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A Star Is Borne

By Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
July 31, 1996

LOS ANGELES -- For two years now we have been trying to love Gwyneth Paltrow. We know we're supposed to. And we've been trying, honest. Clearly, she must be something special if every attitude-dispensing arbiter of What's New and Hip says so.

And they all say so.

In 1994 the New York Times Magazine counted Paltrow as one of the 30 artists most likely to "change the culture for the next 30 years." Vanity Fair put her on the cover of its April 1995 Hollywood issue along with eight other up-and-coming starlets. This April Harper's Bazaar called her "Hollywood's newest and most promising star." Harpers & Queen said she was "white-hot" in June. And now Vogue has put her on the cover of its August issue, complete with photo spread, interview and editorial.

"Gwyneth is well known as the actress every designer wants to dress," Vogue Editor Anna Wintour writes in the editorial. Paltrow, she remarks, qualifies as "simultaneously chic, accessible, natural, friendly and warm."

Notably absent from Wintour's editorial is any mention of Paltrow's acting successes. That's because the actress hasn't had many. Or, for that matter, many failures. The fact is, Paltrow has had only a half-dozen roles of any significance, several of which almost nobody saw.

So this year we have been waiting for Paltrow to redeem the promise of her relentless promotion. And Paltrow is making back-to-back films. For those of us hoping to add our voices to the clamor of the cultural cognoscenti, here -- finally -- is our chance to get it.

But alas, what are we offered thus far? "Seven," a nail-biting thriller starring Brad Pitt (now her boyfriend) and Morgan Freeman, with Paltrow playing the wise, stoic wife of a cop for a total of perhaps 15 minutes. Then "The Pallbearer," a romantic comedy in which Paltrow has her first quasi-leading role as the object of David Schwimmer's obsession. In it, however, she is more mousy than mesmerizing; the film quickly vanished.

Now comes "Emma," a film that Paltrow dominates as a well-intentioned but immature, scheming daughter of England's 19th-century upper class. The latest Jane Austen novel committed to celluloid, "Emma" lacks the wit and sparkle of its Oscar-winning predecessor, "Sense and Sensibility," but it at least gives Paltrow a chance to display her talents.

She may be a wonderful actress; she may, on the other hand, be just plain average. Up to now it's been hard to tell. But never mind. Either way, Gwyneth Paltrow seems destined for celebrity and, probably, stardom.

To the Manner Born

There's a little bit of Emma in Gwyneth Paltrow. The actress projects innocence and girlishness -- after all, she's only 23 -- along with a worldliness that is beyond her years.

Right now she is curled up like a cat on an armchair in her hotel suite. Behind her the bed is rumpled, as if she just woke up and couldn't be bothered to straighten the sheets; she strokes her loose, straw-blonde hair as she languidly smokes a cigarette and considers all the attention she gets.

"When there's somebody new, people get really excited," Paltrow is saying. "But I've been lucky. No matter what they've said about my family, my boyfriend, I've always been fortunate in that people who criticize movies -- well, I've always come out pretty well."

Austen's Emma is naive in her sophistication; she has a wealth of breeding but no experience to qualify her for the pastime of romantic meddling. In some ways, that is a caricature of Paltrow, who teeters on the cusp of stardom with little knowledge of the vagaries of the acting trade (though some of the vagaries of stardom). Emma and Paltrow also share the right education and upbringing; it's no coincidence that the actress was skilled enough in archery, horseback riding and singing to do all three in the movie without coaching or a stand-in.

Paltrow is Hollywood royalty, her mother the esteemed stage actress Blythe Danner, and her father, Bruce Paltrow, a successful television producer of hit shows including "St. Elsewhere" and "The White Shadow." Paltrow's childhood was not the Beverly Hills experience; her family had a big house and back yard in Santa Monica before moving to New York when Paltrow was 11. There her mother insisted she attend an upper-crust girls' school, Spence, mixing with the children of New York's wealthy circles.

But show business contacts and acquaintances were always there to help. One of Paltrow's first roles -- granted, a tiny one -- was offered by a family friend, Steven Spielberg, as she stood in line at the movies with her father. She played Wendy in Spielberg's "Hook." A TV mini-series role and a couple of plays later, Paltrow was adopted by a well-connected agent, Rick Kurtzman at Creative Artists Agency, who sent her to see key producers, directors and casting agents in Hollywood.

And then there's Pitt, who had already been dubbed "the sexiest man alive" when he and Paltrow met on the set of "Seven" last year. It became, you might say, a well-documented love affair. The two have been pursued mercilessly by paparazzi (photos of them naked and kissing on the beach in St. Bart's were published this year in the little-known Celebrity Sleuth magazine, then uploaded onto the Internet), and they are constantly mentioned in the tabloid press as married or about to be. All of this, while unpleasant, has certainly helped keep Paltrow in the public eye.

Oddly enough, the actress is much prettier in real life than on screen. While the lens seems to emphasize the downward slope of her eyes, giving her a look of permanent melancholy, she lacks this in the flesh, except during certain moments of reflection. In person Paltrow has delicate, almost childlike features, a translucent complexion and bottomless pale blue eyes. She passes from attitudes of girlish timidity -- knees folded, head tilted to one side -- to ones of graceful self-possession, gliding across the room to pour coffee for a visitor. (And at this point -- 130 interviews into her press junket -- any act of graciousness is worthy of note.)

Asked about the small number of roles in her career, Paltrow says: "It's purposefully so. As a young woman, a young actress, I'm very aware that there's a lot to learn. I was in no rush. I found I could derive great lessons and value from very diverse, small roles."

She pauses. "I turned down a bunch of lead roles -- I didn't feel ready." And why "Emma"? Paltrow looks up in astonishment. "Isn't it obvious?" she asks. "I mean, roles like that just don't come along for a woman in her early twenties. It's such an exception. She's such a wonderful, flawed heroine, and she learns and grows from her mistakes."

Paltrow's name is often mentioned with a few other rising (and more accomplished) young actresses, but she feels no competition with them. "I'm so the least competitive person. I'm not that ambitious," she protests. She is friends, however, with actresses who have been built up and then torn down by the publicity machine, such as Jennifer Beals, who has struggled to come back after "Flashdance," and she is close with Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has deliberately rejected mainstream roles for darker, more tortured characters.

Together with growing up in a show business family, this has made her exceedingly careful about her choices, Paltrow says. "It's so unfair," she says, idly igniting the plastic wrap of her cigarette pack with a lighter. "You get so famous that it becomes limiting. I'd much prefer to be a Jennifer Jason Leigh -- just for me. There's nothing wrong with being a big movie star if that's what you want. But I'd just like to do roles that are different, challenging." She pauses. "I'd rather do quality work than pack 'em in at the mall."

Paltrow says she always had her heart set on acting, though her parents were keen for her to get a college education and pursue anthropology or art history. But acting was, perhaps, inevitable. Danner would take Gwyneth and her brother, Jake, on location and to Williamstown, Mass., where she performed every summer at the theater; Gwyneth would go to camp and later help her mother run her lines and do makeup. Both siblings feel as comfortable on sets as they do in department stores. (Jake Paltrow, 20, has already directed a movie that won favorable reviews at this year's Sundance festival.)

Paltrow was hardly a diligent student. During high school she would slip from the house at night, leaving notes pinned to her pillow telling her parents not to worry. After graduating from Spence, she lasted for a year at UC Santa Barbara, but kept skipping town to Los Angeles for auditions. After seeing Paltrow perform at Williamstown the summer after that academic year, her father finally encouraged her to pursue an acting career full time.

"It was an incredible moment," she recalls. "I knew then that he thought I had it." And what does she think? "You really don't know until you begin," she says. "I was sort of waiting. But I remember with `Flesh and Bone' " -- her first movie role of consequence -- "thinking I sort of knew I was going to get it."

Which is not to say that the actress hasn't had her moments of doubt. There was that period after "Flesh and Bone" when she kept auditioning for parts and losing them, in the final round, to someone else. One of them was in "Legends of the Fall," which went to Julia Ormond; another was in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," which went to Juliette Lewis. "I was really getting frustrated," she says. "I was thinking, `I'm never going to get anywhere.' "

That lasted for, um, three months. "My parents said, `Don't worry. If you're getting this close, then it's just a matter of time.' " She smiles, a passing ray of light on a pale, porcelain face. "And they were right."

Stardom

It happened to Sandra Bullock. It happened to Julia Roberts. It is happening -- as you read this -- to Matthew McConaughey, an unknown who appears on the cover of this month's Vanity Fair in a story that declares him "Hollywood's new sensation."

Stardom began happening to Paltrow about 2 1/2 years ago, after her critically acclaimed supporting performance in "Flesh and Bone." Soon after that, her name began appearing in all the right places as someone to watch, and within a year Paltrow had qualified as an "it" girl of '90s cinema, along with a few others, including Uma Thurman, Cameron Diaz and, lately, Oscar-winning Mira Sorvino.

Why Paltrow? Sure, she is needle-thin, waifish and blond, a real-life icon for a Calvin Klein world. Yes, she is charming and poised and, by all accounts, very nice. But is there more?

"I remember seeing her when she was 17 at Williamstown" -- where Paltrow played in "Picnic" with her mother -- "and I thought at that moment, `She's major,' " says Miramax's Donna Gigliotti, executive producer of "Emma." "She was a complete surprise. She has a star quality. She's head and shoulders above anyone else in her group."

"People look at her and say, `This is someone who has a lot of class, a lot of talent. She has a name, she's Brad Pitt's girlfriend -- she's bound to go far,' " says Beth Senniac, a publicist for Vanity Fair who was in on the decision to put Paltrow on the cover last year. "It puts her in a different class than a lot of other actresses."

Film critics have generally suspended judgment, waiting to see more. True, there was that rave review in this newspaper in 1993 over her performance as punky young grifter Ginnie in "Flesh and Bone": "a sensational newcomer who walks away with the movie in a nonessential role." But few reviews of her next movie, "Jefferson in Paris," in which she plays Jefferson's daughter Patsy, even mentioned her. Last year's "Moonlight and Valentino," a goofy female-bonding tearjerker about mourning, was panned by the critics, though one reviewer praised Paltrow for giving her character "a combination of flakiness and innocence"; the critics also dumped on "The Pallbearer," with reviews of Paltrow's performance ranging from "moony and helpless" to "radiant" to "terrifically skittish."

Toni Collette, the 23-year-old Australian star of the hit film "Muriel's Wedding" who has supporting roles in both "The Pallbearer" and "Emma," is philosophical about her friend's apparently effortless success.

"Gwyneth is a product of the system here," Collette says without rancor. "There are magazines and television dedicated to that sort of [expletive] -- it scares me. She's amazingly talented -- so many people aren't at all -- and publicity can create stars; gossip creates a certain hype."

But Paltrow insists she has done it on her own. Having well-known parents, she says, "certainly gets you in the door. People want to see if the progeny can perform. But it certainly doesn't keep you in the room. Whoever says that I get work because of my relations hasn't done their homework."

Hollywood's Blessing

Something about the entirety of Paltrow -- her look and her savvy and her parents and her boyfriend -- has convinced Hollywood that she has what it takes to make it, a conviction that has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For, still without a box office or a critically successful film to her credit, Paltrow is terribly in demand. She no longer auditions for parts. She's followed by photographers. She's on three magazine covers at once. The actress has just finished the psychological thriller "Kilronen," with Jessica Lange. She has begun work on a modern adaptation of Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations," playing Estella. Then she'll travel with Pitt to Argentina, where he'll be filming "Seven Years in Tibet." For all intents and purposes, she's already a star.

And if she's as smart as she seems, and as good as everyone claims, maybe someday she'll deserve to be one.

"I'm secure in who I am. That I owe to my parents," she says. "People can say whatever they want. They can't hurt me. And that's a really good thing to possess."

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