Twenty years ago, I had never heard of “Spence.” But in the late 1990s, as Gwyneth Paltrow blossomed from an up-and-coming actress into a radiant young movie star, I began to hear about it a lot. “She went to Spence” is usually how it got said, the telltale syllable spat out with a special knowing emphasis, a little curlicue of disdain. That accusatory line became a kind of celebrity take-down mantra, the equivalent of the line about Madonna you always heard at parties in the ’80s: “She can’t sing — it’s all tricks done in the studio.” (Yeah, right.) The Spence School is the elite private school for girls located on E. 91st St. in Manhattan. It’s where Gwyneth Paltrow got her education, and for a lot of people, it was a perfect symbol of the floating-on-air ritzy princess bubble in which she grew up. The daughter of Blythe Danner! Raised amid the stately brownstone fortresses of the Upper East Side! With Steven Spielberg as her family friend! The insufferableness of it all!!
Let’s be clear: A lot of people, including me, adore Gwyneth Paltrow. She may have picked a bum script when she signed on to do Country Strong, but there was nothing fake about her performance as a troubled country singer who can’t stop hitting the bottle. (When she finally went on stage for her big comeback concert, her singing wasn’t just good — she was able to sing in character, like a true pop star.) She had a triumph on Glee, and I’m full of anticipation about watching her host Saturday Night Live this weekend. The first time she hosted that show, back in 1999, she proved a brilliant sketch chameleon, chancy and game and hilarious as hell. I expect her to use the night, once again, as a showcase for the sheer playfulness of her talent.
And yet, am I off-base in perceiving that a lot of people, to this day, have an incredible chip on their shoulder about Gwyneth Paltrow? Here are a couple of random comments posted on my review of Country Strong:
“Now, please, can Gwyneth Paltrow just go away?”
“Gwynnie, judging by the box office receipts, the American public finds you as revolting as you find the USA. Payback. And please stop cramming the fact that you can sing as well as any average choir member down our throats. Glee, this stink-bomb, and now Glee again. UGH Stop the INSANITY! You are very much reviled and detested. Now just go away, and take Aniston and the Kardashians with you.”
I now have to ask: Why the hate? Why do so many entertainment junkies seem to feel that Gwyneth Paltrow, one of our finest actresses, is somehow an imposition, a girl on a pedestal who needs to be knocked down?
I think it has something to do with how celebrity itself got tawdrier and more exposed — dunked into the tabloid muck — around the time that Paltrow was becoming a movie star. In another era, the fact that she’d had a privileged upbringing would hardly have been a strike against her; that Blythe Danner was her mother would have made her seem like acting royalty. No one ever resented Michael Douglas for his vintage Hollywood movie-star dad. It only added to his allure. And as far as the Upper East Side goes, there was a kind of fake-proletarian trendiness to this rejection of her Gossip Girl upbringing, as if Gwyneth would have been a “better person” had she come from Kansas and been discovered at a soda-shop counter.
But it was Gwyneth Paltrow’s semi-misfortune to rise to her glory right at the dawn of the “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” era, when our whole relationship to the famous had descended from idolization into a complex, at times almost jealous rivalry. We now all wanted to be famous so much ourselves that we began to think of movie stars not simply as role models but as competitors. Our competitors. And that made Paltrow, in effect, seem like a princess-celebrity with an Unfair Advantage. Everything about her that made her a quintessential movie star — her perfectly put together willowy blonde Grace Kelly elan, her dating roster, from Brad Pitt on — became, in a topsy-turvy way, something to look down on with envy. Who can forget the run-up to her Academy Award win for Shakespeare in Love? It was back in the early days of the relentless, all-consuming, from-December-to-Oscar awards-show juggernaut season, a state of affairs that we now take for granted. But Gwyneth, showered with accolades, found herself doing endless variations on the same acceptance speech, always paying tribute to her late grandfather Buster. By the time she thanked Buster in luminous tears from the Academy stage, the Best Actress award had come to seem like a meticulously rehearsed coronation. Just one more reason to hate her!
Since then, if you’re a Gwyneth-basher, the sins have just kept piling up. She married a rock star, which is about as close as we now come to royalty (he’s even British, for God’s sake, and writes pretty songs). She named her first child Apple (okay, that was a bit much). She swanned around Spain with Mario Batali. And she started her own Website, goop.com, devoted to matters of taste. Her taste. In food and travel and health and upscale consumer indulgence. Kind of like a personalized In Style with a movie-star imprimatur. If you look past the backbiting, GOOP is actually a winsomely elegant and inviting site, but to the haters, especially those in the media, it was all too easy to portray as glorified navel-gazing. The insufferableness of it all!
To me, Gwyneth Paltrow’s biggest image problem right now derives from the fact that she took time, and attention, away from her movie career to raise her family. Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with that at all. But in Hollywood terms, she took her eye off the ball. And she hasn’t always made the best choices. She’s twinkly flirtatious perfection in the first Iron Man, and her performance as the furious, eroticized, self-tormenting Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (2003) was a woefully under-recognized piece of great acting. It was the one time I felt that Gwyneth-bashing had crossed over into the perception — or, in this case, misperception — of her art. But since then, interesting mediocrities like Proof and Running with Scissors and now Country Strong have dimmed her star a bit. She needs another Big Role, one that can reconfigure her image as an actress. She needs a movie like Blue Valentine — or Black Swan. Perhaps her old executive muse Harvey Weinstein, with his mojo now back in full swing, can help to find that project for her.
Until then, I’ll watch anything and everything that Gwyneth Paltrow does — knowing, as all her true fans do, that she’s one of the best things that Hollywood has going. Which may mean that she’s destined to continue getting scorn simply for Being Gwyneth.
So who out there loves Gwyneth Paltrow? Or doesn’t like her? And if so, what, exactly, is your problem with her?