She's still among the very last generation of movie actors for whom stardom and skill seem scarily, thrillingly natural.
I keep a file on my phone labelled Wellness. It's got zero fitness tips and no meditation advice. It's full, instead, of stuff about Gwyneth Paltrow movies. Like how, in A Perfect Murder, she buys Viggo Mortensen a fancy espresso maker and tells him, "You could use a little civilising." I called my Paltrow file Wellness because, last year, I thought it'd be amusing to find some overlap between her acting and Goop, her lifestyle brand. How many times had a Paltrow character tried to upgrade the lives of the people around her, just as a matter of taste, like that espresso machine or the matchmaking she tries to do in Emma?
But I had to stop, because eventually — and I mean after two movies — it was clear that the average Paltrow character doesn't get to make anybody's life much better because somebody's always making hers worse. Imagine playing a pregnant woman who sits around a dingy apartment, as Paltrow does in Se7en, while Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt hunt the psycho who, at some point, removes your head then boxes it up like it's a hat from eBay. Imagine playing the girlfriend of suspiciously missing Jude Law and having to run for your life, as Paltrow does in The Talented Mr. Ripley, because Matt Damon knows that you know he killed your man? And A Perfect Murder? It's supposed to be hers!
Now, there's a kind of person who'd remember her decapitation and feel kittens-on-the-internet happy, because there's a kind of person who just doesn't like Gwyneth Paltrow.
This person probably would have felt this way before there was ever a Goop. The tearful, gushing (utterly sincere) Oscar speech from 1999 would have set this person off. As well as the comedy about the loser who loves a fat version of Paltrow because he can see her true, beautiful inner self, and she's skinny Gwyneth. And the fact that she dated Pitt and Ben Affleck, that she married the guy from Coldplay and named their first child after orchard fruit.
Maybe that kind of person dislikes the permanent pout of her mouth or her mild patrician drawl, the private-school privilege of it all. Maybe her brightness and ambient affluence are too "debutante" for them.
There's a kind of person who watched the virus thriller Contagion, heard Paltrow's grim opening line ("[cough, cough]") and grinned: She's so doomed. When two scientists peel back the top of her lifeless head (eyes still frozen in shock, mouth agape) so that it and her blonde hair cover half her face, there's a kind of person who laughed out loud, not only because Steven Soderbergh shoots it so that it is kind of funny but because, again, they do not like Gwyneth Paltrow.
I am not that kind of person. I'm the kind of person who, when Paltrow collapses on her kitchen floor, gandered gravely at his watch (We're only eight minutes in?); who, when she's pronounced dead a minute later, seriously searched for the nearest exit — and this is a Soderbergh movie, one with Damon, Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne and Sanaa Lathan.
So, no: I am some other kind of person, the kind of who believes that Paltrow was, for a while, the best young American actor in Hollywood. She's still among the very last generation of movie performers — including Cotillard and Cate Blanchett, Winslet and Nicole Kidman — for whom stardom and skill seem scarily, thrillingly natural.
I love the whine in Paltrow's flirtation, the shock of her rage, how she can go from luminous to lost just like that, how she's able to summon worry, misery and rue 70 different ways in a single performance. I was drawn to her intelligence and her radiance and the swings of her mood, improbably perhaps, but not really.
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Lots of the women she's played tend to exist on estates, in mansions and academia, but hers isn't the acting of entitlement, the brattiness of privilege. If she laughed, I laughed. If she ached, I did, too. Damn the gentry. If Jessica Lange or Matt Damon is coming after her, I'm calling the police.
The end of the 1990s and start of the 2000s was High Paltrow. Everybody knew she was going to be major. They knew not because Harvey Weinstein, who made a string of Miramax movies with her, willed it but because people who went to the movies said so.
Noting that she made 15 films in five years is more weather report than adulation. But she made great weather — partly cloudy in Sliding Doors, partly sunny in Alfonso Cuarón's Great Expectations, hazy in Hush, stormy in The Royal Tenenbaums, perfectly clear in Shakespeare in Love.
These were movies people liked (mostly). People seemed to like her in these movies. They gave her an Oscar for that last one, and something about that moment seemed to alter the forecast. Could it have been all the crying in the speech and the princess-pink Ralph Lauren dress? Or the idea that she beat Blanchett and Fernanda Montenegro, who complained to the Brazilian press that Paltrow won for being a "romantic figure, thin, pure, virginal"? Or the idea that Weinstein had manufactured her a win that came too soon, whatever that would even mean? Either way, something had changed.
That Wellness file of mine was a shallow excuse to write about a favourite performer who, in the last decade or so, appeared to lose her zest for performing. I, at least, had trouble making do with her alongside Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, playing Pepper Potts, his assistant then partner then wife then co-Avenger then widow. She was breezy with him, but where was the beef?
Between Marvel movies, I'd take what I could get. That meant watching her, on the Goop site, slice pork with Jon Favreau, drink margaritas with Seamus Mullen; fry chicken with John Legend — well, he fried his; she baked hers. Was Paltrow hiding, taking a vacation, retiring, making absurdly savvy business decisions? She's got a good part, as a mansion-dwelling mommy with a secret life, on a new Netflix show called The Politician.
The middle has gone out of the movies. And the middle was where Paltrow lived. Where else, besides streaming, would she even go now? Still, how could a person who seemed to act all the time, and at the height of her talent, gradually stop acting? Were there no roles that challenged her? She's 47 now: Were there just no roles?
But last week, I finished She Said, a stressful new book by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about, in part, how they broke the Weinstein sexual harassment story for The New York Times. In an epilogue there is a gathering of a dozen very different women (lawyers, a fast-food worker, Christine Blasey Ford) at Paltrow's home where they talk about their experiences surviving and fighting back against a range of men. Among these women, she discloses the discovery that, even though she resisted him, Weinstein had been exploiting her success to prey upon women: How do you think Gwyneth has what she has?
"That has by far been the hardest part of this," she tells the group, "to feel like a tool in coercion of rape."
Weinstein's effect on the many women he's alleged to have harassed, assaulted and worse remains largely private. For the actors, maybe he actively cost them work. Maybe what he did to them changed their relationship to their work.
I've spent two years wondering whether Paltrow's taste for acting had diminished because of that man, whether having his company seem synonymous with some of her strongest, most popular work compelled her to start a company of her own, one where the work concerned not acting but being, being whole, being better, being ridiculously better.
How much power does a female actor truly have in Hollywood? Not just autonomous power, but the power to completely protect yourself from predation? Why not build something that doesn't control you because it's yours? Intelligence is an essential component of Paltrow's screen self. She rerouted that intelligence into the kind of workplace some people wish they had.
But I've spent a couple of years wondering about the work, too, her old work. I went back to a lot of it. And that dopey Wellness file became a catalog of the ferociously unwell. Melancholic widowhood in Bounce. Manic-depression in Proof. It's true that somebody was always trying to kill Paltrow. But then she started trying to kill herself. Suicidal depression in The Royal Tenenbaums. Suicide in Country Strong. Drug addiction with suicidal depression in Two Lovers. A molten incarnation of Sylvia Plath in Sylvia.
It's true that she was funny in her minute or so as Dixie Normous in Austin Powers in Goldmember and that she tried (too hard) to be, as a flight attendant in View From the Top. It's also true that the dark parts were juicy and played to her capacity for making the most vivid music out of fraying psychological noise. Paltrow won that Oscar basically for playing the sun. But she's even more astonishing in black holes.
But maybe you get tired of all that darkness, of the suffering, of the being made to suffer. Maybe you really do just want the lightness of celebration, the benefit of salves and powders and whatever a jar of ashwagandha purports to do for you.
Looking for personal clues in somebody's acting is probably a folly. The words are a writer's. And the direction usually comes from someone else. But I kept wondering anyway. Was this woman working through — working against — something else? I'm that kind of person, the kind who hears a theater full of people cheer half her face being covered by scalp and wants to cry. The excellence in her acting — even as a corpse — is a key in the lock of my humanity. It's hard to watch her suffer. It's hard to know she's suffered — and that suffering has always felt bigger than any one character — or, really, any one actor. It's felt representative.
In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Paltrow plays Marge, a 1950s coed, who starts off with some of Grace Kelly's glamour and exits with lots of Kelly's disillusionment. The movie is a Hitchcockian potboiler, a Weinstein production directed by Anthony Minghella, adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel and set in the poshest parts of Italy. At some point, Marge's boyfriend, Dickie, vanishes, and she becomes increasingly certain that his creepy pal, Tom, is responsible. She discovers proof off camera and disturbs Tom's bath to angrily confront him. He receives her wrapped in a towel, yells at her to shut up and when he tries to grab her, he drops the towel and exposes himself.
She jumps and gasps. One hand covers her eyes, the other an ear. He retreats to put on some clothes. But she stands there, her mouth still hidden by the fist she's making, like a shocked little girl who's seen a young man explode into a monster. She attempts to leave. Tom tries to talk her into staying, by bad-mouthing Dickie, by telling her that he loves her, better even than he loved Dickie, better than Dickie loved her. She backs into the door, and the closer he moves, the more terrified she becomes, weeping and shivering at the same time. His boyishness becomes psychotically serene. "Can I hold you? Will you let me hold you?" he asks, moving closer in.
It's a scenario reminiscent of so many accounts by Weinstein's accusers, including the one that Paltrow has told — the isolation, the menacing persistence, the terror. And here's a cinematic version of it. Except Marge is saved when her friend, Peter, opens the door: "Get me out of here!"
Who knows what Marge will do after a boat drags her out of the movie, away from trying, uselessly, to beat a confession out of Tom? But she knows the truth. And the world doesn't care. These are 15 of the best, most suspenseful minutes of Paltrow's career. And they could stand in for all the shrewd, magnetic, unhinged work she's done. There's a kind of person who'll remember her in this movie and maybe behold her on "The Politician" and hope it's work she still believes is worth doing.
Written by: Wesley Morris
Photographs by: Nina Westervelt and Alex Welsh
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES