Saturday 27 May 2017

Gwyneth Paltrow: Coming to a kitchen near you

Last week Gwyneth Paltrow launched a lifestyle and cookery book called My Father's Daughter. In it she is pictured preparing soups, salads and more ambitious dishes that "celebrate family and togetherness".

The title refers to Paltrow's father, Bruce, a keen amateur cook who died of throat cancer in 2002, and the actress launched the book at an intimate New York dinner for guests including Jay-Z, Michael Stipe, Christy Turlington, Cameron Diaz and Jerry Seinfeld.

This is not Gwyneth's first foray into Martha Stewart country, and seems to be a part of a concerted campaign to reinvent herself as a domestic goddess. In 2008 she launched a website called Goop on which she shares recipes and doles out lifestyle advice, and she's also in talks to launch a personal magazine in the style of Martha Stewart Living.

You won't see her much in the cinemas these days, though. She's only done a few films over the last three or four years, and her most recent, the musical drama Country Strong, disappeared from the multiplexes almost as quickly as it had arrived.

She hasn't starred in a hit film for years, hasn't received an Oscar nomination since she won Best Actress for Shakespeare in Love in 1999, and now seems satisfied with phoning in supporting roles in undemanding summer blockbusters like Iron Man.

All of which is a bit of a pity, because when Gwyneth wants to she can be a surprisingly good actor, and at one point seemed poised to become the dominant Hollywood actress of her generation. Instead, unfairly or otherwise, she's become a sort of preppy hate figure who annoys at least as many people as she enchants.

She's often accused of smugness, a perception not helped by her marriage to holier-than-thou vegetarian rock singer Chris Martin, in 2003. Cynics questioned the wisdom of Gwyneth naming her first child Apple, and like Madonna her enthusiastic embrace of all things English has not endeared her to middle America.

In short she's often her own worst enemy when it comes to public relations, but on her day Paltrow is the equal of any of her more vaunted contemporaries.

At her best, in films like Emma and Sliding Doors and Wes Anderson's near-masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums, she's an edgy, dark and even funny presence. At her worst, in Sylvia and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the truly awful View From the Top she comes across as a fey and drippy ethereal female with more than a passing resemblance to a duck.

To her credit, Gwyneth seems a little less career-obsessed than her rivals, but perhaps that's because success has always come so easily to her.

She was born on September 27, 1972, in the heart of Hollywood, where both of her parents worked. Her mother, Blythe Danner, was a successful film and TV actress, and her father, Bruce Paltrow, a director and producer whose later credits would include the TV series St Elsewhere.

Gwyneth began dabbling with acting as a child, and dropped out of university at 18 to embark on a career in film and theatre.

She broke through in Hollywood almost immediately. After making a creditable film debut at 19 in fairly awful John Travolta vehicle Shout, she impressed in a brief cameo as the young Wendy in Steven Spielberg's 1991 blockbuster Hook and subsequently landed minor roles in well-received movies like Malice and Flesh and Bone.

What she had was a kind of impossibly healthy Waspish glow: the camera loved her, and it was only a question of time before a breakthrough role arrived. When it did, it was momentous in more ways than one.

Paltrow was only 23 when she starred opposite Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in David Fincher's acclaimed crime thriller Se7en, playing Pitt's saintly wife to whom very bad things eventually happen. She positively shone in Fincher's gloomy sets, and made the role seem much more substantial than it was.

But she also began dating Mr Pitt, and this immediately threw her into the celebrity big-time.

As they became Hollywood's golden couple of the mid-1990s, Gwyneth rapidly proved that she was an actress of substance. Most young American actors would be terrified of being cast in an English period drama, but Paltrow embraced the challenge of starring in Douglas McGrath's 1996 costume drama Emma with relish.

Not only was she exceptionally good as Jane Austen's meddlesome matchmaking heroine, but her English accent was note perfect. She showed her range a year or so later in another English film, Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors, playing a young woman whose life develops very differently in two parallel stories. But it was in Shakespeare in Love (1998) that she gave her career-defining performance.

Thanks to a relentless Oscar campaign by the Weinstein brothers, John Madden's salty period comedy would dominate the 71st Academy Awards. And although Paltrow was offered a part that had originally been intended for Julia Roberts, she grasped the opportunity with both hands.

She played Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who yearns to act but has to disguise herself as a man in order to do so, and her nicely judged performance won her a Best Actress Oscar.

However, her Oscar speech has gone down as one of the most notoriously excruciating of all time. Gushing tears, she thanked the sun, moon and stars and described people as her "earthly guardian angels" and practically had an on-air breakdown. Comics rushed to make fun of her, and maybe this was the moment when the Paltrow backlash began.

Thereafter Gwyneth's performances were greeted less generously, despite the fact that until the early 2000s at any rate, she continued to excel. She more than held her own opposite Matt Damon and Jude Law in Anthony Minghella's dark thriller The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), and was really wonderful as the gloomily poetic Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

Though she subsequently mocked the film, she even showed a flair for gross-out comedy in the Farrelly brothers' Shallow Hal (2001). But following the death of her father in 2002, and her subsequent marriage to Chris Martin, she has become a curiously reticent film star.

Apart from brief appearances in films like Infamous (she sings a song at the start) and the odd substantial part in the likes of 2008's Two Lovers (in which she was very good), Gwyneth has dropped out of the running for sought-after roles, and seems content with hip but relatively undemanding supporting parts in the Iron Man films and the TV show Glee.

"I basically stopped making money from acting in 2002, she has said. "All the things I've done since then have been things I've really wanted to do."

This is a bit of an exaggeration, as she was reportedly paid $10m to appear in View From the Top in 2003, but Paltrow does appear to have taken a deliberate step back from the madness of Hollywood stardom, and seems to take marriage and motherhood seriously.

In fact, she's made a virtue of it, and has loftily refuted the popular perception that she and her husband are a pair of self-righteous bores. "I think it's sort of funny," she's commented, "how you have to be doing coke off the ass of a stripper to be perceived as not boring these days."

Whether she can translate all that cozy domesticity into a career as the new Martha Stewart remains to be seen, but Gwyneth is too smart to put all her eggs in one basket. She's also been doing a bit of singing of late, and there's talk of a solo album. And if all that fails, she can always fall back on the acting. She's among the all-star ensemble cast of Steven Soderbergh's upcoming action thriller, Contagion.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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