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7 minute read
Richard Corliss

In the summer of ’74, tony-winning sylph Blythe Danner was playing Nina in The Seagull at the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts. One day, someone plopped Danner’s daughter, who was not yet two, on the stage. “She didn’t have anything on except her golden curls,” Danner recalls in her famously delectable foggy-froggy voice. “She could barely talk, yet she knew the whole speech better than I did. She just started reciting”–and here Danner does a splendid imitation of a lisping infant declaiming Chekhov–“The men, the lions, the eagles, the part-widges.’ That was the beginning. We should have known then, I guess.”

Thus began the irresistible rise of Gwyneth Paltrow. At 23, the eldest child of Danner and TV producer Bruce Paltrow (The White Shadow, St. Elsewhere) has two blossoming careers: on screen, as the most beguiling actress of her young generation; and in the tabloids, as that cheerfully ravishing wraith on the arm of Hollywood dream supreme Brad Pitt.

They make a swank couple with Old Hollywood reverbs: Grace Kelly dating James Dean. Pitt has updated Dean’s outsider hero from East of Eden in the unhappy-family saga Legends of the Fall and played Anne Rice’s Louis as a vampire without a cause. He’s good at it, but in Hollywood there are a million broody hunks; Pitt has the primacy but not the patent. Paltrow could be something different, maybe unique. She could bring elegance, lightness of touch, pedigree–what used to be called class–back to American movie acting. She has shown glimpses of it in earlier work, as Pitt’s anxious wife in Seven and as the ultimate prom date in The Pallbearer. But now Paltrow has a movie all her own. She plays, beautifully, the title role in Douglas McGrath’s sweet new take on the Jane Austen novel Emma.

For Emma Woodhouse, matchmaking is a higher form of gossip. As her vague father (James Cosmo) looks on, Emma schemes to convince gawky Harriet Smith (Toni Collette) that her destiny lies not with a simple farmer (Edward Woodall) but with the smarmy Rev. Elton (Alan Cumming). She also hopes to land handsome rake Frank Churchill (Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor) for herself. With other pretenders and poseurs intervening, it takes Emma the whole film to realize that she has been blind to the perfect match for herself: her brother-in-law, the kindly Mr. Knightly (Jeremy Northam).

Gee, it sounds just like Clueless. And it should, since last year’s hit comedy was based on the same Jane Austen novel. The producers of Emma (yet another version of which will air on the A&E Network next February) must wish the release dates had been reversed: their Masterpiece Theatre-style adaptation should have been seen before the MTV-meets-Saturday Night Live parody. Won’t audiences now be disappointed if Paltrow doesn’t say, “As if”? McGrath, who was nominated for an Oscar writing Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen, has a ready reply: “She does say, ‘As if.’ But it’s in the middle of a sentence. Things like, ‘It is not as if I were not displeased with you, Mr. Knightly.'”

Paltrow may not be able to–or care to–parlay the role of this adorable meddler into a multimillion-dollar picture deal, as Clueless’s Alicia Silverstone did. Still, Emma could conceivably vault Paltrow from her current status as bright ingenue to the top of the list of serious young actresses who combine Oscar eclat and box-office clout–a little Streep, a little Sandra Bullock. Anyway, Emma is a showcase part, handsomely played.

Think of Emma as the overattentive hostess at the endless round of parties that constitute an Austen novel. As she speaks her wry epigrams, she brandishes a smile that suggests wisdom gaily bestowed on lesser mortals. Though it crinkles with warmth, it is exactly one shade too pleased with itself. Emma could be one of nature’s noblewomen, if only she would stop trying to stage-manage other people’s lives. Graceful and witty, she is a goddess whose comic flaw is that she wants to play God.

It is impressive enough that Paltrow holds your eye as a parade of lovelies and virtuoso actresses (Greta Scacchi, Polly Walker, Juliet Stevenson) march past. But her finest trick is to provide a comic subtext to Emma. She both lives inside the character and encases her, giving her glamour and the lilt of parody. Paltrow is to Emma what Emma is to her friends: a helper, a tease and a judge. Thanks to Paltrow, Emma stays lovable, partly because both are in their early 20s.

“Her youth allows you to forgive Emma,” says McGrath, for whom Paltrow was the only choice. “When you think of other actors who are 21, your options aren’t promising. You have a grim poster staring you in the face. It’s like, ‘Shannen Doherty is Emma’? I don’t think so.”

Paltrow is an unusual star for the grunge generation: cheerier attitude, shorter rap sheet. Her parents made sure of that. Says Danner: “I worked with many child actors who unfortunately didn’t have childhoods. So the last thing we wanted to do was push our children into acting. We felt that if Gwyneth had talent and wanted a career, eventually it would find her and she would find it.” So Gwyneth and her younger sister and brother grew up relatively normally, in Los Angeles and, from the time Gwyneth was 11, in Manhattan, where she attended the exclusive Spence School. But in their summers at Williamstown, Gwyneth showed where her heart was. She did cabaret numbers when she was seven or eight and, Danner remembers, “the applause was tumultuous. I saw this look in her eye, and I said to my husband, ‘Oh, she’s discovered it. Now she knows the thrill.'”

After a short stint at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Gwyneth rushed into film work. In the 1991 Shout, she escorted John Travolta through his fallow period, and she played Peter Pan’s young Wendy in the hollow that was Hook. She got a break at 19 when she was cast as the evil Ginnie (she steals jewelry from corpses) in Steve Kloves’ Flesh and Bone. Wearing Lolita sunglasses and a play-dumb smile, she displayed slow sass and a wicked intelligence. “She was sunshine and light when she walked into the room,” says Kloves of Paltrow’s audition, “but as soon as she read, a veil came over her and she totally inhabited the character. She had tons of spontaneity and raw nerve. You could feel the confidence.”

Could two roles be farther apart than Ginnie and Emma? Nonetheless, the first part helped her get the second. “I grew up in Texas,” McGrath says, “and my friends and I used to just kill ourselves laughing when movie actors did Texas accents. People always sounded like the Clampetts. But Gwyneth did the most impeccable Texas accent in Flesh and Bone. She has an amazing ear. And, of course, everything else is perfect. Her speaking voice is a beautiful instrument, and she photographs like a dream–all the light goes to her on the set, and she seems to absorb it and then give it back.”

Oh, and Brad’s a nice guy too. He’d better be, to impress Ms. Danner: “When we heard she was going out with him, we said, ‘Oh no.’ But he’s just a gem, very grounded and family-oriented and loving and real.”

At the moment, Paltrow is filming the role of the sad waif Estella in Great Expectations, due out next year. But if you think she is doomed to play only transatlantic prisses in genteel screen dramas, think again. “Gwynnie is very American,” says Kloves, “but the interesting part of American–dark, dangerous. Her appeal is her mystery and unpredictability. It’s what people liked about Steve McQueen.” Hmmm. Maybe Paltrow can be the one-stop movie star of the next millennium: Grace Kelly and James Dean, in one glorious package.

–Reported by Georgia Harbison and William Tynan/New York and Jacqueline Savaiano/Los Angeles

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