What do we mean when we say we hate Gwyneth Paltrow? When I write “we”, I mean me and the people behind the five million hits I got when I googled the words “hate Gwyneth Paltrow,” of which only a few were articles like this one, asking why everyone hates her. Her last film, Mortdecai, didn’t change anyone’s opinion, though (perhaps fortunately for her) her perfectly serviceable supporting performance was comprehensively eclipsed by a toe-curlingly awful Terry-Thomas impression from the film’s star and producer, Johnny Depp.
All celebrities are on the receiving end of online abuse, but even by today’s standards the odium directed at Paltrow seems excessive, out of proportion for someone who is a film actress and not, say, Kim Jong-un. People who have never met her, who have only ever seen her on a screen, feel entitled to call her an “icy bitch”, “shallow and insufferable”, “an extremely arrogant snob”, “stuck-up and stupid”. Some people even say things like, “Hope she drops dead.”
Steady on. But it is true that some of her most popular films have been those in which she has died horribly, which makes you wonder if that might have been a factor in their success. After an early role as a murder victim in the preposterous thriller Malice, her murder in Se7en (like all but one of the others in the film) takes place offscreen, and we don’t actually see what’s in the package (“Paltrow’s head in a box is comedy, not tragedy,” says at least one internaut), but it’s clear that what happened to her character wasn’t pretty, even if it is ultimately considered as her husband’s trauma rather than hers.
In Contagion, in which she gamely tackles the role of Patient Zero, she perishes painfully and then, post mortem, has her scalp peeled off and skull sawn open (“I laughed out loud“). She commits suicide in Sylvia and Country Strong. Heck, she even dies, in a manner of speaking, in rom-coms (Sliding Doors) and superhero movies (Iron Man 3). And that’s when she’s not having miscarriages (Two Lovers, Country Strong) or hanging out with guys who are homicidal or suicidal (Flesh and Bone, Two Lovers, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Talented Mr Ripley).
It’s true that her Goop “lifestyle” site is about as joyful a place as Narnia under the White Witch, that declarations such as “I’m just a normal mother with the same struggles as any mother who’s trying to do everything at once and trying to be a wife and maintain a relationship” display an astonishing lack of self-awareness, and that her description of the split from her husband as a “conscious uncoupling” sent the internets into paroxysms of snark. And (my favourite) she even managed to beget the local news headline “PALTROW SNUBS WHITBY”, after refusing to meet The Mayor while on location for Proof.
And yet, despite – or perhaps because of – La Paltrow’s public ineptitude – I have found myself warming to her. I find it endearing that her attempts to be honest backfire, and when her clothing choices are almost as hilarious as Kim Kardashian’s. She would do well to heed the advice of Kelly Canter, the country music star she plays in Country Strong: “Don’t ever wear satin on stage.”
Her sartorial incompetence is doubly bizarre since Paltrow wears the hell out of her Donna Karan togs as Estella in Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (worth seeing if only for Anne Bancroft going full-on Havisham), and that Balenciaga gown in A Perfect Murder, a deliciously trashy update of Dial M for Murder in which her husband (Michael Douglas) co-opts the sympathy of all the Gwyneth-haters in the audience by trying to have her killed. Ellen Mirojnick, who dressed her in that film, said, “She’s tall. She’s thin. Her legs are longer than her torso. She has great stride and knows how to move in clothes. She knows how to sashay and how to be still.” Maybe Paltrow should hire Mirojnick as her full-time stylist.
But if her offscreen fashion choices are baffling, I think I might have finally started to make sense of her career. My conclusion is that the worst thing that ever happened to Paltrow, career-wise, was perfecting an English accent. Prior to her starring role in Emma (1996), a character whose eagerness to offer advice to inferiors seems to have been absorbed into the actress’s own public persona, she was pretty terrific as poor white trash in Flesh and Bone (also featuring one of Meg Ryan’s better performances) and as a cocktail waitress in Paul Thomas Anderson’s writing-directing debut, Hard Eight.
But can you imagine Gwyneth playing poor white trash now? Since her English accent was rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar in Shakespeare in Love (in which she and Joseph Fiennes were by far the dreariest components), it was as though she were accidentally appointed the incarnation of all that is faux-literary and high-falutin’. This included starring roles in dull, prissy films like Possession, Sylvia and Proof, or as part of ensemble casts in less dull, more adventurous literary adaptations such as The Talented Mr Ripley, in which she played a character called Marge and wore unflattering skirts.
But I don’t think Paltrow is a prissy performer. I think she’s a trouper. Judging by several of her films, including Great Expectations and Shakespeare in Love, she doesn’t bother with no-nudity clauses. She wore a fat suit for Shallow Hal, from gross-out comedy practitioners Bobby and Peter Farrelly. She threw herself into a hair-pulling, leg-kicking squeal-a-thon catfight with Christina Applegate in View from the Top. Her bored monotone was the funniest thing in The Royal Tenenbaums, a would-be jeu d’esprit weighed down by a severe case of subtitle envy. And in Hush, which bottled out of the sort of denouement that might have made it a Gothic classic for the ages, she played long-suffering Joan Crawford to Jessica Lange’s Bette Davis.
That she’s a pretty good singer can be divined from Duets and Country Strong, but it’s a shame that she bagged a major award, an Emmy this time, for one of her excruciatingly embarrassing guest spots on Glee, aka Auto-Tune High School, in which she “rocked” about as hard as Daphne from Scooby Doo, Where Are You! No, Gwyneth! It’s the wrong direction! Country music, with its overripe operatic heartbreak, is surely a better fit for her singing and acting styles than bowdlerised “rockin cool”.
Instead of struggling to appear well-grounded, or pretending to be one of us, or trying to get down with the kidz, I’d like to see Paltrow channelling her inner diva. Everyone hates her already, so what has she got to lose? Come on, Gwyneth, I know it’s in there somewhere. Be unabashedly nasty. Unleash the Crawford!
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in January 2015. It has since been edited.