Learning to love Gwyneth Paltrow
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I reached the height of my dislike for Gwyneth Paltrow on March 26, 2000, when Paltrow read the nominees for Best Actor at the 72nd Academy Awards. I hadn’t been that big a fan of Shakespeare In Love, the movie for which Paltrow had won Best Actress the previous year; and really, I’d had a creeping animosity for Paltrow since her breakout performance in 1996’s Emma. She barely registered in early films like Hook and Malice, and she hadn’t struck me as anything special in Seven, so when Emma was released and “next big thing” stories started popping up in entertainment magazines, the rush of praise was a head-scratcher. Then I actually saw Emma—the weakest of the rash of Jane Austen adaptations released in the ’90s—and was all the more baffled by what critics and commentators were seeing in Paltrow’s play-act-y performances. Everything about her rubbed me the wrong way: the privileged upbringing, the (to my mind) unearned success, and especially her often cluelessly pretentious and self-aggrandizing interviews.
Of course, a lot of what I was holding against Paltrow had nothing to do with her acting ability, which was entirely unfair on my part. But that’s what happens with the common conflation of “actor” and “celebrity” in our culture. If we take issue with a star’s public image, it can sour our feelings about the work. I taught a few college classes in the early ’00s, and I remember one student telling me he’d never watch a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, because he was in his early teens when Titanic came out, and listening to his female classmates swoon over DiCaprio made it hard for him to look at the actor’s baby face without wanting to take a sock at it. I never had any violently negative feelings toward Paltrow, but still: When she stood onstage at the Shrine Auditorium and made a passing, red-faced reference to her weepy speech in ’99, as though it had been some kind of unforgettable Oscar moment that everybody still talked about, the faux-humility and forced chumminess made my skin crawl.
As often happens though, when artists stick around for a while, I tend to take them more seriously. If I’m being honest, I started softening on Paltrow prior to that Oscar intro, when I saw—and thoroughly enjoyed—The Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie that made good use of Paltrow’s ambiguous sincerity. But it was her performance as Margot Tenenbaum in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums that was the real mind-changer. It helps that Wes Anderson’s films are as mannered as Paltrow’s acting, but I don’t think her sole contribution to that film was just to show up and read her lines. Margot Tenenbaum is such a fully formed character: a woman who feels like an outsider in a family that’s past its prime. And Paltrow plays the part perfectly, wearing her mascara like a permanent bruise while adopting a defensive slouch and monotone mutter, as though trying to make herself so small that only people who really care will notice her.
Since Tenenbaums, Paltrow’s career’s been spotty. She’s taken on an odd mix of small roles in big films and big roles in small films. My favorite post-Tenenbaums Paltrow performances have been her turns as Pepper Potts in the two Iron Man movies, where her ability to weave between Robert Downey, Jr.’s running patter with crucial plot-advancing dialogue is, at times, as thrilling as any action scene. And while I haven’t loved everything Paltrow’s done on-screen over the past decade, she’s earned more leeway as an actress than she had 15 years ago.
The problem is that Paltrow’s “work” per se hasn’t been confined to the screen. She’s continued to give those same kinds of interviews that made me shake my head back in the ’90s, and in some ways she’s worse now than she was then, since her celebrity-to-actor ratio has tilted dramatically toward the former. Paltrow has a website where she chats smarmily with other celebs, and makes recommendations about how other famous actresses married to multi-millionaire rock stars can live life to the fullest. She’s written a cookbook in which she boasts about having a wood-burning pizza oven in her garden. She gives unsolicited advice about parenting, exercise, world travel, and politics, with Marie Antoinette levels of tone-deafness.
I’m of two minds about all this. On the one hand, it’s frustrating how much of the business surrounding movies these days is about everything but the actual movies. Ever tried to watch one of those showbiz-centered TV news magazines, or worse, an awards show’s red-carpet coverage? The anchors and reporters on those telecasts don’t seem to care a whit about what actors do for a living; they only want to talk about fashion, jet-setting vacations, babies, and scandals. On the other hand: I’m with our own Sean O’Neal in that I pine for movie stars, and there’s a longstanding tradition of celebrities huddling up with their era’s version of Hedda Hopper to gab insensitively about romance and glamour. All the the la-di-da-time-for-my-private-cooking-lesson-with-Jamie-Oliver is part of what being an big-time entertainer is, and whether we find it repulsive or alluring is, in a way, part of being entertained.
When it comes to Gwyneth Paltrow, the way she’s doubled down on “I’m just one of the gals, provided that the gals can afford nannies and private chefs” has made her more endearing in an odd way. My problem with Paltrow back at the end of the ’90s was that I thought she came off as a phony when she talked about her life. But now I realize that she means it. She honestly believes she’s being helpful and of-the-people when she talks about Kabbalah and Vegenaise. She doesn’t think it’s strange at all to start popping up all over TV singing Cee Lo, or to make believe she’s a country music star while promoting her movie Country Strong. Either she’s not aware she’s bound to be mercilessly mocked, or she honestly doesn’t care. Either way: The further into the what-the-hell? that Paltrow goes, the more her very existence as an early-21st century public figure feels vital.
Also, believe it or not, Paltrow’s actually pretty good in Country Strong. Granted, the movie’s awful—often hilariously so. It’s one of those music-business melodramas where up-and-coming songwriters are just one amazing open-mic night away from superstardom, while veteran superstars are just one drink away from oblivion. Yet Paltrow has a few scenes early in the film that are genuinely powerful: one where she shares a playful moment with a fellow musician in rehab, and one where she has dinner with her husband/manager and reflects on how happy they were when they had nothing. The scenes are clumsily written, but Paltrow keeps steering them back to the real pain beneath the words, such that later in the film when her character steps on stage to belt out her big hits, they’re more affecting than they have a right to be.
Sometime in the next 10 years, I expect Paltrow will get another role worthy of her gifts—a Ripley/Tenenbaums kind of role—and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins another Oscar. Because beneath the flighty, imperious celebrity surface, Paltrow still possesses formidable acting chops. But if she does win another Academy Award, I honestly hope she follows it up by recording a hip-hop album or hosting her own sketch-comedy series or embarking on a professional golf career or something. A decade ago, I would’ve cringed at such wide-eyed hubris. Now I think Paltrow makes showbiz less boring.