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The Girl Can't Help It

It was never an option that Gwyneth Paltrow wouldn't fly on her own terms. And so, despite famous parents and beau, she has--with thanks to Jane Austen.

July 21, 1996|John Clark | John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Steve Kloves has a vivid Gwyneth Paltrow memory. He's a big fan of hers, having directed her in a movie called "Flesh and Bone," which nobody saw but nonetheless had a lot of Hollywood insiders talking--talking about her. She was 20 at the time.

"She had this almost Holly Golightly thing," Kloves says. "She used to say this one thing that would just kill you. She'd be in the middle of a conversation and she'd say, 'I'm just a girl.' It used to slay people: 'But then, I'm just a girl.' "

Now, three years later, Paltrow glides into a midtown Manhattan restaurant with the girlishness left somewhere--though not too far--behind. She sits down and orders a tomato juice, something she normally does on an airplane, and this leads to the sort of musing that Kloves was talking about.

"You're so busy all day, stuck in your head and your own life," she says. "Did I feed the dog? When do we have to wake up in the morning to go to work? You get on a plane and it all stops. I'm like the tiniest thing, and I'm about to go into the sky in a 50-billion-ton metal structure. I understand aerophysics and everything, but as a mammal it terrifies me."

Her blond hair is pulled tight away from her forehead. She's wearing a loose black sweater and a gray ankle-length deconstructed skirt (meaning it looks as if it needs to be hemmed). On her feet are what appear to be sports sandals. On her fingernails is chipped lavender nail polish.

These details are important because to some arbiters of taste she's the epitome of cool. This coolness is the latest in a series of roles she's assumed, though not entirely of her own volition. First, she was known as the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and television producer Bruce Paltrow ("St. Elsewhere"). Then--and this is a continuing role--she became known as heartthrob Brad Pitt's significant other. And now--and this may partly be related to Pitt--she "reigns supreme," according to Vogue magazine, as Hollywood's "Ubiquitous Blonde of the Minute."

"It's very bizarre," she says, "being part of the pop culture."

Paltrow has been stuck with these various roles because until recently she hasn't found one to measure up to Ginnie, her nasty con artist in 1993's "Flesh and Bone." She played a Tallulah Bankhead type in "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," Thomas Jefferson's father-fixated daughter in "Jefferson in Paris," the naive chain-smoking sister in "Moonlight and Valentino," Pitt's long-suffering wife in "Seven," an ethereal object of neurotic affection in "The Pallbearer" and a prostitute in the still-unreleased "Hard 8."

Kloves explains her relatively limited roles after "Flesh and Bone" this way: "She's strong. If you cast her, you're really making a choice. There's nothing generic about Gwynny. The other problem was she was 20 years old and she was reading for parts sometimes for 25- to 30-year-olds. I mean, 20 is 20. How many interesting parts are there for 20-year-old women?"

Well, now there's "Emma."

"Emma," opening Aug. 2 with Paltrow in the title role, is yet another adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, following last year's "Sense and Sensibility" and "Persuasion." It's similar to those two in that the heroine has to negotiate her way around convention and false suitors to find true love. The difference is that there's much more to her than just finding a man and that a lot of that complexity is irritating.

"One of the many great things about Gwyneth is she plays all sides of it," says the film's director, Douglas McGrath. "She doesn't soften the unpleasant things in Emma's character, nor does she inflate her good qualities. She has everything a young woman that age has, all the petulance, the vanity, the self-confidence that can only come from youth and ignorance. The tenderness, the repentance, the honest desire to help someone even though in her case it always seems to turn into harm. Because she doesn't always try to make herself look good, that makes her all the more endearing."


Few, if any, of the qualities seem to have been drawn from Paltrow's own personality, although aspects of it push the movie along.

"The amazing thing about her," McGrath says, "is that as a rule she can be running around the set, singing, dancing, curled up like a cat, and then the minute action is called, she completely changes. She adopts every feature of a young woman in 19th century England of that breeding and station."

"She's well in touch with her instincts, which is a great skill to have," says Jeremy Northam, who plays Emma's conscience (and a good deal more). "She just sails through and seems to have a blast doing it, and I think it shows on the screen because there's a real sense of fun and mischief."

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