arebthe ugliest thing imaginable. A simple idea her most fervent detractors have yet to grasp.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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