In Praise of 90s Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love

Gwyneth Paltrow is a joke. In a pop-culture sense, at least, the American actress has become a go-to punchline to illustrate oblivious wealth and privilege, thanks to her work as the head of upscale wellness company Goop. She’s the condescending patrician huckster who sells orgasm-scented candles and peddles dubious remedies for ailments that people didn’t even know they had. If anyone considers her acting career these days, it’s to mock her for being so out of touch that she can’t even remember which of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies she was in (as Pepper Potts, assistant and then love interest to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark) and has trouble recognizing her MCU co-stars.

Paltrow has made no secret of her lack of interest in acting. In February 2020, she told Harper’s Bazaar that she would “literally never” star in another movie. Her supporting role on the Netflix series The Politician seems largely like a favor to her husband Brad Falchuk, the show’s co-creator. No one’s really mourning the loss of Paltrow’s acting career, either. Aside from her MCU supporting role, her later years in acting have included relatively small parts in forgettable movies like Country Strong, Thanks for Sharing and Mortdecai, nothing that demonstrates remarkable talent or screen presence (or box-office success).

But looking back further, to Paltrow’s early years as a rising sensation, shows that she was once an engaged and delightful performer, a charismatic star and dynamic actor who deserved both her celebrity status and the Oscar she won in 1999 for Shakespeare in Love. At her peak in the 90s, Paltrow was every bit the Hollywood talent of predecessors like Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts. Between 1996 and 1999, she made six films that should cement her place as one of the greatest Hollywood actors of the decade, working with major directors including Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón and Anthony Minghella. She played women with wit, passion and independence, in period pieces and contemporary stories, as a romantic lead and as a mysterious object of desire.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Hard Eight

Paltrow’s best starring roles of the era came from working with two actors-turned-filmmakers, Peter Howitt and Douglas McGrath. Both Howitt’s Sliding Doors and McGrath’s Emma make use of Paltrow’s natural charm and enthusiasm, and both let her show off her impressive British accent (which she also uses effectively in Shakespeare in Love). She’s the romantic heroine of both movies, and in Sliding Doors, she’s really two romantic heroines, as alternate-universe versions of London publicist Helen Quilley. The day Helen gets fired from her job (for “borrowing” from the office vodka supply without permission), she narrowly either makes or misses the train back to her flat, where she either does or does not discover that her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) is cheating on her with his ex-girlfriend Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

The movie plays out in two timelines, and both of Paltrow’s versions of Helen are sharp-tongued and vibrant, although the version that catches Gerry, breaks up with him, dyes her hair blond and starts dating friendly businessman James (John Hannah) is clearly the story’s real star. One particular strength of Paltrow’s best 90s roles is the way she illustrates her characters’ personalities with vivid, evocative facial expressions, and the way that Helen rolls her eyes at James when he first starts chatting her up on the subway tells you everything you need to know about her jaded attitude toward men.  You could chart the entire romantic arc between James and Helen just by the way she looks at him, from the sultry yet playful glare she gives him after their first date, when she’s still not over Gerry, to the look of longing during what she calls “an ideal sort of kissing moment” on a boat when they finally give in to their romantic feelings for each other.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors

Paltrow’s title character in the Jane Austen adaptation Emma is even more expressive, showing on her face all of the scheming and yearning that Regency-era propriety requires that she leave unsaid. Her romance here is with her longtime friend George Knightley (Jeremy Northam), although for most of the movie she focuses on her ill-fated attempts at matchmaking, primarily for her hapless friend Harriet Smith (Toni Collette). Emma Woodhouse is a tough character to portray, a well-meaning yet naïve young woman of means who can be casually contemptuous but is also earnestly invested in her own personal growth. Paltrow strikes the perfect balance of smugness and generosity in her performance as Emma, who is always sympathetic even when she’s exasperating.

The wit of Austen’s novel and McGrath’s screenplay provides much of Emma’s appeal, but again Paltrow’s open, emotionally vulnerable acting makes the character so endearing and memorable. A simple furrowing of her brow shows the complex emotions brewing under the surface as Emma professes her neutrality in other people’s romances, even as she’s clearly making devious plans in her mind. She’s supremely confident in one moment and then utterly lost in the next, distressed at her own lack of insight or understanding into matters of the heart, both others’ and her own. “What is the point of me being almost 22 if there is still so much for me to learn?” she laments to Knightley when yet another of her matchmaking plans has gone awry, with all the self-regard and credulity of the young and inexperienced.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma

Like Emma, Shakespeare in Love’s Viola de Lesseps is a young woman of means who longs to break out of society’s prescribed role for her and holds romance in very high regard. Viola is even more constrained than Emma, who has some freedom to choose her romantic partner within an acceptable range of suitors (or even to remain single). In 1590s London, Viola has no choice but to marry the vulgar Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), and the inevitability of her fate is part of what makes the movie’s central romance so effective. Viola is instead in love with playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), and while the movie is primarily his story, Viola has the more expansive character arc, with much more at stake.

Paltrow’s Viola is less sardonic than Helen or Emma, more vulnerable yet also pragmatic, aware that her time with Will is short and constrained. She’s as much in love with his words as she is with the man himself, and Paltrow demonstrates her sheer delight in reading the pages of what will become Romeo and Juliet. Later, when Viola and Will finally sleep together, Viola expresses wonder that “there is something better than a play,” but it’s clear that Will’s words and his sexual prowess are in close competition for bringing her the most pleasure. As Viola, Paltrow plays characters within the character, first as Viola’s boy-actor persona Thomas Kent, and later as Kent’s performance as Romeo, and as Viola’s own performance as Juliet. It’s not hard to imagine a version of Romeo and Juliet featuring Paltrow in both title roles.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight, Cuarón’s Charles Dickens adaptation Great Expectations and Minghella’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Talented Mr. Ripley, Paltrow plays less prominent roles, showing up as the sometimes inscrutable or unattainable object of the male lead’s romantic attention (or frustration). But she makes the most of these roles even if they can be underwritten at times, hinting at the strong inner lives of women who are not defined by their relationships to men, even if the movies sometimes define them that way.

The central relationship in Hard Eight is between hard-luck gambler John Finnegan (John C. Reilly) and his mentor and father figure Sydney (Philip Baker Hall). Paltrow’s waitress and sex worker Clementine doesn’t show up until a quarter of the way through the movie, ultimately causing trouble for both men when she enlists them in a misguided kidnapping plot, holding a client for ransom after he refuses to pay her. Clementine is immature and impulsive, nothing like the composed and occasionally regal Helen or Emma or Viola, but she has a similar self-possession about her, and it’s not hard to see why these men are willing to risk their own safety and security to help her.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Hard Eight

“Do I look like I go to school?” Clementine asks Sydney with a hint of bitterness, and while Paltrow herself could not look more like someone who goes to school, her Clementine is believably earthy and damaged, hiding in shame behind a mane of blond hair when Sydney confronts her over the transaction gone wrong. She may not have gone to school, but she knows how the world works, and she knows when she screwed up. Anderson is mainly interested in the dynamic between John and Sydney, but Paltrow consistently asserts herself as Clementine, once again making use of her expressive face to sell the romance between her character and John with just one pleading look at Reilly.

In Great Expectations, Paltrow is again an unpredictable woman who causes trouble for the main character, although in this case, it’s more of a calculated effort. She’s back in upper-crust mode as Estella, the niece of wealthy recluse Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), who hires local ragamuffin Finn Bell as a companion for Estella when they are both children. Cuarón and screenwriter Mitch Glazer move Dickens’ story from 19th century England to contemporary Florida and then New York City, streamlining the plot and eliminating most of the novel’s supporting characters. The focus here is squarely on Finn (played as an adult by Ethan Hawke), whose life is both enriched and ruined by his single-minded pursuit of the cold, manipulative Estella.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Great Expectations

Paltrow’s signature move as Estella is an inviting and slightly condescending look over her shoulder, which captivates Finn every time, even as she’s often walking out of his life for an indefinite period of time. Like Emma, Estella is a tough literary character to play, and she could easily come off as a villain or a sexist stereotype. Paltrow’s Estella is imperious, confident and almost otherworldly, but she develops a sense of weariness over the course of the movie that eats away at that layer. She’s wistful when she describes Finn as “my first love” when they meet again as adults in New York City, and there’s real regret in her eyes during their final reunion. More than anything, it’s Paltrow’s typically expressive performance that allows the movie to depict the love story between Finn and Estella as grand and meaningful rather than cruel and tragic.

Cruelty and tragedy are the defining traits of the title character in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Paltrow’s Marge Sherwood is the only character who figures Ripley out and survives the experience. Marge is Paltrow’s most reactive role of these six, a character who is largely defined in relation first to her fiancé Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and then to the slippery, conniving Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who kills Dickie and partially assumes his identity. But Paltrow makes her presence felt even in the smallest moments, often through the same furtive glances and expressive looks that define her more prominent characters in other movies. She sarcastically bats her eyes at Dickie when he jokes about the pressure for them to have a child, and she gives him a little wink when she wants him to know that she knows he’s being a cad.

Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr. Ripley

Later, when Marge is onto Tom’s increasingly elaborate scheme, she watches him out of the corner of her eye, gauging his reactions to the lies he’s telling and the skewed facts he’s being presented with. Paltrow’s character spends much of the movie as a passive observer, but that’s largely thanks to the power of the 1950s patriarchy, which is quicker to believe the lies of a con artist and murderer if he’s a man than it is to give credence to the accusations of a “hysterical” woman. Marge may be dismissed and silenced, but Paltrow never is, and she gets in the last word, in a way, in her final scene with Tom, with the cold glare that tells him she will always know what he did.

Watching these movies, it’s easy to feel a sense of loss for the great actress and movie star that Paltrow could have become, had she not lost interest in the profession and shifted her attention to her questionable business empire. Watch the Netflix docu-series The Goop Lab, or any recent media appearance, and you’ll see Paltrow as an insensitive one-percenter who views acting as something beneath her. Watch the best of her 90s work, though, and you’ll see an actor at the top of her craft, drawing on that same background to create lively, memorable characters that transcend her public persona.

Josh Bell (@signalbleed) is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Observer and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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